Qualcomm is pushing connectivity to cheaper computers but still faces hurdles

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Qualcomm’s 8C chip targets less expensive laptops. 


Qualcomm

The day before Qualcomm kicked off its Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii, rival Intel invited reporters to take a short drive. It had rented a $2,500-a-night villa in a nearby hotel, and it wanted to show how computers using its chips compared to those with Qualcomm processors.

Intel had demos running in one of the rooms, showing how much faster tasks like converting a PowerPoint to a PDF were on the $749 Surface Pro 7 versus the $999 Surface Pro X. The Surface Pro 7 has an x86 Intel chip, while the other machine uses an Arm-based processor co-developed by Qualcomm and Microsoft. 

The message: Intel may have exited the 5G phone business, but it still dominates the market for PCs. Its motto touts “Windows without compromise,” a dig at the inability for Qualcomm-powered machines to keep up with the performance of Intel computers or to run certain apps. Those shortcomings have been highlighted not just by Intel but also by many tech reviewers.

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Despite efforts by Qualcomm and Microsoft, PCs running the same kind of processors that power phones haven’t really caught on with consumers. They may have great battery life and constant connectivity, but they haven’t been able to match the performance of processors from Intel and AMD. There are also software compatibility issues because the programs that are built for traditional x86 chips don’t work on Arm chips like those from Qualcomm. 

“On a Snapdragon-powered machine, you just don’t know if the apps will work,” said Ryan Shrout, Intel’s chief performance strategist and a former journalist who attended Qualcomm’s first Snapdragon conference in 2017 in Hawaii. “On x86-based platforms [from Intel or AMD], you don’t have that problem.”

Qualcomm this week is hosting its third-annual Snapdragon Tech Summit. Though much of the conference has focused on smartphones and the spread of 5G, Qualcomm saved the third day of its event to talk up its push into newer areas. That includes its efforts in virtual and augmented reality, and of course, computers. The company’s vision is laptops that are more like smartphones — always connected to a cellular network and lasting all day on a single charge. It’s something the industry and consumers want, but the first devices haven’t lived up to the promises. 

Qualcomm last year introduced a processor, the 8cx, for high-end cellular-connected laptops. This year, it’s releasing two new chips for cheaper Windows computers. The Snapdragon 8c and 7c processors bring 4G LTE, all-day battery life and thin and light designs to mainstream and entry-level notebooks. 

“We’re taking these premium experiences to more price points and performance levels with our partners,” Miguel Nunes, Qualcomm senior director of product management for compute products, said Thursday at the Snapdragon Tech Summit. “We believe that everyone deserves a modern PC experience.”

Notably, for a company that can’t stop talking about 5G, Thursday’s computer chip announcement from Qualcomm had little to do with the super-fast new network. Its new computer chips only run LTE, though the higher-end 8cx pairs with its X55 modem.

Qualcomm hopes these three processors will chip away at Intel’s core PC market. Though Intel’s criticisms of Qualcomm-powered Windows machines may be valid, its presence in Hawaii, next door to the Snapdragon Tech Summit, shows that Intel’s also concerned about its rival.

“Intel recognizes the connected PC becomes a much more important story” than in the past, Technalysis Research analyst Bob O’Donnell said. “For people who are concentrating on connected PCs, they think Qualcomm is a great solution. Yes, but there are things you need to be aware of.”

So far, it’s mainly been Qualcomm telling that story. It’s not exactly what you’d call a bestseller. 

Always-connected PCs

Long the world’s biggest maker of chips for wireless devices, Qualcomm’s aim is to bring smartphone features to laptops, like all-day or even multiple-day battery life and constant 4G LTE connectivity. People spend an increasing amount of time on their phones and less time on their PCs, and they’re holding onto computers for much longer than their smartphones. 

Seven years ago, Qualcomm worked with Microsoft and a handful of computer makers on devices that ran a hobbled version of Windows, called Windows RT. They quickly abandoned those Windows RT devices, but over the past several years, they’ve revitalized the efforts to put smartphone chips in computers.

