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Microsoft is building an ARM-powered Windows mini

Microsoft is building an ARM-powered Windows mini

Sometime in 2023, Microsoft will release its first desktop from Project Volterra.

Credit: Dreamstime

Seven years ago, Microsoft surprised the world — and its hardware partners — by releasing its first laptop: The Surface Book. It was a flop

But, unlike some Microsoft hardware experiments I could mention — the Surface tablet, Surface RT, and the infamous Kin phone — Microsoft kept hacking away at the Surface Book. Today, its descendants such as the Surface Laptop Studio are darn good laptops.

Now Microsoft is going to try something new again: Its first desktop via Project Volterra.

Believe it or not, instead of running on an AMD or Intel processor, it's going to be an ARM machine. Now, I know what you're thinking: "This is going to be another fiasco like Windows RT or a limited-use machine like the Surface Pro X, isn't it?" Actually, I don't think so. I think Microsoft is going to get ARM right this time. And, if you know me, you know I'm no Microsoft fanboy.

You see, it's all about the developers. Instead of emulating x86 on ARM, which always guaranteed the programs would be slow, Microsoft this time is providing an end-to-end software development kit (SDK) and programming tools that will be ARM native.

Project Volterra will include (deep breath):

  • Visual Studio 2022
  • Visual Studio Code
  • Visual C++
  • Modern .NET 6 and Java
  • Classic .NET Framework
  • Windows Terminal
  • Windows Subsystem for Linux
  • Windows Subsystem for Android
Credit: Microsoft

In other words, Microsoft will give programmers everything they need to build programs on ARM that can actually take advantage of its architectural virtues. Leopards can change their spots! I'm not ready to declare that WinARM will replace Wintel, but this is a serious hardware step forward for Microsoft.

The Project Volterra PC is expected to run on a yet-to-be-named Snapdragon processor. It will have four of these CPUs and a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) programming.  Qualcomm Technologies will also be providing a Qualcomm Neural Processing SDK for this new Windows toolkit.

Rumour has it that the Surface team is building it with Qualcomm and that it will ship with a flagship Snapdragon System on a Chip (SoC). This would also represent a step forward for Windows on ARM. In the past, Microsoft has shied away from cutting-edge ARM technology.

The new machine will also include what Computerworld's Rob Enderle calls an Azure Compute Unit (ACU). This chip is meant to make it easier for the Windows PCs to shift workloads seamlessly between the PC and the cloud as needed.

Hmmm, a Windows desktop that relies on the cloud — where I have heard that idea before?

The desktop PC itself is expected to be about the size of a Mac mini. While Microsoft hasn't released any specs yet, I can already tell you it will have a Gigabit Ethernet port, Wi-Fi 6 support, and an HDMI port for the video. With a reliance on Azure, I doubt it will have a very large solid-state drive (SSD), say 512MB, or many USB-C ports.

Microsoft will not be trying to sell this to consumers. Its job is going to be to help out developers and AI/ML programmers. That said, I know some of my ARM fan friends are already jonesing to get their hands on one.

Me? I think this may be Microsoft's most significant advance in development hardware since Azure. I'll be watching it with great interest to see what Microsoft delivers and how well it performs.


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