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Windows 10 On Arm Isn't The Same As Upgradeable Windows 10 S

Microsoft and Qualcomm are marketing their “Always Connected PCs” as regular Windows 10 devices when they may not be compatible with many existing Windows apps.

We’ve known since last year that Microsoft was developing a version of Windows 10 that can run on Arm CPUs. Now that the first spate of “Always Connected PCs” powered by Qualcomm SoCs is nigh, that plan is being realized. If you just read Qualcomm’s press release, you’d never guess that these new devices from Asus, Lenovo, and HP are anything less than regular Windows laptops with a different chip inside, but Windows on Arm is going to come with some caveats.

It all comes down to naming, or lack thereof. All three of the above devices list Windows 10 S as the OS that they ship with. This locked-down version of Windows 10 that can only run Windows Store apps, also known as Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps, was announced in May 2017. It was understood that Windows 10 S’ intended purpose was to compete in the education sector against Chromebooks, on low-cost devices powered by embedded-application x86 CPUs, such as the Intel Celeron line--not necessarily Qualcomm SoCs with Arm CPUs. The Windows 10 S FAQ says Windows 10 S licenses can be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro for a fee. This makes total sense on an x86 device, because Windows 10 Pro (and Home and Enterprise) can inherently run both UWP and x86 apps; Windows 10 S just artificially locks them out.

The Qualcomm-powered PCs are Arm devices that also ship with Windows 10 S. This also makes sense because UWP apps can run on ARM devices, such as Windows 10 Mobile phones. According to Asus’, Lenovo’s, and HP’s websites, however, the Windows 10 S licenses that come on these PCs can be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro, and here’s where it gets confusing for consumers.

Windows 10 S Or Windows 10-On-Arm?

Windows 10 on Arm needs emulation to run x86 code and, as we knew in mid-2017, Microsoft could do this for 32-bit, but not 64-bit, apps. So what can you expect will run if you upgrade the Windows 10 S on your Qualcomm-powered PC to Windows 10 Pro? Well, according to a released but retracted document from Microsoft, that’s still going to be the case upon release--no 64-bit x86 apps will run. Some DirectX 9/10/11/12 games will run (unless they’re 64-bit), but not OpenGL ones, and certain drivers might not work.

The bottom line is that there are quite a few caveats and unknowns on what Windows 10 on Arm can and can’t run. If you buy a Qualcomm-powered PC expecting that upgrading its default Windows license will give you same result as buying an Intel- or AMD-powered Windows PC, you might be surprised to find out that many of your programs and peripherals won’t work on it. Microsoft isn’t helping consumers by obscuring the distinction between Windows 10 on ARM and Windows 10 on x86 by placing them under the same name, so we’ve outlined the differences in the table below.

Windows 10 SWindows 10
Qualcomm-powered PC (Arm CPU)Only runs Windows Store (UWP) appsRuns Windows Store (UWP) appsRuns 32-bit x86 apps with exceptionsWon’t run 64-bit x86 appsCertain peripherals may not work due to driver incompatibility
Intel or AMD-powered PC(x86 CPU)Only runs Windows Store (UWP) appsRuns Windows Store (UWP) appsRuns all x86 apps

This is just confusing marketing that obscures what are two very different products, but it plays into Microsoft’s previously iterated vision of Windows 10 “as a service.” Microsoft is selling one “experience” now, not a product. In its eyes, as long as it appears to be Windows, then it is Windows, and it doesn’t matter what’s underneath. We’ll withhold judgement on how close the Windows 10 on Arm experience can match that of Windows 10 on x86 until we can test it, but for now, even Microsoft’s hardware partners are only electing to call it a “familiar” experience.