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19 Nov 2020

Apple’s new ARM-based M1 processor, which ships with the company’s latest generation of Macbooks, will have almost certainly caught the attention of Microsoft. As we target the Windows platform and closely follow hardware trends, it certainly caught ours.

At the moment, a 32bit install of Macrium Reflect won’t work on a system running on an ARM processor. This is due to a number of reasons, including (but not limited to) the need for ARM-native drivers and ARM-specific WinPE rescue capabilities. From a performance perspective too, an ARM-native build of Macrium Reflect is infinitely more preferable than a hybrid build relying on emulation where possible. We don’t want you to notice when your computer is being backed up — it should be smooth and unobtrusive.

If building a backup utility that’s compatible with ARM hasn’t been at the top of our priorities that’s really because Microsoft has never quite solved how to leverage ARM for Windows products.

Windows’ difficult relationship with ARM

Windows’ first foray into ARM was a failure. The 32bit ARM7 Surface tablet, released in 2012, flopped. This was largely due to the more established Android and iOS tablets on the market and Windows own rival tablets that ran on the standard and familiar Windows 8.

It was only with the Surface Pro X at the end of 2019 that it seemed like Microsoft had finally managed to figure out how to make ARM work for Windows. The Surface Pro X runs standard Windows 10 on a vastly more capable 64bit ARM CPU. It also features Intel x86 emulation which allows it to run most 32bit windows applications perfectly, albeit with a noticeable performance cost.

Despite these performance issues, the Surface Pro X proves that Windows on ARM is viable. Microsoft has demonstrated a tentative commitment to the platform with an updated Surface Pro X and 64bit emulation slated for imminent release.

When will Microsoft learn to stop worrying and love ARM?

Microsoft certainly won’t be leaning into ARM that heavily in the short term. There is a vast catalogue of software for the Windows platform and most of it will not be recompiled for ARM until ARM is a mainstream CPU.

How will ARM become a mainstream Windows CPU?

For ARM to break through to being a mainstream windows CPU, it needs to outperform Intel devices running Intel code.

We know this because it’s exactly what Apple has managed to do with M1. The key to success appears to be a very fast, low latency, memory bus, which is achieved by locating the memory and CPU dies within the same package. Rosetta 2 (the latest iteration of Apple’s dynamic binary translator) also provides a further speed boost because it uses pre-translation instead of emulation to provide compatibility. Suffice to say, the performance when running native ARM applications is impressive. Clearly, Apple wouldn’t have released an update to such an important part of its product range if it wasn’t.

So where does this leave Windows?

Even if Windows on ARM isn’t mainstream right now, it’s hard to deny that over time ARM will become the norm. Indeed, it’s not unlikely that the likes of Qualcomm are working on some Intel beating ARM CPUs. Who knows, we might even see Microsoft making using ARM extensively and to great success sooner rather than later.

Here at Macrium we’ll be watching industry movements closely. As soon as we start to see ARM-based Windows computers ship in significant numbers, we will have a release of Reflect to back it up.

December 2021 update:

Since this blog was posted, there have been developments: Microsoft has added support for running Intel x64 code on ARM CPUs. Further, Windows 11 on ARM includes new compatibility improvements with the introduction of the ARM64EC target; this enables an ARM binary to load x86/x64 DLLS. Unfortunately, these improvements don't, in themselves, enable Reflect x86/x64 binaries to run on ARM CPUs. 

It is encouraging to note that though the latest generation of Qualcomm ARM CPUs has yet to compete with Apple's M1 performance, they are actively closing the gap. Further, in 2019 only Microsoft shipped ARM hardware, but now HP, Samsung, Lenovo and Acer have joined the party. There are also reports of MS and AMD partnering on a new, high performance ARM part.



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