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Why Windows 8 on ARM matters

Melissa J. Perenson | Sept. 18, 2011
If Windows 8 works successfully on ARM-processor-equipped systems, expect to see thin, light, and innovative devices coming our way. This includes ultra-thin laptops with impressive battery life, and super-light, large-screen tablets.

Microsoft was also vague about support for legacy apps on ARM, but the company has already demonstrated a version of Office that runs in the new Metro-style Windows interface, as opposed to the traditional desktop.

Windows on ARM: What It Takes

I asked about how the process of adapting ARM for Windows is going, and the Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments execs I spoke with indicated that things are going smoothly. All noted that they needed to add support for DirectX graphics (if they didn't already support it), but beyond that, the process [of preparing ARM for Windows] is largely about optimizing the code for working with the system-on-chip architecture.

"The work has been going on for more than a year now," says Deepu Talla, general manager of mobile computing and wireless at Texas Instruments. "The only thing I would say we needed to work on was our graphics speeds. We've needed to make changes to our graphics engine to support DirectX. Silicon-wise that's the only difference. And we've made other optimizations in software."

Many of the capabilities of ARM, a chip that dominates smartphones and tablets today, will allow Windows 8 to gain smartphone-like functionality.

For example, Horton points to the "Connected On" demo at BUILD this week. Connected On is a new power state that sends a system into a powered-down state without hibernating, so you can come out of it immediately. In this state, apps are suspended, but can still refresh content in the background without requiring much power. This state of suspension will even work with Qualcomm's 4G technology, a boon considering how 4G can guzzle battery life.

There is one design catch, which will have a clear impact on the shape of devices we see: Microsoft is asking hardware manufacturers to stick with a 16:9 aspect ratio, because that's what the Metro interface (two-apps-on-screen) is optimized for.

In the end, TI's Talla notes that the company's focus is mobile computing.

"It's about developing this all-day computing experience," he says. The other ARM chipmakers agree with Talla--all have a goal of 12 to 15 hour battery life on a system, whether it's a clamshell or a tablet design.

If they manage this, we'll all be able to wile away our days at the local cafe, nursing a latte from sun up to sundown--and maybe even beyond. Not bad.


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