It’s no little secret that Apple has found great success after it ditched Intel and began making its own M1 and M2 chips to power its MacBooks and Macs, and Microsoft has clearly been looking on enviously, especially considering changes it’s making to Windows 11.
As ZDnet reports, a new Windows 11 preview build is available to people wanting to help try it out, and it brings numerous AI-powered features that make use of a device’s Neural Processing Unit (NPU).
NPUs aren’t found in all laptops or PCs but are included in laptops running SQ1, SQ2, and SQ3 processors. These are chips made by Microsoft and Qualcomm, and the latest SQ3 can be found in the company’s new Surface Pro 9 5G.
If you think the SQ3 sounds a lot like Microsoft’s attempt to replicate the M1, then you’re not too far off the mark. Microsoft has been working on ways to get its Windows operating system on ARM chips (as opposed to just being on Intel and AMD x64 processors) for a while now – but results have been pretty disappointing with devices that suffer from both high prices and poor performance. Worse, because ARM chips have a different architecture, applications need to have versions that can run on the hardware. If developers can’t or won’t port their apps to ARM, then you end up with an expensive, underpowered device that can’t run your favorite programs.
Meanwhile, Apple’s M1 and M2 chips, which are similarly ARM-based, have avoided these problems. The M1 devices, in particular, such as the MacBook Air (M1, 2020), offer excellent value for money, as well as performance.
Crucially, Apple has worked hard to make sure that almost all apps work with M1 and M2 chips, either by working with app developers to make compatible versions or by developing its own Rosetta 2 tool, which allows non-compatible apps to run on M1 and M2 hardware with minimal impact to performance – a solution that Microsoft has not managed to successfully implement with Windows on ARM.
So, despite Microsoft’s obvious desire to compete with Apple in this regard, it has a lot of work to do. However, could the new Windows 11 update fix this?
All about the AI
While Windows 11 isn’t getting anything resembling Rosetta 2 at the moment, the latest preview build brings the Studio Effects feature to the Quick Settings menu on the taskbar. This is a tool that uses artificial intelligence to improve the quality of video and audio calls, alongside additional nifty features for creatives and gamers.
These features are exclusive to devices with NPUs, and by putting them in such a prominent position in Windows 11, it appears that Microsoft is looking to make the benefits of those devices more apparent.
This also follows Microsoft releasing a Windows on ARM dev kit that emphasizes the NPU capabilities. Again, this suggests that Microsoft is encouraging app developers to embrace NPU-equipped chips, such as the SQ3. If it works, we should see more apps coming to Windows on ARM – which would solve one of the major problems Microsoft has with the platform.
This could kick start a virtuous circle, as the more apps that come to Windows on ARM, the more devices people will buy, which then encourages yet more app developers to make ARM versions of their products. At the moment, however, with so few people using Windows on ARM, many app makers simply don’t see a financial justification for investing in a port of the app.
With Windows on ARM’s app problem addressed, Microsoft has a chance – albeit still a slim one – to stop being scared of Apple and take on its M1 success.
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Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. Ever since he got an Amiga A500+ for Christmas in 1991, he's loved using (and playing on) computers, and will talk endlessly about how The Secret of Monkey Island is the best game ever made.