Windows on ARM Laptops Reportedly Hamstrung by Qualcomm, but That Might Soon Change

Windows on ARM Laptops Reportedly Hamstrung by Qualcomm, but That Might Soon Change
Photo: Gizmodo

Let your Mac-owning friends boast all they want about the blinding speeds of Apple’s new M-series chips, because who needs fast performance when you have freedom of choice? That’s one of the benefits of buying a PC — or at least, it’s supposed to be.

It turns out Microsoft might have been restricting the hardware powering certain Windows 11 laptops. According to XDA Developers, ARM-based Windows devices have only been powered by one brand of processor because of an exclusive deal between Microsoft and Qualcomm.

Want Windows on ARM laptop without a Qualcomm chip? Sorry, it doesn’t exist. At least, not yet. Multiple people familiar with the deal told XDA that the agreement between these tech giants is “set to expire soon,” but a specific timeline was not given.

For most people, this news will evoke a halfhearted shrug–it’s not like Windows on ARM laptops are flying off shelves or ever get recommended by anyone who has used them.

But that could change. Once the exclusivity expires, the gates will open for other chip makers to try their hand at a viable ARM PC chip, and that should excite those who recognise the benefits of the architecture, which offers lower power consumption and better wireless integration, among other perks. Apple’s new MacBook Pro models, with their speedy M1 Pro and M1 Max CPUs, demonstrate the potential of ARM to deliver record-setting performance and endurance. Windows on ARM, for as long as it’s been around, lags far behind.

That certainly isn’t due to a lack of trying. Microsoft announced Windows on ARM in 2016 with the ability to run 32-bit, x86 apps via an emulator. A few years later, the company launched the Surface Pro X, an ARM-based version of its Surface Pro tablets running on a custom version of the Snapdragon 8cx SoC. It was critically panned for being overpriced and underpowered, along with software compatibility issues. Microsoft addressed that last issue recently by bringing 64-bit, x84 emulation to Windows 11 (but abandoned plans to do so for Windows 10).

Qualcomm’s efforts haven’t done enough to shift Windows away from ageing x86 processors, but perhaps another company can be more successful. One chip vendor already eager to try is MediaTek, whose CEO, Rick Tsai, said in an earnings call last month that he wants the company’s processors under the hood of future Windows 11 PCs. Samsung is also rumoured to launch a laptop running on its own ARM-based Exynos processor.

Even Mac owners should get excited about the possibility of an ARMs race. As MacRumors points out, the handshake between Microsoft and Qualcomm may have something to do with why you can’t use Windows 11 on new ARM-based Macs. We wouldn’t get our hopes up too high, but this deal expiring could remove one roadblock from getting the latest Windows onto the latest Mac.

We have reached out to Microsoft to confirm the details of XDA Developers’ report and will update this article if we hear back.