With Windows 10 on ARM, Microsoft is coming for the Chromebook — and might win

Microsoft is coming for your Chromebooks. No, they're not going to confiscate them like the TSA steals your water bottles, but more so in the competitive sense.

This week, Microsoft announced that it is launching an ARM-friendly version of Windows 10 in collaboration with Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon 835 SoC, which comes out next year. While most Android fans will know Qualcomm's work from such phones as nearly every product on the market, Snapdragon is increasingly capable, especially at the high-end, of powering tablets, 2-in-1s and traditional laptops.

While Microsoft launched an ARM-based version of Windows in 2012, called Windows RT, it failed because there was no interoperability with traditional x86 apps, and the software, which was based on Windows 8.1, was deprecated with the Surface 2's end of production in early 2015. Now, with Windows 10 on ARM facilitated by a very powerful-yet-thermally-efficient system-on-a-chip (SoC), the Snapdragon 835, a new opportunity for backwards compatibility has emerged: emulation.

From our friend Daniel Rubino at Windows Central:

Windows 10 on ARM will also run traditional x86 Win32 apps and games through emulation.Users will be able to install any x86 Win32 app – unmodified – from any source, no repackaging as UWP or delivery via the Windows Store required. The apps are not sandboxed and they will have full access to the OS. Apple made a similar emulation feature when the Mac line switched from PowerPC to Intel processors, but Microsoft's move to support ARM is a magnitude more impressive.

How is it more impressive? Because despite the overhead involved with emulating applications and their inputs from the keyboard, mouse, camera, and other peripherals, Microsoft is confident that users won't even notice a difference. The company demoed a version of Photoshop running in emulation on a test version of the Windows 10 on ARM platform and it was fast. It even plays games.

But there is a business angle here: Microsoft wants Windows 10 to run on everything, from high-end Intel desktops to virtual reality headsets to HoloLens to phones — all of which are already available — to inexpensive 2-in-1s and laptops that run cool and last long, a market that ARM-based Chromebooks currently have on lock.

Zac Bowden, again at Windows Central, sums it up nicely:

More and more schools and businesses are opting for Chromebooks over Windows 10 laptops, mainly because of price, but also because Chromebooks do what they need them to do, durably, and at a low cost.

There are many reasons Microsoft would want to compete with Chromebooks, but the strategy at its core is about offering reliable, low-cost, low-power alternatives to Intel-based computers, especially as the Portland-based company has struggled not only to compete in the mobile space but to offer a cost-effective replacement to its now-cancelled Atom line of processors.

Windows 10 itself is a stable, attractive and feature-filled operating system and that bodes well for the future of mobile computing.

There's also the promise of cellular connectivity: Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835, being tailor-made for phones, comes with inherent cellular capabilities, and while Microsoft has shied away from releasing new smartphones — and may hold out indefinitely as it cedes the market to Apple and Google — there are plenty of reasons it has maintained its Windows 10 Mobile development, and much of it has to do with the promise of ubiquitous connectivity as the developed world moves headfirst towards 5G.

Laptops and tablets running a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor won't be as costly to make and sell compared to devices rocking Intel Atom or Intel Core M chips. It's a huge deal for Microsoft to be able to bring Windows 10 to Snapdragon devices, as it means manufacturers can begin building devices that cost nothing to make and sell.A low-end device running a Snapdragon processor with a cheap 1366x768 screen, basic keyboard, and passable trackpad, running full Windows 10 with support for all of the Windows app library, all for the same price as a Chromebook — the choice between the two is all but a given for schools and businesses. Do you want a glorified web browser, or do you want a real and fully-capable computer?

Zac takes some liberties with Chromebooks' capabilities — the platform expanded to be well more than a "glorified web browser" years ago, and with Android app support has catapulted to a full Windows 10 competitor in many ways, but the idea is sound. Microsoft has decided, with its Surface line, to compete in the high-end, and it wants its manufacturing partners like Asus, Acer, Dell, Lenovo, HP and others to be able to make as many lower-cost products as possible, in varied forms and with multitudinous specifications.

ChromeOS is a glorified web browser as Windows is a glorified DOS shell

This is what enabled Windows to proliferate in the 90s and 2000s, and will continue to give Microsoft cache in the mobile space even as it moves away from smartphones themselves.

Microsoft has done a great job overcoming the biggest limitation, namely apps, of Windows 10 on ARM, and considering we're at a point where Windows 10 itself is a stable, attractive and feature-filled operating system it bodes well for the future of mobile computing. At the same time, Android apps on Chromebooks will launch for most existing customers before Microsoft's mobile gambit, so the impact, at least at first, may be tempered.

