Tested: How badly Windows on Arm compares to the new Mac M1s

After Apple released its impressive M1 Arm chip on its new Macs, and Microsoft followed with its long-awaited 64-bit X86 emulator, we had just one question: How does Windows on Arm compare to MacOS on Arm? The answer: badly. Very, very badly.

Running Windows apps on Arm processors has a few wrinkles. For one, there are only two chips currently powering Windows on Arm machines: Qualcomm’s own processors, such as the Snapdragon 8cx and Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2, as well as the derivative SQ1 and SQ2 processors Microsoft co-designed with Qualcomm. The latter two processors both appear in Microsoft’s Surface Pro X tablet.

Until last week, WOA devices have only been able to run apps coded natively for the Snapdragon Arm architecture, or run 32-bit apps coded for X86 processors natively. Last week, after an awkward delay, Microsoft finally published its long-awaited 64-bit X86 emulator, allowing Windows on Arm PCs to run 64-bit X86 apps via emulation. The vast majority of apps today are optimized for 64-bit processors and the larger amount of memory they can address. Because the apps are being emulated and not running natively, they will run more slowly than native code. Apple, too, has shipped Macs running on its own 64-bit Arm chip, the M1, and shipped a finalized 64-bit emulator alongside it. 

Given the glowing reviews by our sister site, Macworld, we know how well the new MacBook Air (M1) and other M1-based hardware performed. Now that Microsoft has shipped its own 64-bit emulator, we can more directly compare how well Windows on Arm compares to Mac OS on Arm.

macbook air m1 wide01 Jason Cross/IDG

Apple and its M1-powered MacBook Air have accomplished what Microsoft hasn’t: delivering a viable new Arm ecosystem of hardware and software.

How we tested

Our testbed was Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, running on a first-generation SQ1 chip, a more powerful version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx. (We did not have an SQ2-powered Surface Pro X to test.) We downloaded and installed Windows Insider Build 21277 and the additional code, such as Adreno GPU drivers, to allow 64-bit X86 apps to run. (Microsoft warned that not every app would work, even with its emulator.) We used Apple’s MacBook Air (M1) as a comparison.

We already had a good idea of how slow Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is—that was evident from our original review. But these benchmarks provide insight into just how slowly the Surface Pro X and its SQ1 chip run with the new 64-bit X86 instruction emulator layered on top. We hewed closely to the test suite from Macworld’s MacBook Air review, including GeekBench 5, Cinebench R23, HandBrake, and a representative game, Rise of the Tomb Raider. We added a third Windows laptop for reference: the HP Pavilion x360 Convertible 14, a decidedly average $700 laptop with a fairly pedestrian Core i5-1035G1 inside.

To be fair, Microsoft’s emulator is in preview, and Microsoft promises performance will improve over time. Also, we’re comparing the first-gen SQ1 chip, which maxes out at 3GHz, and not the current SQ2—though the SQ2 offers a teensy upgrade to a 3.1GHz boost clock. We tried testing with the Windows performance slider set to maximum, and the results were unchanged. Windows on Arm lags so far behind the MacBook on M1 that it’s hard to believe further improvements will bring it significantly closer.

Enough preamble—let’s look at how soundly Apple’s MacBook with the M1 chip trounces Windows on Arm’s best. 

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