Windows on Arm is arguably as good as it’s ever been – you can buy several Arm-powered Windows laptops and tablets, and these devices can run nearly the full range of Windows apps available thanks to the translation of x86 code to Arm. That said, Windows on Arm still represents only a fraction of the entire Windows ecosystem, and native Arm apps for the platform are still relatively rare.
At its Build Developer Conference on Tuesday, Microsoft make some announcements aimed at strengthening Windows on Arm. The first is Project Volterra, a Microsoft-branded mini desktop computer powered by an unnamed Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC. Most relevant to developers who already own Arm hardware, Volterra will come with a suite of development tools that are fully native to Arm.
According to Microsoft blog post, the company will release ARM-native versions of Visual Studio 2022 and VSCode, Visual C++, Modern .NET 6, Classic .NET Framework, Windows Terminal and Windows Subsystem for Linux, and Windows Subsystem for Android. Native Arm versions of these apps will allow developers to run them without the performance penalty associated with translating x86 code to run on Arm devices, which is especially useful given that Arm Windows devices typically don’t have not much performance to spare.
Previews of these tools will begin to be available “in the coming weeks.”
As for the Volterra hardware, what we do know is that it runs a Qualcomm SoC with an integrated neural processing unit (NPU), “best-in-class AI computing capability” and the socket support for Qualcomm’s Neural Processing SDK. Microsoft touts it as a solution for testing AI and machine learning apps, though depending on the other specs, it could also be a good general-purpose development box for Windows on Arm apps.
Microsoft’s reveal video gave the impression that Volterra uses a standard NVMe SSD and will include an active cooling fan, suggesting a bit more expandability and performance than what we’ve seen in other SSD enclosures. Windows-on-Arm development. It also seems to have a decent selection of ports for its size, with three USB-A ports, a mini DisplayPort, an Ethernet port on the back, and two USB-C ports on the side. Its stackable black case is also made of “recycled ocean plastic”, like the ocean plastic mouse the company introduced last year.
Project Volterra will be available “later this year” for an undisclosed price.
It’s not the first hardware that Microsoft has pushed to encourage developers to try Windows on Arm. Last year, he listed the $219 ECS LIVA QC710 in the Microsoft Store, specifically targeting app developers. While small and affordable, the box’s 4GB of RAM, weak Qualcomm 7c processor, 64GB of internal storage, and lackluster port selection didn’t really give developers much room to stretch their legs. Volterra seems to be able to fill some or all of these gaps.
One thing currently holding Windows on Arm back is the lack of quality hardware, more specifically the lack of quality chips that can match or beat the performance of Intel and AMD while offering better battery life. None of Qualcomm’s Windows PC chips have been as fast as Apple’s M1, let alone the faster M1 variants. We may not see Qualcomm’s first M1-class contender until late 2023, well after Volterra’s scheduled release.
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