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The ARM PC Battle Is Heating Up - Apple vs. Qualcomm Snapdragon


ARM PC

We've had ARM chips in PCs for a while now, but the real transition started when Apple introduced the first M1 Macbook Air in 2020. That's when it was possible to fit a lot of performance in a Thin & Light without losing precious battery life or having terrible thermals. Qualcomm also tried its fair share of ARM applications in the past with the 8cx laptop SoCs, but the lackluster performance and app compatibility issues drowned those efforts in the river. However, with the launch of the Snapdragon X Elite and the Snapdragon X Plus, things may turn the other way soon.


Qualcomm claims better performance for the Snapdragon X Elite than the Apple M3 which can be a huge deal for Windows PCs. However, while we wait for long-term performance data, a few things need to be right with the newer chips.


First, app compatibility needs to be better and more apps need a native ARM version for Windows. If x86 apps need to be translated for ARM directly on the device, the process needs to be much more seamless like Rosetta 2 on Mac.


ARM PC

The second area where these ARM PCs should shine is in long-lasting battery life. Apple surprised the world with all-day battery life in the Macbook Air while the Macbook Pro models also had excellent battery life regardless of being higher-performance computers.


Intel and AMD use x86 which has been lacking big time in this department. While the new Ultra chips from Intel are better, the Snapdragon X chips promise longer battery life that even has the potential to exceed the Apple M-series chips. It can finally take away the biggest problem for Windows laptops. Hopefully, the performance also won't take a drastic fall when unplugged which is a living nightmare for power users.


How ARM is taking over x86 in the PC Battle


Thanks to ARM's efficient chip designs, SoCs moved ahead of traditional CPUs by combining CPU, GPU, and System Memory (RAM) in a single chip. Modern SoCs even have an NPU for handling AI and other complex tasks. While Intel tried this with x86, it wasn't powerful enough and the power efficiency is nowhere near ARM's offering.


Now, with new SoCs based on ARM's architecture, OEMs can finally deal with those shortcomings of x86, and as Apple slid into the picture with their M series chips, Intel and AMD had to rethink their approach to laptop CPUs. As a result, we now have Intel's Lunar Lake and AMD's 3rd-gen AI chips that focus on closing that gap.


The Apple Silicon Effect


ARM PC
Apple M3 Pro SoC

It's safe to say, that while smartphone SoCs were already performing great while being pro on efficiency, laptops only started taking it seriously when Apple launched its M1 chip back in 2020. Based on the same ARM architecture Apple's A14 Bionic was using in the iPhones, the M1 showed the ultrabook industry that great performance and excellent battery life could co-exist in a thin-and-light laptop.


Later Apple repeated the formula for pro users and unveiled the M1 Pro and M1 Max SoCs that took away Intel and AMD's edge on the pro-sumer laptop market. A large number of users even actively switched from Windows to macOS because the Apple computers were so much more compelling. As the competitors realized they had no way of dealing with Apple with their existing tech, they had to evolve, and at that moment, Qualcomm was finally in a great position to slide into the PC industry for good.


How Qualcomm wants to level the field


Qualcomm's initial attempt at PCs failed drastically as their 8cx SoCs didn't even come close to Apple's performance and had terrible app support. Now, the company is trying to change that with its new X-series SoCs for PC. This includes the new Snapdragon X Elite and Snapdragon X Plus SoCs.


The X Plus is the baseline SoC for the company this year as it has a 10-core CPU and lacks support for Dual Core Boost. On the other hand, the X Elite has a 12-core CPU and a total of four variants with only the base variant, missing out on the Dual Core Boost feature.


ARM PC

Qualcomm X Plus

SoC

Core Count

Max Frequency

Dual Core Boost

Cache (Total)

X1P-64-100

10

3.4 Ghz

N/A

42MB


Qualcomm X Elite

SoC

Core Count

Max Frequency

Dual Core Boost

Cache (Total)

X1E-78-100

12

3.4GHz

N/A

42MB

X1E-80-100

12

3.4GHz

4.0GHz

42MB

X1E-84-100

12

3,8GHz

4.2GHz

42MB

X1E-00-1DE

12

3.8GHz

4.3 GHz

42MB

This time Qualcomm has given enough flexibility to the PC OEMs so they can customize the laptops as they desire to fit a variety of price points. The ability to choose from several Snapdragon X series SoCs and even being able to use Wi-Fi 6, 6E, or 7 regardless of the variant, screams versatility.


The Battle of SoCs - Snapdragon X vs. Apple M


If the claims are to be believed, the X Elite should have much better performance compared to the Apple M3. If synthetic benchmarks are any indication, the Multi-core performance is actually better for the X Eite, but Single-core is still dominated by Apple. However, the X1E-84-100 and X1E-00-1DE can potentially reach M3 Pro level performance when configured with higher TDP. We'll have to see if the power efficiency catches up too, but right now, it's looking pretty promising in the performance department.


Unlike the latest 3nm fabrication in Apple's M3 and M4 SoCs, the new Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus chips are built on the older 4nm Process Technology. Now, with the improvements to the Apple M4, the numbers for the upcoming Macs will improve, but from the performance data of the new iPad Pro (OLED), it seems like the difference won't be monumental. How much impact these differences make, is something only long-term usage data can tell.


It's safe to say that, unlike the Snapdragon 8cx SoCs, the new X-series chips are now proper PC SoCs instead of being glorified smartphone chips. I'm not sure if Apple's ARM reign is over just yet, but better competition will translate to better computers. At least the current prices seem to be lower on the Snapdragon side, so that's a win for Windows users.


The rise of AI: Copilot+ PCs, Apple Intelligence, and more


It's 2024 and of course, every computer suddenly needs AI. While the Artificial Intelligence trend takes off, Microsoft and Apple are taking their separate paths to provide users with a more intelligent computing experience.


ARM PC

Microsoft has integrated OpenAI's ChatGPT model directly into Windows and created its new Copilot+ PCs. Apple also announced a personal intelligence system named Apple Intelligence. It'll be baked right into Apple's ecosystem and across apps, Siri, and the operating systems including macOS Sequoia, iOS 18, and iPadOS 18.


Apple is also integrating ChatGPT alongside its personal intelligence model and keeping an opening for other AI models in the future. Google's Gemini is also a big name in this segment, but it's currently integrated only with its own devices. With Apple keeping its door open, Google Gemini can eventually make its way to the Apple Ecosystem, but there is no confirmation right now.


Integrating AI features into operating systems is nothing new. Companies have been using Machine Learning to improve the functionality of their OS for a while now. With the current integrations, these improved a lot alongside introducing a bunch of new features and giving the user more control over the AI capabilities.


Apple and Microsoft are doing AI a bit differently than each other. However, the end goal is automating tasks, speeding up productivity, and giving the user more tools to make their lives and workflows easier. However, there can be privacy-invading features (like Recall on Windows 11) that you may or may not want to turn off.


What changes for the End User


ARM PC

Regardless of which ARM or AI route companies go, the competition will only push these technologies further and they'll keep on improving. For the end user, this means quality-of-life improvements. ARM will bring better battery life and high-end performance into Thin & Light form factors and maybe the prices will finally be under control for premium Windows laptops.


Integrating these silicon-level improvements with AI, the users will get smarter computers that can last all day with casual workloads and hopefully retain full performance while running on Battery power (Windows). Overall, ARM seems like a step in the right direction and a worthy replacement for x86.

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