At Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii in October, the company revealed its next-gen Snapdragon X Elite chip with benchmark claims that make it potentially competitive with Apple’s and Intel’s powerful chips. But Qualcomm’s ace in the hole is adding generative AI on-device that can process everything locally, and could let users get questions answered, word stories written and images generated without having to go through the cloud.
PC owners who’ve seen Qualcomm’s previous efforts at challenging Intel may be skeptical about the company’s chances for success. Qualcomm started putting processors in PCs a decade ago when it partnered with Microsoft and other computer makers to make devices running a limited version of Windows called Windows RT, which didn’t last long. Qualcomm tried partnering to release 2-in-1 laptops with Snapdragon chips geared originally for smartphones, and then in 2018, it unveiled its first CPU for PCs, the 8cx chip, hoping people would snap up PCs with 5G networking 2019. Still, the company’s chips haven’t meaningfully dented Intel’s power.
Qualcomm believes that PC makers will be more enthusiastic this time around, in part by bringing generative AI to their computers. But what may impress consumers more are the claims Qualcomm made on stage at the summit that the Snapdragon X Elite outperforms leading Apple M2 and Intel chips in performance and power efficiency. And that may be what really compels consumers to seek out an X Elite-powered laptop in mid-2024 when they’re expected to start arriving.
“I think the Windows [PC makers] are looking for similar capabilities,” said Alex Katouzian, senior vice president leading Qualcomm’s mobile, compute and XR work. “The only answer to what Apple has is really Qualcomm.”
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Qualcomm trumpeted its performance advantage over Macs powered by Apple’s M2 processors, but just days later, Apple announced more-powerful M3-based Macs that’ll be shipping for months before the Snapdragon X Elite makes its first appearance in 2024.
That’s motivation for Microsoft to grow its partnership with Qualcomm.
“The reality is that Microsoft desperately needs a partner that can compete with Apple both in performance and battery life, and considering what Qualcomm has shown with its preliminary benchmarks at Snapdragon Summit, it definitely seems like Qualcomm has a fighting chance,” said Anshel Sag, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. “I think the Snapdragon X Elite is, without a doubt, Qualcomm’s best chance to take market share from Intel and AMD.”
Customers buying Qualcomm-powered PCs more likely will be using Windows machines powered by Intel or AMD processors, where laptop speed tests likely will paint a rosier picture for Qualcomm. However, although I independently verified that Qualcomm’s benchmarks lived up to claims the company made on the summit stage, there’s still a lot that can change, from its potential speed and efficiency heights to implementation in PCs on store shelves, including the arrival of Intel’s Meteor Lake laptop processor in December.
And the PC incumbents have more than new silicon to their advantage, said Avi Greengart, president and chief analyst at Techsponential.
“Intel still has distribution and incumbency advantages, and we haven’t gotten hands on with commercial Snapdragon X Elite designs yet, [while] Apple has been making steady inroads in the PC market,” Greengart said. Yet, he added, “the Snapdragon X Elite offers such a huge jump in performance per watt compared to today’s x86 architecture that it’s hard to imagine Qualcomm not winning some of Intel’s business.”
And even if the Snapdragon X Elite doesn’t move the needle in the PC market, its influence will be felt in the rest of Qualcomm’s lineup — from mobile to auto to XR and beyond.
The X Elite is a laptop solution — for now
The X Elite is for laptops, though there’s no reason it can’t be used in a desktop. It’s been tested in laptops for its efficiency in power and performance, and Qualcomm sees it as a solution for on-the-go computing — which includes performing intensive tasks for business and pleasure.
“As you look at every consumer today, almost every consumer is a creator. And every consumer is a casual gamer,” said Kedar Kondap, senior vice president and general manager of compute and gaming at Qualcomm
Which means X Elite-powered laptops could fill plenty of niches, though the chipset isn’t being positioned to go toe-to-toe with chips powering big desktop rigs for pixel-pushing photo or video editing.
