Have you heard the phrase “converting poison into medicine?” Well, that’s kind of what is happening to the PC industry now. Let me explain. Not too long ago, the rise of powerful smartphones and tablets, which were primarily powered by ARM processors, decimated the PC market. Interestingly, the tenets of smartphones – always connected, long battery-life, thin and light weight— that caused the downfall of PCs are bringing life back into them. The introduction of ultra-thin laptops and 2-in-1s are making PCs get their mojo back. In early December 2018, Qualcomm announced a major step in this smatsphonifcation of laptops. Their new world’s first 7nm Snapdragon 8cx compute platform not only embodies all those hallmark characteristics of a smartphone, but also will provide the performance that will meet or exceed that of traditional intel x86 processors. Most importantly Snapdragon 8cx will run the full Windows 10 Enterprise version, and will natively run browsers and many other applications.
Qualcomm dipped their toes into the PC market by creating a new category, aptly named Always Connected PC (ACPC), which used their repurposed mobiles SoCs. They started with Snapdragon 835, followed by Snapdragon 845 and very recently Snapdragon 850. All these were built for Android OS, later optimized for Windows 10 and for computing devices. They had restricted Windows version, and offered limited performance mainly because the applications were run using ARM to x86 translators. They were good enough for use cases with light and simple tasks such as browsing, video etc., but not ready for processor intensive apps or enterprise-grade use cases. But the story is completely different for newly announced Snapdragon 8cx.
Qualcomm said that Snapdragon 8cx is purpose-built from the ground up for computing and Windows 10. Supposedly they have been working on this since 2015! Snapdragon 8cx indeed shares the architecture with, and was announced at the same time as, their flagship Snapdragon 855 mobile SoC. This will naturally attract the skepticism that just like previous version, this platform might also be slightly tweaked version of the mobile SoC. However, when you look closely at the significant difference between the building blocks of the two, it is quite clear that indeed Snapdragon 8cx is a different breed. For example, 8cx has the much more powerful Kryo 495 CPU vs. 485 on Snapdragon 855. The clocking configuration for the eight cores of the CPU is different as well. The Snapdragon 8cx has more advanced Adreno 680 Extreme vs. 640 in the mobile SoC. The Snapdragon 8cx has features that are only found in high-end enterprise laptops, such as support for dual HDR 4k displays, up to 16 GB RAM, NVMe SSD, UFS 3.0 and many more. Most importantly, during the launch event, Microsoft confirmed the Windows 10 Enterprise support for the Snapdragon 8cx, which indeed is a strong vote of confidence to the platform. Additionally, many popular applications such as Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer browsers as well as Gameloft, Hulu and other applications run in the native mode and a wide range of apps are optimized for ARM on Windows.
When you combine these features along with trendsetting X24 LTE modem that provides up to 2 Gbps peak speed, Quick Charge 4, advanced audio capabilities with aptX HD codec, as well as the hallmark ARM features, multiday battery-life, always-on connectivity, I think there is no question that Snapdragon compute platform and ARM architecture is ready for primetime, and is well-equipped to challenge the dominance of Intel x86 based platforms in performance computing. Qualcomm’s claim that Snapdragon 8cx performance is comparable to a competitor (supposedly Intel core I-5) and is delivered at twice the battery-life should send chill down Intel’s spine.
Qualcomm confirmed that Snapdragon 8cx can be integrated with X50 modem for 5G connectivity, But for some reason it didn’t make it a major selling point. Looks like they are worried about the 5G taking away all the goodness of the compute effort, or perhaps there might be laptops which will not support 5G. Qualcomm is tight-lipped about the reasons. In my view, although X24 modem has excellent performance, ACPC with 5G is the ultimate ACPC one could have. After all it’s the “connected” PC, why not supersize it and make it the best on all aspects? Also, the huge capacity gains and efficiency improvements of 5G will enable operators to offer very attractive “always on” unlimited plans.
Coming back to the competitive landscape, ultra-thin PCs are the most profitable tier for Intel. They have had a good run with them so far. Some devices such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro and HP’s Folio have shown that Intel I-5 core processors can be designed into attractive fanlesss laptops with long battery-life, However, most other Intel x-86 based laptops fall much short. With Snapdragon 8cx based laptops planned to hit during second half of 2019, amidst the busy back to school and holiday seasons, it would be interesting to see how Qualcomm and Intel platforms will compete and perform. Come 2020, this will very quickly turn in to not just processors battle but also a 5G battle.
With 5G, the ACPC battle gets even more interesting. Based on Qualcomm’s comments, it seems that they will have 5G based ACPC in the market in early 2020, if not in late 2019. Intel has announced its own 5G connected laptop plans with Sprint. Knowing x-86 performance and their delayed 5G modems, lt will be a tall order for Intel to beat the battery -life and more mature 5G connectivity of Qualcomm ACPCs. With connected ultra-thin, long battery-life laptops continue to gain popularity and Qualcomm catching up in performance, Intel must adapt to extremely fast pace of innovation that smatphinifcaton is bringing to PC industry to compete effectively.