Microsoft and Qualcomm have been teasing for what feels like years at this point the forthcoming future when Windows 10 finally runs on ARM-based processors. The benefit to this technology is improved battery life, always-on capabilities, and a constant connection to the internet thanks to built-in LTE support. Speeds would be admittedly slower, but that’s to be expected what with a desktop-class operating system running atop chips built for smartphones and tablets.
If you’re a geek about computers in any way, you’ve probably been waiting for the first wave of Windows devices to arrive that come powered by ARM-based processors. Back at CES, Lenovo made the first splash with the new Miix 630. A seemingly normal entry in the company’s Miix lineup in terms of its looks, this tablet comes powered by a Snapdragon 835 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. I’ve been testing it for the past few weeks to see just how well Windows on Snapdragon works.
In a nutshell, it provides a pretty great experience, but it definitely could use some work.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s dig into the nitty-gritty. The Miix 630 ships as a standalone tablet with a keyboard cover and stylus in the box. The tablet has pogo pins that connect it to the keyboard, while the pen uses Bluetooth to connect and allow for drawing, note-taking, and navigating Windows. This is in direct comparison to what Microsoft’s Surface Pro offers in its box which, by the way, is just the tablet and nothing more. Therefore, I really appreciate the fact Lenovo bundles everything you need right in the box.
Taking the tablet out of the box, you’ll immediately notice just how thin it is. Lenovo says it’s just 7.3mm thin and you can certainly tell from the moment you handle it. Three of its sides are squared off and feel kind of sharp in your hand, while the bottom where the pogo pins are located is actually rounded off and adds a good level of comfort for handling the device in portrait mode. It also weighs just 1.7 pounds without the keyboard attached which makes it perfect for holding while, say, watching a movie.
Along its body, you’ll also find a USB-C port, a headphone jack, dual stereo speakers, a volume rocker, a power button, and a SIM card slot.
Powering up the Miix 630, you’ll immediately notice the 12.3-inch 1920×1280 display. It features a 3:2 aspect ratio which makes it perfect for doing work on. It’s bright, colorful, and easy to see outdoors, although I wish it was a bit higher in resolution.
After powering the device on, you’ll be taken into Windows 10 S where all the magic happens. Our unit came with a Snapdragon 835 processor. It also ships with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Instead of focusing on the RAM and storage which are, quite frankly, good enough for casual use, I want to focus on the Snapdragon processor being used. And to do that, I’m gonna nerd out a little bit. Cool? Good.
So we all know how well Windows 10 runs on a variety of hardware. From Intel Core chipsets to AMD processors and more, by looking at a spec sheet on the web, you can pretty much tell just how well a computer’s gonna run without having to test it in the real world.
For instance, I know an Intel Core i3 will be fine for my mother’s internet browsing, but would probably not offer enough for me and my workflow. On the other hand, an i7 is perfect for my constant switching of apps and thousands of Chrome tabs open at once, while it’s totally overkill for someone who just likes to check Facebook once in a while.
But when it comes to ARM-based chipsets, a vast majority of the public hasn’t been able to get their feet wet and is unlikely familiar with the performance you can expect from something like a Snapdragon 835. So if I were to look up a device I knew was powered by such a processor and read its spec sheet as I gave some impressions, I’d say you’d have to pick and choose your battles.
“Max, that’s such an odd thing to say about a general Windows 10 computer with a special chipset in it,” one might say. “What’s your reasoning behind that statement?”
To put it simply, ARM just isn’t as powerful as x86. It’s built using a RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture, while x86 processors are CISC (Complex Instruction set Architecture). What does all that mumbo-jumbo mean? Essentially, the RISC architecture is designed to handle shorter, less complicated operations such as those that fire off in Android. Meanwhile, CISC is designed to handle much more complex operations that require more power such as those that run in Windows 10. And since ARM isn’t exactly designed to run Windows 10 and vice versa, you run into problems pretty early on.
For instance, the Miix 630 comes with Windows 10 S mode enabled out of the box. This means you can only run apps from the Microsoft Store… and that’s it. You can’t download an EXE file and install whatever app you want from whatever source you want. And quite frankly, this is the mode that gets you the best performance out of the Snapdragon 835 onboard. With its simplistic and locked-down nature, Microsoft was able to optimize some of the core functionality in Windows 10 to better run on ARM hardware, and I have to say, it’s actually pretty smooth day in and day out.
It’s when you opt out of S mode and install Windows 10 Pro you start seeing problems. One of my biggest gripes with S mode is the fact I can’t install Google Chrome, so day one of my review period, I upgraded to Windows 10 Pro in order to install the app. After I did so, I tried using it and found that, since it’s x86-based, it didn’t run very well at all on the Snapdragon 835. Other browsers like Firefox and Vivaldi didn’t run well, either.
