June 02, 2011, 4:08 PM — During Microsoft's presentation of Windows 8, a handful of the company's hardware partners showed off tablets and notebooks running the OS, some also featuring Microsoft Office. But if you looked closely, you would've noticed that missing from the equation were Intel and AMD, replaced instead by ARM chips made by rival ARM Holdings.
ARM chips are used in 99% of the world's cellphones, tablets, and other mobile devices, where they're favored for their miniscule power consumption. However, there are rumors that Apple might switch to ARM for its notebook range, and, in a shock announcement at the beginning of this year, Microsoft announced it was porting Windows 8 to ARM chips in a bid to unify the desktop and mobile versions of the operating system.
This is less shocking than it sounds, and Windows hasn't always been exclusively x86. Windows NT was created to be portable so it would run on DEC Alpha, PowerPC and MIPS chips just as well as it did on x86 (and NT went on to be the basis for XP). However, this move was aimed at the high-end workstation market. Adding in ARM support is the first time Microsoft has used anything but x86 for consumer-oriented Windows devices.
Intel may well be feeling jilted, despite the fact x86 remains the primary focus for Microsoft's desktop products. But there's still a nagging question: What are the benefits of an ARM computer when they go on sale next year, compared to similar offerings from Intel and AMD?
Long battery life: ARM chips are designed to use as little juice as possible. The Apple iPad is powered by an ARM chip, for example, and lasts about 10 hours. The chances are that ARM chips available when Windows 8 is launched next year will be even more frugal. Intel and AMD have mobile offerings in their Atom and Fusion ranges but, in terms of power requirements, they are gas-guzzling Hummers to the ARM's Prius. x86 simply isn't designed to provide the ultra-low-power platform required by today's mobile devices.