This morning's Surface Event was, as far as these things go, pretty impressive. There's more options across the Surface Laptop line that answer a lot of demands. The Surface Pro series looks even better and finally has USB-C, and even AMD are helping power some of the line. But one of the most interesting devices that'll go on sale later this year is the Surface Pro X, an absurdly thin and light laptop that's built around a Qualcomm, custom-made SQ1 processor.
It looks like a ton of fun and something that'd be great to bust out on the plane, switching between some productivity apps and the occasional retro game. But before you get too excited about the Pro X, there's a huge caveat you need to know.
It comes from the Qualcomm system-on-a-chip powering the SQ1, which uses a wholly different architecture than any laptop you've bought ... well, ever. It's basically mobile phone architecture that happens to be running Windows, and that simple fact alone is a huge, huge deal.
But it also comes with a large caution. Apps and games today are designed around the x86 architecture, the base instruction set for CPUs in modern computers, the current console generation. Anything that's designed to work on the mobile platform, where Qualcomm chips reign supreme, are coded to work with the ARM platform. In short, getting Adobe Photoshop, Steam, or any of the other apps you might use on a regular basis to work on an ARM system is not exactly a simple process.
So what actually runs on the device?
How it works is this. The Pro X is effectively running an emulator in the background that converts the x86 instructions that would normally be used in moment-to-moment operation, converting those into instructions for the ARM-based Qualcomm SQ1 processor. But while the emulation means you'll have more compatibility than you might have expected, there are a huge amount of caveats that will stop your favourite games and apps from running altogether.
Microsoft's documentation warns that any drivers for apps, games and hardware will only run on the Surface Pro X "if they're designed for a Windows 10 ARM-based PC". Given that most developers on the planet haven't had the chance to muck around with an ARM-based version of Windows 10 (because it's not been available), that's a huge hurdle.
Modern multiplayer games are off the table, too. The documentation says that any games relying on "anti-cheat drivers that haven't been made for Windows 10 ARM-based PCs" won't run at all. "Games and apps won't work if they use a version of OpenGL greater than 1.1," the page says.
On top of that, 64-bit x86 apps won't run at all — although 32-bit versions of x86 apps should run just fine. Beyond that, you'll need 32-bit or 64-bit ARM apps. And as an added bonus, some third-party antivirus software can't even be installed, although Microsoft helpfully suggests that "Windows Security will help keep you safe".
Here's the full list of limitations:
Applications run differently on ARM-based Windows 10 PCs such as Surface Pro X. Limitations include the following:
- Drivers for hardware, games and apps will only work if they're designed for a Windows 10 ARM-based PC. For more info, check with the hardware manufacturer or the organisation that developed the driver. Drivers are software programs that communicate with hardware devices — they're commonly used for antivirus and antimalware software, printing or PDF software, assistive technologies, CD and DVD utilities, and virtualisation software. If a driver doesn’t work, the app or hardware that relies on it won’t work either (at least not fully). Peripherals and devices only work if the drivers they depend on are built into Windows 10, or if the hardware developer has released ARM64 drivers for the device.
- 64-bit (x64) apps won’t work. You'll need 64-bit (ARM64) apps, 32-bit (ARM32) apps, or 32-bit (x86) apps. You can usually find 32-bit (x86) versions of apps, but some app developers only offer 64-bit (x64) apps.
- Certain games won’t work. Games and apps won't work if they use a version of OpenGL greater than 1.1, or if they rely on "anti-cheat" drivers that haven't been made for Windows 10 ARM-based PCs. Check with your game publisher to see if a game will work.
- Apps that customize the Windows experience might have problems. This includes some input method editors (IMEs), assistive technologies, and cloud storage apps. The organisation that develops the app determines whether their app will work on a Windows 10 ARM-based PC.
- Some third-party antivirus software can’t be installed. You won't be able to install some third-party antivirus software on a Windows 10 ARM-based PC. However, Windows Security will help keep you safe for the supported lifetime of your Windows 10 device.
- Windows Fax and Scan isn’t available. This feature isn’t available on a Windows 10 ARM-based PC.
That's a lot of caveats. DOSBox has a native ARM application, thank God, so at least a ton of retro gaming is more than possible on the Qualcomm-powered device. And that might be the best way to go anyway — the CPU and GPU performance of something like this is wholly unknown, and expecting it to run anything like Underlords might be too much of a stretch.
But it's worth knowing the pitfalls before you buy. The Pro X looks like the kind of superlight device I'd love to have at a cafe while knocking out a feature, answering emails and just getting thoughts out of my head. But any chances of it running even low-end indie games on the side? Probably best to stick to the Surface Laptop or Surface Pro 7 for that.