Snapdragon X Elite Can Redefine the Future of Windows Computing

In Short
  • The Snapdragon X Elite is about to debut in May 2024. Microsoft will be the first to release Surface laptops with Qualcomm's PC chipset.
  • We have examined the x86 and ARM architectures and how the latter can improve battery life and thermal performance plaguing the Windows platform for so long.
  • The integrated NPU is another USP of the Snapdragon X Elite chipset which can entice users to get an ARM-based PC.

Qualcomm unveiled the ARM-based Snapdragon X Elite chipset for Windows PCs back in October 2023. Fast forward to now, and we are only a month away from getting our hands on Snapdragon X Elite-powered laptops. In the run-up to the debut, we take a look at the x86 and ARM architectures, the problems plaguing the Windows platform for so long, and what the future holds for ARM-based processors on Windows.

A Brief History of x86 Architecture

The x86 architecture has been powering Windows since the 1980s. Intel developed the first 32-bit architecture processor based on the 8086 microprocessor. Later on, AMD implemented the 64-bit architecture in the early 2000s. Fast forward to today, and a majority of Windows PCs are powered by the x86-64 architecture.

For nearly four decades, the x86 architecture has proven well, scaling performance to meet the demands of modern computing on Windows. However, efficiency has been one of its biggest challenges, leading to more power consumption and heat generation.

While Windows laptops offer good performance, they are also, well, known for offering the worst battery life. In my experience of using Windows laptops for more than a decade, I’ve never seen a laptop offering a battery life of more than 3 to 4 hours. And even if it did at the start, the battery life deteriorates quickly.

Not to mention, the sluggish performance is often compounded by the use of slower HDDs and Microsoft’s increasingly bloated Windows OS. Windows laptops have been meme-fied to the point of being labeled as “hot garbage” and “junkware”.

Windows laptops have been meme-fied to the point of being labeled as “hot garbage” and “junkware”.

The problem became so painfully obvious that everyone started to look for an alternative. Thus, came the ARM architecture that promised unrivaled efficiency and great performance, however, it was initially used on low-compute devices like smartphones. It was dismissed as a replacement for the x86 architecture to deliver desktop-class performance.

The tide turned when Apple announced its in-house Apple M1 chip in 2020, based on the ARM64 architecture, delivering desktop-class performance and unparalleled efficiency. And so the race to reduce power consumption began while delivering better performance. Performance-per-watt became the leading metric to judge a processor.

Transitions to Windows for ARM

Microsoft started adopting the ARM architecture in 2012 with Windows RT. Later in 2017, the Windows on ARM (WoA) platform moved to Windows 10, and till now, Microsoft has launched several devices with Qualcomm’s ARM-based processors. However, the performance was not up to the mark, hence, many PC makers chose to skip ARM processors on their laptops.

history of windows on arm
Image Courtesy: Harshitha Murthy / Microsoft

In a pivotal shift, Qualcomm acquired Nuvia in 2021, the chip design firm founded by ex-Apple engineers who worked on Apple Silicon. Headed by none other than the chief architect of Apple Silicon, Gerard Williams III, the Nuvia team inside Qualcomm started working on ARM-based high-performance CPUs for Windows PCs.

Finally, in October 2023, Qualcomm delivered the Snapdragon X Elite packing the Nuvia-designed Oryon CPU cores. It marked an inflection point for the Windows on ARM platform. Qualcomm demonstrated that the Snapdragon X Elite can rival the best and latest Apple M-series chips, both in performance and efficiency.

Image Courtesy: Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s announcement piqued Apple so much so that the Cupertino giant responded by releasing the Apple M3 chips within a week of the Snapdragon X Elite’s unveiling. By all indications, Qualcomm had really cracked the secret sauce.

Subsequently, PC OEM partners including HP, Dell, Asus, Microsoft, Samsung, Lenovo, and almost all major players announced that they will launch Windows laptops with the Snapdragon X Elite chipset in mid-2024.

Snapdragon X Elite Promises Excellent Battery Life and Performance

Although Snapdragon X Elite is yet to debut, the promising chipset is grabbing headlines all over the media. In fact, Microsoft is so confident in the Snapdragon X Elite’s capabilities that it’s going to release upcoming Surface devices only with the Qualcomm chipset. There will be no Surface devices based on Intel Core Ultra processors, except for business offerings.