It also may not be for big gamers, at least until we see how the chip’s integrated GPU (graphics processing unit) handles gaming under high graphics and fast frame rates. It’s unclear how the chip plays with discrete GPUs like those from Nvidia and AMD, which isn’t Qualcomm’s focus with this chip. Instead, the devices we expect to see come to market with the X Elite will use its integrated GPU, Kondap said.
“There is always the professional gamer, but that is not a category that we’re referencing today,” Kondap said.
How AI will help computing
The computing industry is on the cusp of a new generation as it integrates AI, and it’s not yet clear whether that will just mean new tools or a more meaningful overhaul of how we use PCs. 2024 and 2025 will be the inflection point, Kondap said, with Windows 10 phasing out and app vendors starting to harness neural processing units on every chip. This could lead to optimizations in efficiency, operational accuracy and quicker results, he said, as well as things only generative AI can do — like Microsoft’s Copilot, which is aimed to help users with many tasks around the PC.
“A lot of these applications are going to enable productivity in a manner that we haven’t seen before,” Kondap said.
On the second day of the Snapdragon Summit, filmmaking software company Black Magic went on stage to show how its software can harness the generative AI capabilities on the X Elite chip. When compared to an unspecified 12-core processor with an integrated GPU, the Snapdragon X Elite was 1.7 times faster at using a compute-intensive AI tool, Magic Mask, in Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve Studio software. The Qualcomm chip’s NPU was three times faster at running DaVinci tasks than the one on the other chip.
More generally, Qualcomm agrees with Apple, Google and others about two big on-device AI advantages: It protects your privacy better than services that upload your data to the cloud, and it can run faster without the communication lag. Running AI on your device means you don’t have to pay for cloud computing infrastructure, too.
The flip side is that lots of AI, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot and Adobe’s Firefly image generator, require much more computing horsepower than a laptop can offer. So expect the cloud to remain important, and AI processing with hybrid local-and-cloud setups to be an attractive solution for more intensive AI tasks.
Companies may not know the value of on-device AI until they see it in action — how quickly they can generate code, commercialize things, get data processed in minutes or see how much data they’re harnessing in their hands — and then they’ll understand the benefit, Kondap said.
“You’ll see the benefits across any and every industry, whether it’s manufacturing, operations, technology, enterprise IT and code generation,” Kondap said.
Adobe Firefly customers, who get a generous but limited number of generative AI uses per month with their Creative Cloud subscriptions, no doubt could appreciate the benefits of running AI on their own hardware.
Developers will also need to figure out which large language model suits them best. The Snapdragon X Elite supports 20 LLMs at launch, including Meta’s Llama 2, but individuals and corporations will have to decide which model is personalized for them.
“You should expect use cases to go to a different level altogether,” Kondap said
It’s still early days in on-device AI for PCs, so Qualcomm doesn’t have a lot of competitive data to match the X Elite up against. On the summit stage, the company boasted that the X Elite is capable of 45 trillion operations per second (just one metric for comparing AI speeds) with the chip’s neural processing unit alone, and 75 TOPS with the entire chip. Intel announced its 14th-generation Meteor Lake chips with on-device AI in September, but hasn’t released benchmarks yet.
Whatever metric eventually wins out (Qualcomm’s benchmark array for the X Elite included the Procyon AI test, which the chip scored a 1766), Katouzian predicts that soon aptitude and speed at running AI tasks will be rolled into a chip’s overall performance.
“How quickly do I get my answer? Is it accurate or not?” Katouzian said. “People are going to say ‘I need a CPU that’s faster, a GPU that’s fast and I need an AI to run these things.'”
It’s too early to really tell how the X Elite’s AI features will help in an area like gaming, Kondap said. It could expand the color gamut and depth in terms of how games are played. “That’s why we’re excited — because we have the hardware. We have the software implementation, the APIs, the SDKs, the toolkits — we want to get it across as fast as we can,” Kondap said.
