On the third day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, the world's largest mobile chipmaker unveiled the Snapdragon 8cx system-on-a-chip (SoC). It's created with a 7-nanometer process, similar to Apple's A12 and A12X chips, which are in the iPhone XS/XS Max/XR and new iPad Pros.
Qualcomm previously tested the PC waters with the Snapdragon 835 and 850 chips, but now it's ready for a full assault on Intel's territory. This could very well be the beginning of the end to Intel's vice-like grip powering PCs.
The new "Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform" (as it's officially called) is significant because Qualcomm's designed it from scratch just for PCs — specifically, thin-and-light laptops and 2-in-1s that are meant to be always-on and always-connected.
While it shares many of the fabrication techniques from Qualcomm's mobile-first chips past, present, and future (hello, Snapdragon 855), the 8cx chip has many elements and features that meet the more demanding tasks of PCs.
Built for PC needs
For example, laptops usually have larger screens with more pixels to push. So Qualcomm included a beefier Adreno 680 GPU (that bests even the new 855 chip's Adreno 640), capable of outputting to two 4K HDR displays.
The Kryo 495 CPU has eight cores and a larger cache for better multi-tasking performance. Because, you know, PCs users are juggling more apps and more Chrome tabs than on Android phone or tablets. Qualcomm says the 8cx chip offers comparable performance to an Intel U-series processor running on 15 watts (found in laptops like Dell's XPS 13) and up to 3x faster than Apple's latest MacBook Air, which uses a lower-powered 7-watt Y-series Intel chip.
Qualcomm says it's optimized the 8cx chip to get more CPU and GPU performance with greater power efficiency. Windows 10 is supposed to run up to 2x faster than on the Snapdragon 850 chip and 3.5x faster than on the 835. At the same time, the 8cx is up to 60 percent more power efficient.
Other geeky tidbits, like support for faster LPDDR4x 2,133MHz memory configurable up to 16GB and ultra-fast NVMe SSD storage read/write speeds, will surely sate PC power users.
The chip supports second-generation USB-C 3.1, but not Thunderbolt 3, which is a technology developed by Intel.
Enhancing PCs with mobile's strengths
But rivaling Intel's performance with smaller and fanless silicon (Intel has struggled to release a 7-nanometer chip) aren't the only advantages Qualcomm has over its leading competitor. The Snapdragon architecture was designed for mobility and the wireless lifestyle it enables.
As such, battery life on 8cx-powered laptops should be much better than on Intel-powered machines, and it has support for Quick Charge 4+. Qualcomm says PCs with its 8xc will have "multi-day" battery life.
The integrated X24 LTE modem allows for always-connected cellular connectivity. Despite phones and tablets having built-in cellular connectivity for years, laptops are just adding them in now. Part of the reason has the incompatibility of LTE modems with Intel chips, which would've drained battery life a lot quicker. However, Qualcomm's expertise integrating LTE modems into the same silicon on mobile gives it a leg up on in this area.
Similarly, Qualcomm's Aqstic audio tech allows for better wireless audio and improved hands-free voice commands with voice assistants such as Alexa and Cortana.
Eating Intel's lunch
Intel's remained the undisputed supplier of processors for PCs for decades. But that time could be coming to an end.
The work Qualcomm has done for mobile has changed the way we all live, work, and play. Mobile's been transformed and now the chipmaker's taking its knowledge it's gained and bringing it to PCs.
There's a huge opening for the company to disrupt Intel's rule. If Intel can't deliver power and energy-efficient chips, then Qualcomm will.
But Qualcomm's not the only one using its mobile chip expertise to give Intel a kick in the pants. Apple's widely rumored to be working on MacBooks powered by the company's A-series chips instead of Intel processors. Intel might have scoffed at being unseated years ago, but now it's starting to look like the company's completely out of touch with future technology trends.
With mobile chips like Apple's A12X Bionic are rivaling performance from a 15-inch MacBook Pro, there's a big opportunity for Apple to dump Intel altogether in the future as its silicon gets even more powerful and more power-efficient. Windows PC makers won't dump Intel overnight, but Qualcomm's 8cx and its successor will inevitably make it harder for them to ignore.
Intel's backed itself into a corner. It missed the mobile revolution and it might miss the next-generation of portable laptops and 2-in-1s because of Qualcomm and Apple's chip innovations. If it doesn't do something drastic soon, it won't be doing much except powering really high-end machines.