AI isn't the star of Microsoft's Copilot+ PC push — improved Arm support is

Copilot seems great, but all I want is a better Windows on Arm experience.


What if you could run an entire Windows PC on a mobile Arm-based chip, bringing the power efficiency and thinner designs from smartphones and tablets to laptops? If you've been paying attention to Microsoft's PC strategy over the past two decades, this song probably sounds familiar. From the original Surface in 2012 (running Windows RT for Arm devices) to the recent Surface Pro 9 5G, Microsoft has chipped away at this dream, only to fail miserably every time. Now with its new Copilot+ PC initiative, which includes major upgrades in Windows for Arm systems and AI, Microsoft may finally have the answer to its mobile computing dreams.

Microsoft's portable PC ambitions didn't start with the Surface line: You can trace it back to Windows CE and Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs. Then there was the short-lived era of netbooks: tiny, cheap and under-powered laptops meant mainly for browsing the web. I'll admit, I loved many a netbook, but they couldn't compete with the rise of the iPhone, Android and tablets.

Timing has never been Microsoft's strongest point. While Apple can just re-orient its platforms around its own homegrown hardware and software to pull off a monumental feat, like the move towards its Arm-based M-series chips, Microsoft has to wait on its many partners. In the case of Copilot+, the program wouldn't have been possible before Qualcomm's new Snapdragon X Elite chips, or before developers were ready to build apps to take advantage of neural processing units (NPUs) for AI work.

"We engineered this update of Windows with the focus on AI and specifically AI inference on those devices, and [with] making sure we were taking full advantage of the Arm 64 instruction set," according to Microsoft’s head of Windows and Surface Pavan Davuluri in a briefing with media earlier this month. "[In] this updated Windows, we built a new compiler in Windows for this exercise. We have a new kernel in the operating system that is built on top of this compiler. We have new schedulers in Windows that are built for taking advantage of these workloads."

Davuluri also noted that there's a new driver compute model that better integrates neural engines into Windows, just like CPUs and GPUs. Those core Windows updates will be a major boon for AI hardware, undoubtedly, but they will also make the OS function far better on Arm chips than we've seen before. Microsoft says that more native Arm apps will be coming to Windows, including Spotify and over 400 apps from other developers. But the key upgrade, a new emulator that's 20 percent faster than its previous solution, and is said to be faster than Apple's Rosetta 2 emulator for M-series Macs.

"We made gains on the breadth and the reach of the emulator," Davuluri said, referring to the amount of apps that Prism works on. "When you combine the new prism emulator with simply the raw performance and improvement in [the Snapdragon X Elite] CPUs themselves, we're in a place where we have great native apps and we're also in a place where the breadth of the app catalog also has tremendous performance, comparable to the rest of the Windows estate today."

While I haven't been able to benchmark Copilot+ PCs yet, I've seen a few compelling demos that point to raw performance and battery life that’s similar to Apple's M3 chip. I'm just hoping the company can finally deliver a Windows on Arm experience that doesn't stink. After reviewing the Surface Pro 9 5G, which was slow and incompatible with many apps, I had given up on the idea of a decent Arm-based Windows PC entirely. But with revamped Surface devices, as well as partners like Dell, ASUS and HP jumping on the Copilot+ bandwagon, maybe Microsoft has finally crafted a decent mobile PC platform.

Catch up on all the news from Microsoft's Copilot AI and Surface event today!