Even after a few years of trying, Windows PCs running on Arm architecture have never matched the power and performance that Apple managed almost immediately with its M1 chip last year. Now Qualcomm is hoping to change that – or at least close the gap a little – with the latest generation of its always-on, always-connected PC chips.
The Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 and the cheaper 7c+ Gen 3 were unveiled today at the company’s annual Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii. The first 5nm chip designed for Windows devices, the 8cx Gen 3 is expected to power the next generation of high-end 5G laptops, including premium Chromebooks.
Thanks to changes in CPU architecture including the introduction of a faster prime core and upgrades to the slowest efficiency cores to match the speeds of the Gen 2’s performance components, Qualcomm says that the Gen 3 is 40 percent faster than its predecessor at single-thread workloads, and 85 percent faster at multi-threaded tasks.
Those CPU boosts are paired with upgrades to the Adreno GPU, with 60 percent performance gains according to the company. Graphical performance was always a weakness for Qualcomm laptops in the past so it remains to be seen how far this will really take the new devices, but it should help make them a more compelling option for photo and video editing, and perhaps even gaming – Qualcomm says the chip can run games in full HD resolution at 120 frames per second, though which games is another question entirely.
All these performance games raise the risk that Qualcomm is compromising on one of its existing strengths: excellent battery life. The company says otherwise, insisting that 8cx Gen 3 devices will still be capable of running for over 25 hours on a single charge – comfortably surpassing most Intel or AMD laptops, and still a touch beyond Apple’s M1 machines.
The bigger edge perhaps is networking. Instead of using an integrated modem Qualcomm has made the Gen 3 compatible with three of its existing modems – the X55, X62, and X65 – giving manufacturers a choice of specs to hit and a little more flexibility in price points. All three are 5G-compatible, and at the top end also support the latest Wi-Fi 6E standard.
Qualcomm also wants to leverage more of its smartphone expertise in its next laptops. Part of that comes down to more use of AI and machine learning, with an amped up AI core designed to enable things like low-power face detection for auto-wake, and noise cancellation for voice calls that can be handled without any CPU or GPU load.
Provoked in part by the pandemic, there's also an emphasis on cameras. Most webcams suck, but with support for cameras up to 24Mp - and even multiple cameras - Qualcomm hopes that we'll soon start seeing improved webcam and Zoom call experiences on the new Snapdragon laptops.
None of these changes address the biggest challenge for previous Windows-on-Snapdragon devices, which has been software compatibility. This has been slowly improving but remains unpredictable, though it is mostly out of Qualcomm’s control of course.
The arrival of Windows 11 should improve things. Thanks to a built in 64-bit emulator in the OS, "most people should not see any issues," according to Qualcomm's senior director of product management Miguel Nunes, adding that "a lot of that's resolved," by the latest Windows version.
Still, even Nunes admits that there's a gap between getting apps to run and getting them to run well, so more work is still needed on software optimisation for the Arm chips. There’s some light on the horizon here though.
Apple’s phenomenal success with its own move into Arm chips in the M1, and recently released M1X found in the new MacBook Pros, has driven a resurgence of work into Windows Arm devices. And with Qualcomm’s recently revealed exclusivity contract expiring, the door is open for other chip companies to move in - bad news for Qualcomm in one sense, but good news if it helps encourage more developers to bake in software support for the architecture.
Qualcomm is certainly committed at least. Alongside the 8cx Gen 3 it unveiled the less powerful 7c+ Gen 3, a 6nm chipset designed for entry-level Windows laptops and Chromebooks. Importantly, this is the first chip at that tier to include 5G support, meaning we could soon see 5G laptops at budget price points.
The first laptops powered by the two chips are expected to arrive sometime in the first half of next year, and Nunes teased that we should hear from manufacturers "very soon," and "probably" at CES 2022 in January. While we don’t know specific devices yet, expect the likes of Acer, Samsung, and HP to jump on board.
This year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has been a busy one. After launching the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 smartphone platform yesterday, today Qualcomm also unveiled the Snapdragon G3x Gen 1 gaming chipset, along with a developer kit for a Nintendo Switch-style Android gaming device built in conjunction with Razer.