It’s been a little over three years since the Windows 10 adventure on ARM Snapdragon processors began. Announced at Computex in Taipei in June 2016, the partnership between software giant Microsoft and its American companion Qualcomm hit the headlines last October 2019 during the Introducing the Surface Pro X. It was indeed the first ARM computer to power Windows since the failure of the Surface under Windows RT – an adventure started in 2012 and buried three years later.
The comeback of ARM instruction set processors lots of ink has been spilled in PCs: Was Intel (for the thousandth time …) dead? Would the progress made by the tremendous sales volumes of smartphones allow ARM to establish itself in one of the last strongholds of x86 chips?
At the end of 2020, even as ARM seems to consolidate its hold on the computer world with the upcoming switch from Apple, little or nothing has changed in the world of Windows PCs, where the x86 from Intel and AMD still reigns supreme. master. Not only was Surface Pro X’s early days difficult on the software side, but Snapdragon machines are rare. So we never managed to get our hands on a Surface Pro X and almost all the machines we tested were sent in QWERTY from the UK… As for the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 freshly announced, the chip looked oddly like the first generation, barely touched up.
Why the hell not to have released a real new generation of chips, as the brand does every year in the field of smartphones? And where are the machines? And why are the ones we were able to take in hand so expensive? To answer these questions and find out where ARM64 PCs are going, we had the chance to speak to the Grand Program Manager. Who answered our questions frankly.
The PC, a slower ecosystem … and more locked down
At the beginning of last September, Qualcomm pulled out of its hat a new chip, the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2. Or rather an iteration that resumes the basics of 8cx but adds technological refinements. ” In raw performance, the 8cx Gen 2 is broadly equivalent to the first 8cx ”, Explained by teleconference Miguel Nunes, the person in charge of Snapdragon on Windows at Qualcomm (his exact title is Senior director of product management for Windows strategy and products). ” But we have refined both the software and the hardware, since the chip takes advantage of better AI performance, integrates Wi-Fi 6, manages two screens in 4K60p, noise suppression for video conferencing, etc. “
An improved version is good, a new processor with even more cores is better. But to hear Mr Nunes, the PC world lives in a rhythm of its own. “ The PC world does not run at the same speed as the smartphone world, we learned that by entering this market! », Relates Mr Nunes. ” In addition, our chips were ready long before our industrial partners were ready to integrate them. So while the 8cx Gen 2 is just an evolution, we obviously continue to develop new chips. But we no longer want to make announcements so far ahead of the launch of products »He continues.
While the COVID-19 crisis logically delayed Qualcomm’s plans, it has affected all industries, and does not explain the delays. And certainly not the premium positions adopted by some manufacturers like Microsoft on the one hand – the Surface Pro X was the most expensive Surface when it was announced last year – but also other manufacturers such as HP, Samsung and Lenovo.
“ We do not control the price of machines », Defends Mr. Nunes. ” VSThese are the OEMs (the brands and / or their subcontractors who manufacture, ndr) who develop PCs. And we are well aware that the prices are currently too high. But when we have more chip models on the market, we will benefit from a range effect », He promises.
If the builders are free, they also go where the money is, the support, the support. ” Intel and AMD have controlled the marketing space for much longer. We are therefore continuing to invest in the sales and sales force sectors in order to develop our own strike force. But we knew from the start that such a network would take time to develop », Assures Mr. Nunes. Before ensuring that the product that should take off the volumes arrives. And contrary to popular belief, this is not the top of the line 8cx chip at all …
The Snapdragon 7c, popular champion?
If the 8cx chip and its 8cx Gen 2 version is in the spotlight for its intrinsic performance – not yet fully exploited by the software – and its integration into the Surface Pro X update, it is yet another horse of Troy on which Qualcomm relies for the popularization of its platform: the Snapdragon 7c. Announced at the Snapdragon Summit last December 2019, this entry-level chip carries the company’s expectations in terms of value for money. And therefore volumes.
” The Snapdragon 7c represents a level of performance and integration that you cannot find in the x86 ecosystem », Professes Miguel Nunes. ” In a 6 watt chip (from TDP), you will have superior performance than Celeron and other Pentium Silver with all Snadragon features such as 4G connection, AI accelerator and voice optimization technologies and powerful image processor for video conferencing », He explains. Far from being trivial, some functions are starting to take advantage of these elements on PC, such as the Hexagon DSP, in charge of AI.
