Microsoft’s PC in the cloud makes your device (almost) irrelevant

By | December 25, 2023

Windows 365, you may have read, is a new, virtual way to have a Windows computer. It’s PC hardware that sits in the cloud – in Microsoft’s Azure cloud service, to be precise – that you rent by the month and log into from any old device with a web browser (or, better yet, not with a web browser, but more on that in a moment).

The idea is you get to operate a full-blown, fairly powerful Windows PC from anywhere you are, from any device with a screen, mouse and keyboard.

Microsoft’s idea is that it will be good for contractors and casual workers – whose workplace can set them up on a new Windows machine without actually having to get a new Windows machine – and for workers who need to take their work home with them, but need to pick up where they left off when they change locations.

Which is exactly how I’m using my Windows 365 computer. I use it downstairs on a Mac, in the freezing cold office here in the Digital Life Labs, and when my feet turn to ice I move upstairs, log into the same Windows 365 machine from an old, underpowered Windows PC, picking up where I left off exactly.

The confusing thing is, I’m here in Sydney, but when I set up my Windows 365 machine via the Microsoft website, the machine got set up in an Azure data centre in Singapore.

I didn’t get to choose the location. That’s just where my computer ended up.

That’s bothersome, not because all the localisation settings (such as weather) are set to Singapore – that’s something I could fix if I was really bothered by it – but because every time I tap on my keyboard or move my mouse here in Sydney, that command has to go all the way up to Singapore, act upon the PC in the data centre there, and then come all the way back down to me in the form of a change on the screen.

That’s known as “latency”, and at 190 milliseconds round trip, it’s enough to make my Windows 365 machine feel just a little sluggish. There’s a tiny delay between typing a letter into the keyboard in front of me, and it appearing on the screen in front of me.

If my Windows 365 machine had been here in Australia (and Microsoft tells me that’s what should happen when Australians subscribe to the service), I believe it would be utterly indistinguishable from operating a PC that’s right here in front of me.

Frankly, I’m amazed it’s as good as it is, given the distance everything has to travel back and forth.

Well, maybe not utterly indistinguishable. Maybe just mostly indistinguishable. There are a few oddities about my Windows 365 machine, that do remind me that it’s not quite like any other PC I’ve operated.

For starters, if you use it from a web browser, the virtual screen in the browser will probably be a little blurry, compared to what your physical screen is capable of.

Much better is to use Windows 365 from inside a Microsoft app known as “Remote Desktop”, and better yet use it from a Windows PC running Remote Desktop, rather than from a Mac, iPad or Android device. Non-Windows versions of Remote Desktop never seem to be quite as sharp as the Windows version.

(I just double-checked that observation by logging in from an Android tablet, which is what I am using to write to you now. When I moved from my old Windows PC to this tablet, everything in the Windows 365 computer was exactly where I left it, right down to the cursor position in this document.)

The other oddity about Windows 365 is that the computer it’s housed on up in Singapore (and also one in LA I’ve also been using, which has ever worse latency) has no graphics card.

Now, Microsoft isn’t pitching Windows 365 as a virtual gaming PC, so it doesn’t need a graphics card in that sense.

But it is pitching Windows 365 as a platform for software developers – it’s really, really tedious setting up a computer for “dev”, and the idea of having a PC that you set up just once, and then use from anywhere, has a lot of appeal – and the absence of a graphics card could be a show-stopper for them.

Android Studio, for instance, requires a graphics card to run virtual Android phones, and that fairly essential feature of Android Studio just won’t run on Windows 365.

(Just as an aside, Microsoft says it’s put a lot of work into getting local hardware, such as printers, to work with the remote Windows 365 PC. All the printers here in the Digital Life Labs in Sydney are available inside my Windows 365 PC in Singapore, for instance.

But it hasn’t done quite enough work on that feature to satisfy me. When I plug an Android phone into my old PC here in Sydney, it doesn’t show up inside Android Studio running in Singapore. Between that, and the absence of a graphics card, the Singapore machine is all-but-useless to me as an Android development platform.)


We can never get speeds like this with physical computers here in the Labs. 

It’s a shame about the missing graphics card because, other than that, my computer in Singapore is really, really fast. It’s got an internet connection to die for (typically around 1000mbps download, and 3000 mbps upload) (yes, 3000!), and its workstation-grade processor (a 2.6GHz Intel Xeon Platinum 8272CL, for what it’s worth) performs well.

That said, we do wish there were more powerful configuration options available than the 2-core, 4-thread option that was the best available at the time of writing.

Anyway, the net of all this is that it’s a slightly incongruous machine to use. Downloads are fast. Uploads are fast. Software builds I’ve been doing on it are reasonably fast, too.

Everything zips along, for the mouse and keyboard, which has this tiny lag in it that makes it feel … well, it feels a little soggy.

It must be the weather.