The path to a Surface phone is clearer than ever with Windows 10 on ARM

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

161 Comments
  • Unless Windows becomes dramatically easier to administer for IT departments and dead simple to use, then no.
  • Windows 10 is pretty damn easy to use, though I can see it being complicated for the illiterate.
  • Win 10 updates are pure crap and buggy as Sh*. However I would never touch Chromebook with a 10 ft pole. And unless M$ has utilized the OS to run smoothly on low end tablets better then the Intel chips it will stay limp like M$ Mobile.
  • Huh. I've been on 10 since they started allowing people to upgrade from Windows 7 for free and I've never had a single issue. I use my machine daily for everything from SDET work on SQL servers, to gaming to media consumption. YMMV I suppose...
  • I like Win 10. It's a great upgrade from 8.1. However, using on an Intel Atomic has its moments. Updates are never smooth, sometimes get stuck and have to clear the cache to get them to reload. Wireless for both my Encode 2 and Surface 3 has always been not so stellar. And hibernate always wakes the tablets to work horrible as to where I have to just reboot the system. To say that Win 10 is flawless is definitely farfetched. Oh and Edge sucks. I stick to Chrome. Just my experience. However I look forward to this if it's not a RT reboot.
  • Yikes, none of that sounds like a good experience. Also I too hope this doesn't just end up rebooting RT. I'm pretty sure that's how you get ants.
  • IF he is a windows insider then yes he is right...updates are buggy...but what gets released to the general consumer has definitely gone through rigorous testing and has for the most part gone over pretty smoothly.
  • Yeah, what you're doing with windows is more complex, but calling people illiterate who find it difficult to use is just condescending. It is more difficult to use windows than it is to use Android. It's a far more powerful and heavy OS, what do you expect?
  • You're thinking Chromebooks are going to give you a sexualy transmitted disease? So what do you use? Don't want to assume you are a Mac user, but who knows. Chromebooks work pretty well. Are always up to date and are administered by a great company with a stellar record on security.
  • It just might give me the herpes. You obviously can't read if you don't know what I use.
  • Ya but have you ever tried to turn on a pc? Class periods are only 1-1.5 hours, and turning on a pc waists way more time compared to 15 seconds on a chromebook
  • Not true, you obviously haven't ran a pc with an SSD. My home machine boots in about 5 seconds and my laptop in about 10 (because it's encrypted).
  • It takes my surface a couple seconds to turn on, where's he getting his numbers?
  • My $550 Windows 10 laptop boots in only 5 seconds. Your Chromebook is slow to boot.
  • The hell are you talking about? Ain't no company running on Chrome OS.
  • You forgot what is probably the largest 'company' in the US, the K-12 school system. Chromebooks are everywhere in school.
  • Not completely. However, the company I work for has 180,000 employees and a lot of us at corporate use Chromebooks. They are great.
  • You have no idea what you're talking about, lol.
  • Um, me thinks it is there already... we are rolling it out now, faster than any previous Windows by a long shot. As for me, I just want a Surface phone with full Windows 10 running on it !!!
  • Uh, about those Android apps on Chrome. Are they actually coming to anything other than the 2 preview devices in developer mode?
  • There's 2 officially running them now, and 3 more are on the developer channel. It's definitely taking way too long to get it going.
  • Officially available on only 2 Chromebooks is a joke. Google needs to do a mass update so that dozens of Chromebooks get Android apps.
  • Officially available to 3 models right now. 5 or 6 models on beta/dev channel.
  • I suspect that Google is having some troubles with Android app compatibility on Chromebooks since it hasn't made it to mainstream release as of yet. I can't say that I'm surprised as their is a wide variance of the way Android apps behave on different phones and tablets -- especially display scaling.
  • Google said this would be a very slow process. We (AC and all the other tech sites) just didn;t get that message across when we wrote about it apparently. The reason why is that the Chrome team has the final say, and if the existing functionality and feature set is affected in any way on a particular model they send it all back to the drawing board. I'm good with that for two reasons — as someone who uses chrome the majority of the time, I don't want anything to change it. I hated going to the dev channel because it lacked the final polish, and it showed, The second reason is that the best launch of any product that runs Android, ever, was the Chromebook Flip. That's because it stayed in beta so long and everything was fixed before it moved out.
  • Agree
  • I almost forgot how cringey that was
  • Whatever that was isn't showing up on the AC App.
  • It's a YouTube click of one of Microsoft's ill advised Scroogled ads about Chromebooks.
  • The day I saw that ad is the day I stopped watching Pawn Stars.
