ARM computers are now more popular than ever. So it’s no surprise that you can get Windows 11 for ARM as an alternative to the traditional version most people use. Both of these versions of Windows 11 look and feel the same. However, there are major differences under the hood that bring major advantages and compromises to the table.
ARM Vs. x86 Computers
Windows 11 for ARM can only run on ARM computers. In contrast regular Windows 11 can only run on x86 (specifically x86-64) computers.
These two types of computers refer to the “architecture” of the CPUs (Central Processing Units) inside these computers. In the case of x86 CPUs, they are designed to process instructions in the shortest number of machine language lines possible.
This means that the instructions are highly-condensed and complex. Executing a complete instruction can take multiple cycles of the CPU clock. This is why they are also known as CISC or Complex Instruction Set Computers.
ARM computers, on the other hand, process shorter, simpler instructions that can be completed within a single clock cycle. This is known as a Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC).
Traditionally, x86 CPUs have offered far better absolute performance than ARM CPUs, but they use orders of magnitude more power. This isn’t a huge deal for a computer plugged into a wall. Battery-operated devices, on the other hand, need to use as little power as possible. ARM CPUs have exploded in popularity thanks to devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Thanks to the smartphone market, ARM CPU development has gone into overdrive. Today the best ARM CPUs are as fast (or even faster) than x86 CPUs. This is one of the reasons that Apple have moved their entire computer line to ARM-based “Apple Silicon” computers.
For an in-depth explanation of the difference, check out our ARM and x86 CPU explainer.
Windows 11 for ARM in a Nutshell
This brings us to Windows 11 for ARM in particular. This is the third ARM version of Windows, following Windows RT (based on Windows 8) and Windows 10 on ARM.
Windows 11 for ARM is specifically designed for the latest 64-bit ARM CPU technology. It’s been compiled to run on those RISC processors.
You’ll find ARM on devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro X, Samsung Galaxy Book Go, Acer Spin 7, and HP Elite Folio.
These laptops, tablets, and convertible computers offer a Windows experience on computers with extremely long battery lives. They also tend to be thinner, cooler, and lighter than power-hungry x86 systems.
When running native ARM software on these computers, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference compared to an x86 computer. You might actually enjoy snappier performance, depending on the specific ARM CPU at hand. The real difference comes into play when you try to run non-ARM Windows apps.
How Do Non-ARM Windows Apps Run
Since applications meant for the x86 version of Windows 11 can’t run directly on an ARM processor, there needs to be some form of translation. Windows 11 on ARM’s solution to this is emulation.
Emulation is a computer programming technique where one type of computer architecture is simulated on another. There’s actually an important difference between “simulation” and “emulation”. However, for the sake of argument, we’ll treat them the same here.
The emulated environment makes the x86 software “think” that it’s running on an x86 computer. It receives all the correct inputs and outputs that it expects. This sounds great, but emulation has a significant performance penalty. The overhead of replicating an entire computer architecture takes its toll on the ARM CPU.
Emulated apps running on Windows 11 for ARM may then perform slowly. This isn’t a major issue for relatively simple applications such as word processors, but multimedia or video game software is impractical for the time being.
This isn’t the only way to get x86 software to run on ARM hardware, however. Apple uses software translation rather than emulation. They do this using a special piece of software called Rosetta II, which re-compiles Mac software designed for x86 Intel Macs.
You Can’t Buy Windows 11 for ARM (Yet)
As we write this, Windows 11 for ARM is only available to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) who make and sell computers. In other words, the only way to legally get Windows 11 on ARM is to buy a computer that comes with it installed.
If you have an ARM computer or device that you want Windows 11 on, there are ways to do it. Owners of Apple Silicon Macs can no longer dual-boot Windows 11, so there are projects to get this working. The commercial Mac software Parallels uses Windows 11 for ARM as part of the solution, but users don’t get direct access to it.
Apart from Parallels, any other project would require users to download an unlicensed copy of Windows 11 for ARM and are therefore illegal until Microsoft starts to sell licenses to individual buyers.
Who Should Use Windows 11 for ARM
Since you can currently only get Windows 11 for ARM with a new computer designed to run it, this question is actually more about who should buy one of these ARM-based Windows computers?
These laptops, tablets, and convertibles are generally very thin and light. They offer all-day (and beyond) battery life, and will run all of the applications a regular Windows 11 system will. That is, as long as there’s a 32-bit version of the app in the case of x86 software.
However, there’s a big difference between technically running an app and running it well. If there’s no native ARM version of an application you need to run on your computer, then it’s essential to research how well it runs under emulation. Alternatively, the developer may have published plans to release a native ARM port of their application in the near future. This may make it possible for you to go the ARM Windows route.
The vast majority of users are going to be fine. Assuming they are simply looking for a computer that offers general productivity. Think of apps like a web browser or office work. However, if that’s all you need we strongly recommend looking at Apple’s ARM-based computers. They also run virtually all general productivity applications without the performance or compatibility problems in Windows 11 for ARM.
Not Ready for Primetime
Microsoft will undoubtedly continue pouring development resources into its ARM operating system. Still, it’s hard to recommend Windows 11 for ARM to anyone in its state at the time of writing.
It’s possible that we’ll see a more efficient solution akin to Rosetta 2 at some point. That should alleviate the performance issues of emulating x86 software, but there’s no promise of this.
The Windows roadmap is largely x86 for the foreseeable future. So there’s not much incentive for developers to create ARM ports for their software. This is in contrast to Apple. That company has gone all-in on ARM. This means all macOS developers have no choice but to produce native applications as time goes by.
Image credit: Using Cortana on Surface Pro 4 by 123RF
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