“Un antivirus solution publisher like Sophos now offloads the central processor on the IA processor to run its detection tools (viruses and other threats, editor’s note) ”, relates Mr Nunes. Before adding that ” in addition, all our security functions are integrated like the hypervisor, which is only present in professional chips in the x86 world. “
And to beat it all down with the blunt argument: the price. ” This chip should be integrated in configurations around $ 400 “. All with the promise of battery life beyond the day, something that x86 competitors cannot currently offer. If we can easily imagine this kind of chip in entry-level Windows PCs, there is especially another category of machine that seems perfectly suited to accommodate it: Chromebooks.
The Chromebook opportunity?
Very North American at its core, the Chromebook market is slowly expanding to the rest of the world, thanks to corporate fleet markets and education. However, these sectors are more interested in safety, robustness of machines, after-sales service or even autonomy than in the type of “engine” that is inside the machines. Already operational on some ARM chips (MediaTek and Rockchip), Chrome OS also runs Android apps. And therefore take full advantage of Qualcomm chips.
Asked about the adoption of his chips for Chromebooks, Miguel Nunes kicks in. “ We have no official announcement to make today “. Before adding that ” what i can say is that we are aiming for cross-platform development “. It’s impossible for Mr Nunes to say more, but from the point of view of the manufacturers – and of Google, which wants to push its operating system very hard – the 7c is, on paper, a weapon of choice. Perfectly cut for a world that increasingly calls for teleworking. Because of COVID-19 or not.
Ecosystem to develop, x64 emulation on a stand
It’s been official for a few weeks: Windows will soon support x64 program emulation. To put it simply, Windows ARM and its Snapdragon processors already know how to run x86 programs compiled at 32bits, but not those compiled at 64bits. But starting in November, members of the Windows 10 ARM Insider Program should take advantage of this feature before it rolls out to all machines.
While this will improve the operability of PCs under Snapdragon chips – many programs are only available in x64 versions, such as the Adobe suite for example – x64 emulation is mostly a big band-aid to save face. In fact, what matters most is that developers compile their programs both at x32 / x64 bits and at ARM64. But this is far from the case, and if the tools were ready from a pure development point of view, it was for the developers to fend for themselves. Alone or almost.
Here again, Microsoft is playing (a little late …) its role of software and service provider with the App Assure program which aims to give a face (and resources) to support for the development of ’native ARM64 applications. Likewise, Qualcomm released recently – again, a bit late for our tastes! – several entries on its site to help developers.
But besides this documentation and this visibility of the program which is beginning to emerge, another wind could blow in the sails of the ARM chips under Windows …
ARM for Macs, Qualcomm’s luck?
If Qualcomm and Microsoft are the first to (re) embark on the ARM adventure for traditional computing, it may be Apple who will provide the necessary inspiration for this take-off. Because the switch of its IT ecosystem on ARM chips home made earthquake effects in the industry. And the performance of its iPads gave their letters of nobility to this type of chip.
Once confined to the world of mobility and the on-board, ARM is entering supercomputers and should, within 2-3 years, power virtually every Apple machine, from smartphones to iMacs. And Miguel Nunes to tackle: ” If Intel had presented a good roadmap, Apple wouldn’t switch its MacBooks to ARM chips “. If the argument does not take into account Apple’s semiconductor know-how as well as the company’s concern to control everything in its products, it is certain that the firm of Tim Cook is known to have growled several times at Intel. And the delays in the deployment of certain technologies have undoubtedly accelerated the giant’s decision.
This move from Macs to ARM could allow developers to put the ARM64 architecture not in the back of their minds and on the fringes of their projects, but at the heart of their workflows. This makes it easier for them not only to compile in Win / ARM64 but also, hopefully, to take full advantage of this instruction set. As long as the development tools on macOS, Windows or Linux have the tools, documentation and human support to make the operation as easy and fast as possible. Rather exotic at the moment, Qualcomm’s processors could become, with the arrival of Mac / ARM, chips in fashion.
But all is not settled for Qualcomm, far from it. We will have to prove that its chips are at the level with real performance measurements between the x64 and ARM64 apps. And for that, we will have to accelerate (very) seriously on the software ecosystem. Then we will have to keep the pressure on the technology side, with AMD having the wind in its sails in the world of laptops and Intel preparing to integrate its own tools for 5G modems (with MediaTek) or IA (One API). Not to mention the efforts both in terms of marketing (support for manufacturers) and price. New battles in perspective for the champion of chips for smartphones who is, in the world of the PC, only a small Thumb.