  • Forget about everything else.
    Think about Continuum with full legacy app support.I think the surface phone might be true after all with ability to run x86 apps.
  • There won't be any Surface Phone. Stop chasing unicorns mate. No one wants it. Not even on enterprise as proven by the failure of the Elite X3 which can also emulate Windows programs like this Windows RT 2.0 can.
  • The Elite X3 can't emulate Win32 programs on the device, it runs the emulation on a cloud service (i.e. requires an Internet connection).
  • Saving this post to come back to in 8 months to throw it in your face when it's released lol
  • Careful. It might back-fire. Morons who bet against me that Windows Phone would thrive without Nokia instead of dying and that Nokia wouldn't return to phones already had to swallow a bunch of toads... ;)
  • The Elite X3 is a failure because it runs emulation on the cloud for an annual cost. No way a company will pay annually. They'll just buy laptops for a on time fee. Now, if the rumored surface phone runs everything without annual cost, completely different game.
  • Emulation of closed-sourced software will have costs. And I'm pretty sure Microsoft won't be paying for it. The Elite X3 is a failure because it's useless even for enterprise. The amount of things it can't do as a phone and the need to have a screen, mouse and keyboard for Continuum makes it pointless. If you're going to carry those things around you might just get a Surface and a good phone instead.
  • Whats hilarious is that over on WC they think that a phone running on this will destroy android and IOS! that's funny right thare I don't care who you are!
  • Delusion is great over there. They're like those people on the Titanic that refused to believe the ship was sinking.
    And there's no point in pointing out that Windows programs on this RT 2.0 are being emulated. They won't listen.
  • How is Microsoft a sinking ship when it's one of the most profitable businesses in the world. There profit margin increases every quarter year after year
  • Not Microsoft as a whole, the mobile division. I have been with windows phone since wmobile 4.1...on an HTC 620. Since then they rebooted to 7, then 8 which made your old phones obsolete, and then 10 which left most old phones in the dust again. At least with android and iPhone you get updates for older hardware, either through xda for android, and apple just updates their older hardware. Plus lack of most every app kills the system again. Nothing is going to change with the "new" version of windows mobile or whatever the flavor of the week is. The last straw with mobile and me was when they came out with win10 mobile and stated ALL windows 8 phones running denim would update to w10. then when it comes out they axed half their user base AGAIN. They keep "rebooting" or "retrenching" as they call it, it drove away the dev's and the users. And MOST are NOT coming back to the mobile side of things...for obvious reasons.
  • Microsoft has very badly mismanaged their mobile unit. But they merged their mobile dept with their hardware department. Meaning same oversight. Remember when everyone said:
    'No one is gonna buy a two-in-one tablet pc' - to surface 'No way Microsoft can make a competing product to the macbook' - to the surface book 'Microsoft is no longer relevant and has no vision, they can't break back into the market'
    -augmented reality
    -surface dial
    -surface studio While the mobile division has SUCKED over the past 2 years, consider how much MS has pulled their socks up and blown the tech world away with their ground breaking devices. Don't underestimate a multi-billion dollar global tech company
  • Except there's no longer any mobile division. Not even within the Windows and devices group. Everyone was fired. Microsoft knows they don't have a chance against Android and iOS. All those things you mentioned are new types of devices within a category that Microsoft already dominated, namely Windows desktop. All the Surface products that succeeded run on full blown x86 64bit Windows 10.
    The only Surface that flopped? The one with the ARM version of Windows.
  • The one that flopped because it didn't run w32 apps? All those devices are not brand new, they are a re-creation of an existing product in a massive way. Why couldn't Microsoft re-create the smartphone like they did with tablets, laptops and AIO's? Sure google and apple own the current iteration of what we call mobile hardware, but aren't we all dying for a massive change rather than the same old? Yay android added multitasking and a new assistant a slight bit better than the old one, innovation in mobile is dead really. Someone needs to re-create what mobile means and Microsoft has the track record to make it happen. You can't judge the mobile layoff whatsoever. If they are doing a surface phone which changes the landscape, that will be kept under lock and key as much as the original surface was.
  • Microsoft won't recreate something that literally no one is asking to be recreated. Tech geeks might be bored with smartphones but we are NOT the average consumer.
