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Windows 8 Support for ARM Processors
By Chris De Herrera
10/1/11


When users think of buying a Windows PC, they expect a consistent experience.   With Windows 8, Microsoft has made the decision to support processors other than the x86 Intel or AMD processors we are used to.  They are now supporting ARM processors. 

ARM Processors

The decision to support ARM processors in Windows 8 will help improve battery life because the ARM CPUs are designed to be very energy efficient.  They also are very common in other product designs such as the iPad and Android Tablets as well as almost every cellular phone and Smartphone.  Also, the ARM processors are much different than x86 processors from a technical perspective.  ARM processors use a reduced instruction set (commonly referred to as RISC) while x86 processors use a complex instruction set (CISC).  With RISC processors all instructions are the same length and are able to be cached and executed extremely efficiently.  Also, for each CPU cycle (in MHz of course) the processor executes a single instruction.  So one of the design limitations for these devices has been that the RAM is not fast enough to feed the processor to allow it to actually perform an instruction per cycle due to the time it takes to read data into the processor.  For you and I this means that a 1 GHz CPU won't be able to execute 1 billion instructions. It is also more difficult to compare CPU performance due to the RAM speed of each OEM's design.

Software Compatibility

One of the hallmarks that Microsoft prides itself on is backward compatibility of it's applications.  In the PC space, this means applications that are designed to run on an x86 CPU.  With the introduction of ARM based CPU support in Windows 8, existing applications cannot run natively on the processor.  Microsoft could choose to implement emulation of the x86 processor (or virtualization) to allow applications to run on the ARM processor however the performance will be negatively impacted.

Tying it All Together

Overall I believe that the decision to support the ARM processor will make the consumer have to decide how important backward compatibility versus the improved battery life of ARM designs.  Microsoft has made similar decisions in the past.  With Windows CE in the mid 1990s, Microsoft supported ARM, x86, MIPS and SH3 processors.  Later after realizing the effort to support the various processor families in their Pocket PCs, they chose to only support ARM processors.  This left a community of users that did not have any new software or hardware to use.  In the end the consumer will decide if Windows 8 meets their needs.  However they should be careful since Microsoft is known for abandoning products that do not meet their internal success criteria such as Zune.


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