Qualcomm aims straight at Intel with 8cx chip, its first 7nm CPU for PCs

If it’s up to Qualcomm, Windows PCs are about to get even more phonelike and powerful.

The company on Thursday unveiled its first processor designed specifically for computers, called the Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform.

The processor aims to provide a big leap over Qualcomm’s year-ago efforts in 2-in-1 laptops. At that time, partners like HP and Asus used Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 mobile processor — built for phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S8 — to give their devices the smarts and connectivity speed traditionally found only in smartphones.   

The aim of always-connected PCs is to bring smartphone features to computers, 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. The answer for Microsoft and traditional PC makers has been to turn computers into something more like phones.

The always-connected PC “delivers freedom,” Sanjay Mehta, senior vice president of Qualcomm’s compute products group, said Thursday during a keynote at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit in Hawaii. “Freedom to be connected anywhere. Freedom to realize your PC is going to last for days in a secure and connected manner.”

Qualcomm this week is hosting the Snapdragon Technology Summit in Hawaii. The company unveiled its newest mobile smartphone chip and talked up opportunities for 5G. Partners like Samsung, OnePlus, Verizon and AT&T have detailed plans for 5G devices and networks in 2019. Samsung, for instance, said it’ll launch 5G phones in the US in the first half of 2019. OnePlus announced its first 5G phone, which will go to Europe.

For Qualcomm, PCs mark a potential new business at a time when the smartphone market has slowed. They also give the company an opportunity to encroach on rival Intel’s traditional core business of PCs. Intel has struggled to move to the latest manufacturing technology, which has given makers of smartphone chips an edge when it comes to battery life and even speed in some cases.

The Snapdragon 8cx “is really the best expression they’ve been able to do so far of designing something to the specific requirements of the PC industry,” said Technalysis analyst Bob O’Donnell. “This time around, they re-architected things in such a way that they can deliver performance they claim can match mainstream Intel.” 

So when will the chip actually appear in devices? Just in time for back-to-school shopping next year, in the third quarter of 2019. And Mehta said, “To be clear, 5G is coming to this form factor. You’ll see it in 2019.” 

7nm in Windows PCs

The Snapdragon 8cx, like Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 for smartphones, is built using 7-nanometer process technology, the most advanced technique available today. A key part of semiconductor manufacturing is shrinking the components called transistors, extraordinarily tiny electronic switches that process data for everything from microwave oven clocks to artificial intelligence algorithms running in our phones. The smaller the transistors, the better the battery life and performance.

Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, found in the iPhone XS and XS Max, became the world’s first mass-produced 7nm processor when it launched in September. An upgraded version, the A12X, powers the new iPad Pro.

No Windows computers yet have 7nm chips that act as the brains of the devices. Intel, the world’s biggest provider of PC chips, is still struggling to move to 10nm, the previous process node. Previously the chip manufacturing leader, Intel has delayed high-volume production of its 10nm technology by about three years, to 2019. AMD, Intel’s chief rival in PCs and one of the world’s biggest makers of graphics chips, has developed a 7nm GPU.

“They’re facing more challenges than they ever have,” O’Donnell said of Intel. “Between a strong AMD and interesting new opportunities from Qualcomm, it does make things more challenging for them. At the same time, we can’t forget how dominant they are.”

Early efforts

The Snapdragon 8cx is the latest effort by Qualcomm to break in to the traditional PC market. Six 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 couple of years, they revitalized the efforts to put smartphone chips in computers.

At last year’s Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm unveiled its renewed push. The first two devices announced at the event, 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 ran full Windows and could use ordinary Windows apps. They used the Snapdragon 835 processor and the X16 modem.

Since then, three more devices have hit store shelves, including Samsung’s Galaxy Book 2. The newer devices tapped into the Snapdragon 850, a more powerful smartphone chip.

Qualcomm will continue to offer the Snapdragon 850 for computer-laptop hybrids that are less high-end than those using the 8cx.

Always-connected PCs have been slow to catch on with consumers, and the early devices have been criticized by reviewers, like CNET’s Dan Ackerman. He said “the Asus NovaGo makes good use of its Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 brain for long battery life and always-on cellular, but the performance feels more like a phone than laptop.” He noted there were too many compromises to make for all-day battery life.

Services boost

Though early devices ran full Windows and could use ordinary Windows apps, they didn’t work quite as promised. That’s something Qualcomm and its partners are hoping to change with the 8cx. 

The chip will now support Microsoft Windows 10 Enterprise. 

“We firmly believe connectivity is the backbone of the modern workplace,” Erin Chapple, Microsoft corporate vice president, said Thursday at Qualcomm’s conference. When Microsoft services and software combine with Qualcomm’s chips, “we can really move the industry forward to help our customers with their digital transformation and leverage all of the great 5G investments now and ahead.”

Always-connected PCs using the new Snapdragon 8cx chip will soon be able to tap into the native Firefox browser and other apps and services.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Qualcomm also has been working with Mozilla to optimize the Firefox browser for the Snapdragon platform with an ARM64 version. It plans to launch that “soon.” The Snapdragon 8cx processor also will support Amazon’s Alexa digital voice assistant, as well as Microsoft’s Cortana.

“What Qualcomm announced today with 8cx is huge,” said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. “A very small percentage of notebooks are truly mobile and connected. Qualcomm is removing nearly all objections of a connected PC.”

Underneath the hood

The Snapdragon 8cx packs an eight-core Kryo 495 CPU, which serves as the brains of a device, is the fastest chip ever designed by Qualcomm and allows for quicker multitasking. The integrated AI engine lets users perform intensive queries.

The chip features Qualcomm’s new Adreno 680 GPU and doubles the memory interface, letting users access sharp graphics for gaming and other uses. The GPU is twice as fast as its predecessor and 60 percent more power efficient. And the chip supports 4K HDR video playback at 120 frames per second for streaming content. 

At the same time, Qualcomm designed the 8cx to sip power, giving users multiple days of battery life on a single charge. And it uses Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 4+ technology, to quickly recharge the devices when the battery’s running low.

It also supports second-generation USB 3.1 over Type C, letting users connect up to two 4K HDR monitors to their device.  

“The 8cx is the most extreme Snapdragon we’ve ever created,” Miguel Nunes, Qualcomm senior director of product management, said during Thursday’s keynote. “Extreme performance, extreme battery life and extreme connectivity.”

CNET’s Jessica Dolcourt contributed to this report.

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