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Is Qualcomm's Snapdragon X Elite PC chip legit? We ask the experts

Qualcomm Snapdragon logoImage: Mark Hachman / IDG

Qualcomm is back. Grudgingly, maybe. Tentatively. But yes, it’s back.

Reporters talk. So do analysts. Anyone who attends a media event in the technology space does their own reporting, draws their own conclusions. And we all shared the same experiences in a small bubble on Maui. But yes, a few years of struggling to convince the world that Windows on Arm (Qualcomm) could work, Qualcomm seems to be back on track in laptops, thanks to the Oryon CPU and the Snapdragon X Elite chip.

This matters. For generations, Qualcomm overpromised and underdelivered. Reporters (I, among them) headed to Maui with concerns that it would happen yet again.

Three things changed that. One, the numbers. Qualcomm projected a sense of confidence in eye-popping numbers that could double Intel’s performance in various categories. Yes, there are caveats: Intel’s 14th-gen Core chips aren’t out yet, and the Snapdragon X Elite won’t blow its competition out of the water across the board. Still, putting out big numbers and then letting reporters confirm them builds confidence.

Second: partners. We expected Lenovo, HP, and Microsoft to show up. But Dell? Acer? Asus? That’s a broad swath of the PC industry, and it means all of the leading PC makers could offer an Arm laptop next year. That’s worth paying attention to.

Mark Hachman / IDG

The third: battery and AI. I am still not wholly convinced that on-device AI will resonate with a consumer market that’s being told that a.) AI art is stealing and b.) ChatGPT is a tool for cheating as much as learning. But Qualcomm is still touting multiday battery life, and competitive performance plus long battery life is still a winner.

But don’t ask me. I waited until everyone had seen everything, then asked some of the top analysts to get their take. Here’s a synopsis of what they had to say.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite chips promise major PC performanceQualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite chip attracts unprecedented PC partnershipsTested: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite CPU looks like a legit Intel rivalQualcomm’s new Snapdragon is the chip we begged Intel to make

Can Qualcomm pull this off? Should Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite platform be taken seriously?

Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst, Creative Strategies: “I think they can [pull it off]. I think that the market is very hungry right now…and that Qualcomm itself has changed. I think that they’re a bit more humble than they were when they started this, thinking that because they were so successful in mobile, that they didn’t need help. I think they started listening more, especially to the OEMs. For me what is different compared to three years ago is how much Microsoft is committed to actually pulling this off.”

Bob O’Donnell, president, founder and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research: “They wanted to make a splash and I think they did. I think that they’re going to get a lot of attention, get people saying, all right, this is real, and I can start thinking about building apps this way. And remember, there are two elements: there’s Oryon, and then there’s the NPU. It’s a one-two punch…and a pretty impressive combination.

“A lot will very much depend on Microsoft getting their act together, but they seem extremely committed to it. So I do think it’s going to be the real deal.”

Patrick Moorhead, founder and chief analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy: “As an analyst, I need to be careful what I say here. But what I’ve seen so far is I believe that this is legitimate. The entire platform’s not done; we need to see the operating system and all the apps…but I’ve seen enough to know that this is the real deal. When they come to market around the middle of the year, even though everyone else will have their stuff, I do think that when it comes to performance per watt, and the AI power of the NPU, they’re going to have an advantage.”

Fuad Abazovic, founder of AC Analysis: “It’s a very, very good product. The problem that they will have is ‘go-to-market.” AMD is still struggling with go-to-market, and they already have the same problem that AMD has had for the last decade.”

Mark Hachman / IDG

Dr. Ian Cutress, chief analyst at More than Moore: “Windows on Snapdragon has been a thing for what, five, six years, and the main thing holding it back above anything software has been raw performance. And now Qualcomm have that. It’s taken a while to get there, but that’s given them time to finish the software.

“I’ve heard rumors of like 17 devices coming at Computex with this chip. I think that’s more than all other Windows on Snapdragon devices put together. So they’re going at it in a big way — and the fact is that they’ve said that this is a multigenerational roadmap, using the bones of the core for future generations. The only way is up.”

If Qualcomm ends up stumbling, how will that happen? Where can it all go wrong?