What I wound up using was Microsoft Edge after I changed the default search engine to Google because only savages use Bing and like it. (Side note: you can’t change the search engine in Windows 10 S. That really sent me over the edge and basically forced me to get out of S mode.) During my testing, I found the experience using Microsoft’s built-in browser actually usable. Sure, you aren’t getting i5 or i7 speeds here, but it sort of feels like you’re using something like a 7th-generation Intel Core i3 clocked a bit lower than normal. And, quite frankly, speeds like that are reasonable enough to handle a good portion of my workload. Plus, Edge has gotten better with recent updates so I didn’t really mind using the browser as a whole.
But this is what I mean when I say you have to pick and choose your battles. You can either keep the device in S mode and only use apps from the Microsoft Store (and use Bing for the rest of your life) or opt out and install your own apps that probably won’t run very well. For me, I kind of struck a balance between the two where I just use Edge with Google as my search engine. I also have some apps installed from other sources like a watermarking software for my review photography, but other than these few programs, I’ve kind of just stuck with using the device as a writing computer and not anything more like editing videos or photos, even if you do find an app for it in the Microsoft Store.
Okay, back to English. I’ve been absolutely itching to talk about the battery life of the Miix 630. With its 48 Wh cell onboard, I’m getting anywhere from 16 to 20 hours of usage on a single charge. This is all thanks to the optimizations Qualcomm’s ARM-based processor provides since it really only requires a phone-sized battery to last a good while. Thankfully, Lenovo was able to fit a pretty decent sized unit inside, and it definitely paid off.
Another perk with the Miix 630 is its built-in LTE compatibility. I said it came with a SIM slot for a reason: you can pop in your SIM card and access the internet by using your existing data plan. There’s even an eSIM inside which lets you purchase a separate plan for the machine. Plus, Lenovo gives all buyers 1GB of LTE data a month for a whole year for free as an introductory offer. Sure, that’s not very much data, but at least you’ll get to try out the feature to see if it’s worth paying for.
To me, I find the always-connected nature of the Miix 630 one if its best features. You really don’t know how convenient having internet wherever you go on a machine as big and powerful as the Miix 630 is until you give it a go for yourself. Data speeds are even as fast as on your phone which lets you work even in no-Wi-Fi zones. Overall, I really can’t see myself going back to a Wi-Fi-only laptop to carry around to coffee shops and road trips.
But that’s not all the Snapdragon 835 enables in the Miix 630. In addition to being always-connected and having insane battery life, the tablet also features always-on compatibility which lets the computer enter sleep mode while still receiving emails, texts, Skype calls, and more just like your phone. Plus, the moment you fold down the keyboard from the display, the screen wakes up and is ready to be unlocked which I’ve found to be one of my favorite features of the entire device.
Speaking of which, to unlock the Miix 630, Lenovo built in IR cameras to enable facial recognition through Windows Hello. They work extremely well and have successfully identified my face 95 percent of the time. The only times where it seemed to struggle was when I didn’t look at it from the right angle or location. Other than these infrequent occurrences, however, I had no problems with security.
As far as the keyboard case goes, the keys are comfortable to type on and offer a good amount of travel to leave you feeling satisfied after you typed up a 500-word essay. The pen is also very accurate and offers 1,024 points of pressure for artists to create better drawings and doodles.
The speakers on the Miix 630 are also pretty decent. I’m a little disappointed in the amount of bass the dual speakers offer, but they do get pretty loud and sound clear even at higher volumes. There are also far-field microphones for controlling Cortana from across the room which come in handy if, y’know, you actually use Cortana for anything but looking up a file on your computer.
I really have no complaints about the Miix 630. Its display is great, the speakers are loud and clear, the battery lasts forever, there’s built-in LTE support, facoail recognition is reliable, it charges over USB-C, there’s a headphone jack – I mean, from a hardware perspective, there’s nothing to complain about.
It’s when you speak about Windows running on the Snapdragon 835 you start to have problems. No, you can’t run apps like Google Chrome and expect to get a great experience out of them because they’re simply not ready for the hardware. Sure, they can run, but they’re gonna be awful slow when compared to Microsoft’s built-in apps.
Therefore, if Lenovo asked me what parts about the Miix 630 I think they should improve on, I would just say work on refining the experience of using ARM processors with Windows. It’s early days of Windows on ARM and I expect the experience to get better as time progresses. Other than that, though, the Miix 630 is a killer device as it is right now.
Is it worth the $850 price tag? That I’m not quite sure about. If it were priced at $700, I could see someone picking it up as a side computer or their grab-and-go device when traveling. But at $150 shy of $1,000, it’s probably best to hold off for something better. I mean, Lenovo’s got the new Yoga C630 WOS coming out soon that features the new Snapdragon 850. That chip is said to offer better performance than the 835 and will probably give you a better value for your money.
Of course, the C630 isn’t a tablet at heart and opts for a more streamlined 2-in-1 design. Therefore, if you want a good Windows tablet with a keyboard and offers all the possibilities that Windows on Snapdragon packs, get the Miix 630. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret your decision, even though the experience isn’t perfect just yet.