Two years ago, Qualcomm unveiled its renewed push. The first two devices announced at its 2017 Snapdragon Technology Summit, 2-in-1 laptops from HP and Asus, promised more than 20 hours of battery life, always-on connectivity and the ability to instantly wake up. And importantly, they were meant to run full Windows and use ordinary Windows apps. They used the Arm-based Snapdragon 835 processor and the X16 modem. Subsequent models got a speed boost with Snapdragon 850, a more powerful smartphone chip.

Last year, Qualcomm unveiled its first processor designed specifically for computers, called the Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform. The chip is powerful but also power efficient, giving users multiple days of battery life on a single charge. As a result, many PC makers have started using Qualcomm chips. That includes Samsung and its Galaxy Book S, which was unveiled in August and runs on the 8cx. The ultrathin, ultralight laptop has a 13.3-inch touchscreen and boasts 23 hours of battery life. It also has built-in LTE.

Next year, the 8cx will pair with the X55 modem for 5G computers. Lenovo earlier this year said it would make such a device

“5G will accelerate a new wave of computing,” Nicole Dezen, Microsoft vice president of device partner sales, said Thursday during the Tech Summit keynote. “There’s a significant opportunity for devices to take advantage of processing very high volumes of data at much faster speeds.”

In October, Microsoft too became one of the companies to introduce a Windows computer with Qualcomm technology. It worked with the chipmaker to develop a variant of the Snapdragon 8cx, called the SQ1, for the Surface Pro X tablet. At the time it was announced, Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s modern life, search and devices group, told CNET the SQ1 gives the Surface Pro X “incredible power.

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Microsoft’s Surface Pro X uses a custom chip from Microsoft and Qualcomm.


Sarah Tew/CNET

But the Surface Pro X and other Windows on Arm devices haven’t lived up to their promise. The biggest problem has been software. Many popular games and other apps don’t work on the Arm-based Windows PCs. One big holdout has been Adobe, maker of Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere Pro, Illustrator and many other apps used by creative types. But Adobe shared Microsoft’s stage at the unveiling of the Surface Pro X to demonstrate its new Fresco drawing app on the Surface Pro X and commit to bringing more of its Creative Cloud software suite along too.

Countless other apps still don’t work with the Windows on Arm PCs, though, and the device makers haven’t yet made the gadgets powerful enough to compete with x86 machines. 

“The physical redesign is spot on, but diving deeper into the hardware specs and a confusing price structure, there’s a lot that makes me scratch my head,” CNET’s Dan Ackerman wrote in his review of the Surface Pro X. “It’s underpowered relative to Intel-based tablets, it charges too much for its must-have accessories, and software support is hit or miss.”

He wasn’t the only tech expert to criticize the Surface Pro X. Its sleek design was praised by many reviewers, but the software experience was almost universally panned. 

Pushing ahead

For Qualcomm at this week’s Snapdragon Tech Summit, the focus is about moving its chips to more Windows PCs and laptops, not necessarily addressing the problems with the current ones. 

This year, Qualcomm has two new chips for cheaper Windows devices. Its Snapdragon 7c is for entry-level devices. The company says the chip brings a 25% performance improvement and twice the battery life of competing chips from Intel and AMD. It also features Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X15 LTE modem.

The Snapdragon 8c boasts a 30% improvement in performance over the Snapdragon 850, the last chip designed for smartphones that Qualcomm sold to PC makers. The 8c also includes Qualcomm’s X24 modem that enables multi-gigabit 4G LTE connectivity speeds for “seamless cloud computing.” 

It’s the push toward doing more online that Qualcomm hopes will help the always-connected PC.

“When you do something new, you have to go through the learning process,” Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said Tuesday, calling the Surface X “an incredible device” during a roundtable with journalists at the Snapdragon Tech Summit. “You have the might of Microsoft to make that device the model PC of the enterprise, and with that we’re gonna address the things that we never could address in the past.”

Even Intel is starting to embrace cellular connectivity in PCs. Last week, it said it would partner with Qualcomm’s wireless chip rival MediaTek to develop 5G chips for computers in 2021.

While Qualcomm has put Intel in its crosshairs, it still has more to do to truly be a threat in PCs and deliver something that’s as essential as a smartphone. But Intel’s still got that Hawaiian villa.

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