Image Courtesy: Sean Hollister / The Verge

As seen by The Verge, the internal documents suggest that Windows’s emulation layer will run better than Apple’s Rosetta 2 on the Snapdragon X Elite. Recently, a Qualcomm engineer also said that Windows games will just work on Snapdragon X Elite due to improved ARM64EC emulation.

Leaked Snapdragon X Elite benchmarks indicate that the 23W variant of SD X Elite with 12 Oryon CPU cores sits somewhere between the Apple M2 Pro and Apple M3 Pro. Qualcomm is also working on Snapdragon X Plus with 8 Oryon CPU cores that would compete against the base Apple M2 and M3, and may also bring 5G connectivity on the go.

Snapdragon X Elite (Galaxy Book4 Edge, Windows)4.01GHz278513925
Snapdragon X Elite (Qualcomm ZH-WXX, Windows)4.01GHz257412562
Snapdragon X Elite 80W (Qualcomm CRD, Linux)3.8GHz323817181
Apple M3 Pro4.05GHz303715246
Apple M2 Pro3.4GHz266114634

In terms of efficiency, Qualcomm says the Snapdragon X Elite matches the peak performance of an x86 processor at 68% less power, which is huge. We might see 10 to 12 hours of battery life on Snapdragon X Elite-powered Windows laptops similar to MacBooks.

While the Snapdragon X Elite is yet to arrive on any device, the recent leaks and official benchmark numbers put forward by Qualcomm are quite assuring. As x86 architecture has ruled Windows PCs for so long, app compatibility will be a huge factor before users jump on the ARM bandwagon.

Google recently launched native Chrome for Windows on ARM, just before the Snapdragon X Elite debut. Many native apps from Adobe, Cisco, Citrix, and other developer firms are on their way to the WoA platform. Microsoft has already ported most of its apps for consumers and developers. You can find a list of native apps available on the WoA platform from here.

Snapdragon X Elite’s NPU is a Selling Point

Apart from the powerful Oryon CPU, the Hexagon NPU on the Snapdragon X Elite is an added bonus. We are rapidly moving towards an AI era, and Microsoft is also doubling down on this front. Microsoft has added a Copilot key to the Windows keyboard for instant access to the AI chatbot on Windows 11. The company is also working on several AI features which will be released with the Windows 11 24H2 update.

Snapdragon X Elite’s NPU can perform up to 45 trillion operations per second (TOPS). And when the CPU, GPU, and NPU function together, it can deliver up to 75 TOPS. That’s pretty remarkable. Microsoft, along with many other OEM partners, are planning to launch AI PCs in 2024 and beyond. Qualcomm’s lead in the AI department can make Windows a solid platform for delivering novel AI experiences and features.

While Intel has also packed an integrated NPU into its Core Ultra processors, it can collectively deliver up to 34 TOPS, and AMD up to 39 TOPS. x86 processors can’t seem to match the AI performance of the Snapdragon X Elite chipset.

What Does the Future Hold for Windows on ARM?

After waiting for long years, it’s time for the ARM architecture to shine on Windows. However, currently, Qualcomm is the only player making ARM-based chips for Windows on ARM. There is reportedly an exclusivity agreement between Microsoft and Qualcomm. Talking to Ben Thompson of Stratechery, Rene Haas, the CEO of ARM said that the agreement expires in 2024 which is good news.

After the agreement expires, many players like AMD, Nvidia, MediaTek, and Samsung plan to build custom ARM-based chips for Windows on ARM. The diverse competition will ensure that Windows gets the best performance and efficiency in terms of CPU, GPU, NPU, and more. Not to forget, good competition will also reduce the price of ARM-based PCs.

To sum up, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite is poised to change the landscape of Windows computing. The era of bad battery life and always-spinning fans with heat emanating from every side resulting in poor performance is set to be replaced by a new standard of efficiency and power.

The era of bad battery life and always-spinning fans with heat emanating from all sides resulting in poor performance is set to be replaced by a new standard of efficiency and power.

That said, high pricing can temper the anticipation people have with the Snapdragon X Elite launch. According to a recent WinFuture report, the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Book4 Edge is said to come with the Snapdragon X Elite chipset, and it may be priced around 1800 euros ($1954 or Rs. 1.6 lakhs) in Europe.

If this remains the case, it will hinder the adoption of ARM-based Windows PCs. Qualcomm, along with laptop manufacturers must price X Elite-powered laptops competitively to make ARM-based PCs a success in the market.

Comments 0
Leave a Reply