    Consumers will always want their apps and services and Windows Phones (regardless of what you call the OS) will continue to not be able to offer that. Microsoft has no understanding of the mobile experience. In fact their butchering of the touch experience with Windows 10 shows that. They went from a completely touch based UI in Windows 8 to a completely mouse and keyboard based UI with Windows 10. They didn't manage to present two experiences within the same OS. Which is why you can count with your hands the amount of people who use any Surface as a tablet instead of a laptop. Again, all they did was re-create what they already had. Windows RT was Windows 8 for ARM. This RT 2.0 is Windows 10 for ARM. And it will still not entice people to it. Specially on a phone. The time for this would have been when they first introduced Windows RT. Then was the time to have this ready. Now it only comes too little too late.
    On mobile at least.
  • I was obviously talking about Microsoft's mobile division and efforts...
  • What does the mean? "While most Android fans will know Qualcomm's work from such phones as nearly product on the market,..." - nearly *every* product on the market?
  • Finally! This is what I was waiting for actually. I need a cheap and portable device that will run Photoshop and Lightroom. Always wanted to try a chromebook.
  • As long as it's not another RT craptastrophe. Just sound like that all over again. But if it can run x86 programs and enhance Continuum in the future, I'm all in.
  • Well... It can through emulation. The thing is... Windows RT could also do that. In fact some folks managed at the time to break the protection on the Surface RT and run Windows programs in it. So basically, so far, this is no more than Windows RT 2.0. This time without the attempt to lock it down.
  • Windows RT, even with that hack you mention, could only run software compiled for ARM, as far as I recall, so it's definitely a step up from RT in every way.
  • Yes, but you could already emulate them like this RT 2.0 is doing. In fact, people did it back then http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2095934 So, again, Microsoft isn't doing nothing "groundbreaking" here. What they're doing with this Windows 10 ARM had already been done with the original Windows RT. The only big difference is that now it seems they're building-in the emulation tools and you won't need to jailbreak those new ARM machines. It will remain to be seem HOW will Microsoft accomplish the emulation, specially if the developers of the original Windows programs won't start recompiling them for neither the UWP platform nor for ARM devices.
  • Umm. This is nothing like the RT hack you are talking about, which was basically about sideloading ARM compiled apps in Windows RT. Your post is wrong on many levels. Maybe you should just stop.
    This is an ARM version of windows that can run all X86 Win32 apps. No recompiling is necessary. Apps will run, without modification, as they would on an Intel based system. I would call that pretty amazing.
  • Wrong. This Windows on ARM will NOT run any x86 app natively It's IMPOSSIBLE to do that as the architecture is different. This will emulate an x86 environment. Which was already done in Windows RT by folks at XDA. The link I posted was for the project which also included a project of recompiling open-source software to the ARM architecture so those programs would run natively. So maybe it's you who should stop if you haven't a clue what you're talking about ;)
  • @DJCBS, I guess you're not sure what the word "emulation" means. Windows RT never emulated any X86 applications. Not even in the link you posted.
  • Not natively. But the same folks that jailbroke it also had an emulator for x86 programs. Go dive deeper in the Forums if you want the details.
  • @DJCBS you actually don't know what your talking about do you lmao
  • Yeah, you're the only one who does, right?
  • Everyone here saying this guy is wrong, he's not. You could jailbreak the tablet to run unauthorized .exe files compiled for ARM. THEN someone made Win86emu, which emulates an x86 environment. So quit bashing.
  • "The Portland based company"? If that's in ref. to Microsoft, it's Redmond. If it's in reference to Intel, it's Santa Clara.
  • I thought he was talking about Intel due to the fact he started to talk about canceled Atom chips...but either way he was wrong lol
  • I dont think this is changing anything.. people buy chromebook because its simple.. there are low cost windows pc and how different is this from that?
  • Low cost Windows now = low performance and this seems promising to not be low performance
  • An extra layer of emulation/translation doesn't bode well for performance, even if they are "working with qualcomm"
  • Current low cost Windows are as bad as low cost Androids prior to 5.0 Marshmallow. The OS is too heavy and powerful for weak hardware. But to keep it cheap OEMs have to go with weak hardware.
  • Like smartphones, Microsoft is once again far too late to the party. I bought a nice Dell XPS 13 with Windows 10 to give it a shot, but still find myself using my 3 year old Chromebook 99% of the time whenever I need a laptop.
  • Lol. Ok. You must be doing very simple tasks.
  • I love my Chromebook because 95% of what I do on a computer is on the web anyway and I don't need any of the extra bs.