Dr. Ian Cutress: “In the past, at Qualcomm if you didn’t make money, you got cut…so now it’s been over three years since the acquisition, and this is the first chip. So where is this going to make money? And will it be at the same margins as the rest of Qualcomm? And how long can that continue?”

“But I think that Cristiano [Amon], the CEO, even if it doesn’t perform that well in the market, he’ll keep it around for the long term. He has a goal. He has a plan. And the software part of the equation is pretty much getting there.”

Fuad Abazovic: “By the time they [Qualcomm] ship, Intel will have millions of Meteor Lake chips shipped. They [Qualcomm] will definitely get a seat at the table, but it’s a multi-year, multi-job approach. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Patrick Moorhead: “I think it’s the unknowns, right? I mean, you need an operating system that can take advantage, natively run stuff quickly on the CPU side. But also for developers to plug into AI, the AI frameworks, and then you’ve got the X86-to-Arm instruction translation — that needs to be a lot better than it has been over the past few years. I do think Microsoft is taking this very seriously.”

“For the last two years, they’ve seen what Apple was able to do with its own Arm-based processor, and they’re going to be compared to things like Rosetta.”

Bob O’Donnell: “So if anything could go wrong, it would simply be that they make this huge push and then people are like, okay. Cool. [He shrugs.] Not like, okay, cool shit. Like, I gotta have it. You know what I mean? So that’s really my only concern.”

Carolina Milanesi, specifically responding a question about performance concerns: “I don’t think people are going to get hung up on that. And Apple is right there in terms of showing what they can do [with Arm].

“But if you look at what Rosetta 2 is doing for Apple, you don’t really have compatibility issues. And just running like that without things like optimization, things run well.”

Assume that it’s mid-2024, and Snapdragon X Elite platforms are rolling out. How will AMD and Intel respond?

Bob O’Donnell: “They’re going to be throwing all sort of FUD about compatibility — you know that’s what they’re going to say, right? How much software they have running on their platforms. And they’re not wrong.

“Intel’s volume is going to be super high. And AMD’s will be a lot softer. And then there’s these guys, with Microsoft. How loud will their voices be? What volume, in that conversation [with customers]?”

“And you know, AMD and Intel are going to have parts eventually that are close, then Qualcomm will jump ahead. The question will be, at what point will everything be good enough that they don’t need that huge differentiation?”

Mark Hachman / IDG

Patrick Moorhead: “Intel really got the jump, talking hardcore about what they’re calling the AI PC. And they rolled out, I think that 100-ISP program–which by the way, I think is clever. I think, though, that Qualcomm will still have the performance provider advantage and an NPU advantage.

“AMD is coming in hardcore with the [Ryzen AI] platform that kind of came out of nowhere. It’s not vaporware, either; it’s the real deal. And I think my question for both of them is are they going to have the software support that they need on the NPU in a year? I think that Microsoft has their hands full right now and I this is why I think that that they will have that advantage. I don’t know if it’s going to be three months or six months or nine months. But I think it’s going to be an advantage.”

Dr. Ian Cutress: “So Intel, AMD and Qualcomm will iterate that established platforms matter for people who want to be efficient. You know, it’s there’s a penalty for adopting a new platform. Even though Qualcomm is still offering Windows, Arm on Windows means that both Intel and AMD on one side and Apple on the other will argue separately about either ecosystem or adaptability.

“And one thing that they may pull out of their hat is that all of this new AI PC-related hardware from third parties is going to be optimized on X86 first, not on Arm first. And Qualcomm has to actually, you know, spend the money to get this to happen, by going to developers and saying can you make an Arm port, we’ll pay you! That’s not uncommon in this industry. So, over the next 24 months I think it’s going to be a focus on AI acceleration within the PC.”

Editor’s Note: To gain access to Qualcomm’s new Oryon and Snapdragon X Elite platform, Qualcomm offered to pay for PCWorld for room, board and airfare at its Snapdragon Technology Summit. PCWorld accepted, but maintained editorial control of its content.

As PCWorld’s senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.

Recent stories by Mark Hachman:

AMD gains big in desktop CPUs versus Intel in first quarter 2024No, Intel isn’t recommending baseline power profiles to fix crashing CPUsApple claims its M4 chip’s AI will obliterate PCs. Nah, not really

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