Microsoft’s Surface Pro X proves Windows still isn’t ready for ARM


I’d like to kick this blog post off with a disclaimer: I don’t have a Surface Pro X. Microsoft hasn’t sent me one to review, and I’m kind of glad they didn’t because I know I’d be seriously disappointed going into the review period.

Why? Let me explain.

As is common in journalism, some media outlets received early units of the Surface Pro X and were told to keep their full reviews under embargo. Yesterday, those embargoes lifted, and as a result, we got a lot of Pro X reviews. Most of them (if not all) mention just how fantastic the device’s hardware is. They talk about the thinness, the bezels around the screen, the convenient storage method of the Surface Slim Pen – y’know, all that fun design stuff.

They even say performance is good. The device runs on a special ARM processor built by Qualcomm and Microsoft, one that’s been called the “fastest Qualcomm processor ever created for a PC.” Surprisingly enough, while it didn’t necessarily compete with what you could get from a proper Intel chip, it still packed enough punch to get tech journalists through a full day of use with little complaining.

Speaking of daily usage, battery life was kinda mixed. Some said it could last all day, others were getting around 6-8 hours of usage. Rounding things off, people loved the screen, the keyboard attachment, the kickstand, and every other hardware-based aspect of the Pro X.

Notice I said “hardware-based aspect.” That’s because there’s plenty to love about the device’s hardware. The software, on ther other hand, is another story.

The Surface Pro X runs Windows 10, as you’d expect from a device from Microsoft. But it doesn’t just run a typical version of the OS. It runs a special version that’s compatible with ARM-based processors. On the surface, there isn’t very much different between it and a standard issue of Windows 10, but when you start using it and try to develop a daily workflow, you’ll immediately start finding red flags.

The biggest red flag? App compatiblity.

I can’t stand it when an app doesn’t work on my laptop, especially if it’s something I have to use on a daily basis. Writing reviews for the site, I find myself resorting to an x86-based (a.k.a. Intel-based) watermarking software quite often. But as the reviews of the Surface Pro X (and ARM-based Windows 10 PCs in general) have shown us, running such an app won’t be possible because it’s simply not compatible with the ARM hardware under the hood.

Maybe you don’t watermark your photos. Maybe you use something a bit more common like Adobe’s suite of Creative Cloud apps. Well, they won’t work either since Adobe hasn’t made them compatible with ARM devices. There are some apps that will run in a 32-bit ARM emulator, but they run really slow and almost aren’t worth using.

The same goes for even more common apps like Google Chrome and even Microsoft’s suite of Office programs. Granted, most of these apps can run in a 32-bit emulator, but that means next to nothing since you’ll get sluggy performance, as we saw in reviews from multiple sources like The Verge, CNET, Engadget, and The New York Times.

If a third-party PC manufacturer like Lenovo or Dell made the Surface Pro X, it would be easy to make the excuse that Windows 10 simply isn’t ready for ARM. But this is a device straight from Microsoft, the same company who makes and sells Windows. You’d think after all this time, the company would have a product that you could rely on for app compatibility, especially one that starts at $999. As it turns out, they couldn’t achieve this due to the fact Windows apps don’t like to play nice with ARM processors.

Every time I see a new ARM-based Windows machine pop up, a few things come to mind. I think about how great it would be to have LTE all the time, have 20-hour battery life, have decent enough performance for writing, and have one of the most portable computers on the planet. But then I catch myself. I realize that ARM isn’t ready for the sheer amount of x86 apps I use on a daily basis, some of which either work in a 32-bit emulator or don’t. I don’t like that amount of uncertainty, and it’s one of the biggest reasons I’ll be skipping all ARM devices that come down the pike in the near future.

Hate to tell ya, folks, but unless your workflow relies solely on apps that come from the Microsoft Store, the Surface Pro X will probably let you down. Windows 10 just isn’t ready for ARM hardware, and Microsoft’s first Surface Pro redesign is perfect proof of that.

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