  • WIndows 10 is so unstable and crappy though they never get their software to run smooth no wonder their phone sales suck
  • Yeah I just don't really get the vehement hatred towards Chromebooks....if you like them ...use them...if you don't... buy something else... it's nice to have options. Chromebooks freed me from the PC world. Have had an HP 14 for 4 years and still use it every single day. Works for me. I certainly hope they stick around. With a Chromebook and an Android phone I need nothing else. I understand others may have different needs.
  • I'm the same way. A Chromebook wouldn't work for me as a work PC, but my company gives me a Thinkpad for work. For personal use, a Chromebook is more than sufficient for my needs, so that's what I use, since I'm not comfortable using my work laptop for personal stuff.
  • Same here. We've been an all Chromebook household going on almost four years, including a 2013 HP 14, which is by far and away the longest lasting laptop I've ever owned and, given Chrome OS, runs far better now than the day it was purchased. Every single Windows laptop I've owned has died in some horrible way after 1-2 years, both my personal machines and at work. Anything that made it past 2 years was so sluggish from the mysterious WIndows gunking that happens over time that they were almost unusable. Almost 4 years later, my wife is on the 2013 HP 14, my kids share an Asus Flip with Android apps, I use an Acer 15 CB mostly running Linux at home, and I use a Pixel LS at work, and we all couldn't be happier and it all couldn't be easier. I think this is the second or third time in as many years I've read the "Microsoft to target Chromebooks" headline. Then I got to its running emulated software for ARM and stopped reading...
  • The success of this "Windows RT 2.0" relies exclusively on how well the emulation works. If it's not perfect, it will go nowhere. That said,any Windows machine is in itself superior to the useless Chromebooks. So it won't be hard to win against that at all.
  • useless? lol you sound like an end user.. definitely not useless i love supporting them!
  • Hang on, I am replying to this comment with a device that is useless. Whilst watching streamed TV running on a device that is useless. Don't get me wrong. Love my Windows 10 Desktop to bits. Like I love my Oven. Doesn't mean I never use a microwave.
  • Tell me, what does your Chromebook does that your phone doesn't?
    I can tell you a bunch of stuff a Windows laptop does that a phone doesn't. That's why the Chromebook is useless IMO. It's just a glorified browser.
  • The laptop form factor is better for productivity or watching a movie than a smartphone, and I can't believe I literally just had to state the obvious for you.
  • Except a Chromebook isn't a laptop. It's like a giant smartphone but way less useful.
  • You've obviously never actually used a Chromebook. It sounds like your only source of information are those old Microsoft "Scroogled" ads.
  • My daughter's first experience with a Chromebook is with the one issued to her when she entered high school. All of her school assignments occur through Google's education initiative. Before then, her exposure to computers consisted of an iPhone (which has become an integral part of her brain) and an old Core 2 Duo Windows 8 laptop. So, how's the Chromebook working out? She still uses her iPhone for research and syncing on homework with her friends. And uses Microsoft Word on the old laptop to write reports. The main reason she doesn't use the Chromebook for this is it can't print to our house's HP MFP printer, and she got tired of going her Windows laptop to reopen the file and print. Also, she's taking a computer explorer's course that uses Visual Studio as the dev environment, so no Chromebook support there. The Chromebook fills a void in the market, but its niche capabilities put it at risk of being consumed by a more complete ecosystem. If executed properly (big IF), Windows 10 x86 on ARM has the potential to push the Chromebook to the dustbin of computing history..
  • My daughter uses Chromebooks for school and has her own Toshiba Chromebook 2. She loves it and it works great. A printer that fully supports Google Clound Print service is less than $100. Your points are moot.
  • Actually I have. My university entered a partnership with Google and they tried to distribute Chromebooks to the faculty. I used mine for a day and returned it. It was absolutely useless. I couldn't do anything on it apart from basic stuff. Well, guess what? I already have Chrome on my Windows machines. I don't need a special device for a browser and its very crappy additional services.
  • By your logic, Tablets too are useless... even Smartphones are useless... Stop your hate about chromebooks. Some people find them useful, that's why they buy them. You thinking it's not useful doesn't make it a generality.
  • Well, apparently the people who find Chromebooks useful are less than 1%. So... I think I might not be the biased one.
  • Not sure how they are going to bring it in at a competitive price, as ChromeOS does not have a licensing fee (correct me if I am mistaken), wheras Windows 10 does. Not sure what it is to OEMs, but still more