The mobile influence
Qualcomm’s X Elite designers prioritized optimization in the chip’s design, power management and even the camera — building on the company’s legacy of managing the entire architecture of a chip, which is how it’s been handling Snapdragon phone chips for decades, according to Kondap.
“Yes, the DNA [of the X Elite] comes from our past, which is obviously mobile,” Kondap said.
Qualcomm used efficiency tricks it developed for mobile platforms in its design of the X Elite, like controlling power consumption by powering down GPUs and flipping displays to low-power states when not in high-performance tasks like gaming. Then it’s making tweaks (for instance, at the software level) of that tech efficiency to customize the X Elite for PCs and specifically laptops.
Qualcomm is confident it’s built a chip from mobile roots to meet PC user needs. In a roomful of sample laptops packing two example setups (one higher-specced, one lower), Qualcomm senior director of product management Nitin Kumar gestured at the high benchmark numbers each machine was producing.
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“When you’re looking at the benchmarks in this room, you’re looking at what we’re able to achieve. When we look at the experience of a PC user using the machine, we profile the applications, we look at how the workload looks like, you feel confident with the technology that we are building that we’re able to enhance the experience for the PC user,” Kumar said.
X Elite design was also influenced by Qualcomm’s mobile Snapdragon architecture, and the neural processing unit that’s handled AI tasks on the mobile side (to improve photos and handle side tasks) led to developing the NPU on the X Elite, which handles the generative AI tasks to free up the CPU and GPU for other duties. This leads to less power consumption and thermal generation, which in turn leads to longer battery life, Kumar said — tying in with Qualcomm’s philosophy of using power efficiency to increase performance relative to other chipmakers.
“Delivering the similar level of performance experience versus the competition at a much lower power [consumption] is the disruption that we are creating,” Kumar said.
Qualcomm’s focus for the PC launch is the Oryon chip, which debuts in the X Elite but is meant to proliferate elsewhere. As development flowed from mobile to PC, so will it flow back out to other verticals in Qualcomm’s lineup.
How X Elite will influence every other Qualcomm chip
Qualcomm first teased the Oryon CPU last year as the center of its upcoming silicon, and now it’s revealed what the chip can do. Benchmarks have put its performance and efficiency beyond current-gen PC chip competitors. Qualcomm won’t definitively say if it’s working on other PC chips to succeed the X Elite, so it remains to be seen what kinds of computers future Qualcomm PC chips will be aimed at.
“What I can tell you is that we’ve invested in this category and we’re obviously committed to making sure there is a device that is available for everybody,” Kondap said,
But what we do know is that Oryon chips will be spreading out to Qualcomm’s other product lines, including mobile next year and automotive some time later. Given the mobile DNA built into the design of Qualcomm’s new computer chip, it’s not surprising that the company wants to feed those advancements back into smartphone chips.
Qualcomm’s coy about how Oryon will be integrated into future Snapdragon mobile chips. It’s not clear if the new CPU will outright replace the existing Kryo CPU used in the current Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 and lower-tier chips, or if cheaper chips to come will rely on a combination of Oryon and Kryo processors. The ARM-based Kryo line launched in 2015 with the Snapdragon 820 line, so it’s about time for a refreshed take on computation in Qualcomm’s mobile chips.
“We’ll continue to use [Kryo] in places that’s necessary, and then we can figure out what to do with Oryon not only just in the PC market but the mobile market and auto market, and then how it proliferates up and down product lines,” Katouzian said.
That means Oryon won’t necessarily be locked into the most premium chips Qualcomm releases, Katouzian said. Different versions of Oryon will be scalable to go up and down tiers that will be different between PC, mobile and auto.
Ultimately, that means the X Elite’s success doesn’t completely ride on whether it establishes a foothold in the PC market — its impact will be felt across Qualcomm’s products for years to come.