Windows and ARM: not over yet

As you may recall, I was quite fond of the idea of ARM and x86 getting closer together, where on the one hand, Windows could run on ARM devices, and on the other hand, Intel was developing smaller x86-based SOCs in their Atom line, aimed at embedded use and mobile devices such as phones and tablets.

It has been somewhat quiet on that front in recent years. On the one hand because Windows Phones never managed to gain significant marketshare, and ultimately were abandoned by Microsoft. On the other hand because Intel never managed to make significant inroads into the phone and tablet market with their x86 chips either.

However, Windows on ARM is not dead yet. Microsoft recently announced the Surface Pro X. It is a tablet, which can also be used as a lightweight laptop when you connect a keyboard. There are two interesting features here though. Firstly the hardware, which is not an x86 CPU, as in previous Surface Pro models. This one runs on an ARM SOC. And one that Microsoft developed in partnership with Qualcomm: the Microsoft SQ1. It is quite a high-end ARM CPU.

Secondly, there is the OS. Unlike earlier ARM-based devices, the Surface Pro X does not get a stripped-down version of Windows (previously known as Windows RT), where the desktop is very limited. No, this gets a full desktop. What’s more, Microsoft integrated an x86 emulator in the OS. Which means that it can not only run native ARM applications on the desktop, but also legacy x86 applications. So it should have the same level of compatibility as a regular x86-based Windows machine.

I suppose we can interpret this as a sign that Microsoft is still very serious about supporting the ARM architecture. I think that is interesting, because I’ve always liked the idea of having competition in terms of CPU architectures and instructionsets.

There are also other areas where Windows targets ARM. There is Windows 10 IoT Core. Microsoft supports a range of ARM-based devices here, including the Raspberry Pi and the DragonBoard. I have tried IoT Core on a Raspberry Pi 3B+, but was not very impressed. I want to use it as a cheap rendering device connected to a display. The RPi’s GPU is not supported by the drivers, so you get software rendering only. The DragonBoard however does have hardware rendering support, so I will be trying this out soon.

I ported my D3D11 engine to my Windows Phone (a Lumia 640) in the past, and that ran quite well. Developing for Windows 10 IoT is very similar, as it supports UWP applications. I dusted off my Windows Phone recently (I no longer use it, since support has been abandoned, and I switched to an Android phone for everyday use), and did some quick tests. Sadly Visual Studio 2019 does not appear to support Windows Phones for development anymore. But I reinstalled Visual Studio 2017, and that still worked. I can just connect the phone with a USB cable, and deploy debug builds directly from the IDE, and have remote debugging directly on the ARM device.

I expect the DragonBoard to be about the same in terms of usage and performance. Which should be interesting.

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