Microsoft is banking on this next-gen AI chip to beat the Apple MacBook, and I saw it firsthand


Snapdragon X Elite

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Microsoft’s upcoming line of Surface Pro and Surface laptops are expected to come with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon X Elite processors, making waves with impressive performance metrics that could not only rival but surpass Apple’s flagship MacBooks, which have long sat at the top of the food chain.

Launching in late Spring 2024, Microsoft is apparently so confident in the performance of Qualcomm’s new Arm-powered chips for Windows, The Verge reports, that its soon-to-be-released line of Surface tablets and laptops will be at the forefront of a big push for AI-powered computing.

Also: Microsoft unveils Surface Pro 10 and Laptop 6 with AI features. Here’s what’s new

If 2024 is the year for AI’s full integration into PCs, Arm-powered Windows is part of that overarching design. This so-called Arm architecture refers to the physical design of the processor that largely powers devices like smartphones, tablets, and notably, Apple’s processors. These chips bring a lot of advantages over the traditional x86 processors produced by Intel and AMD, particularly with less power consumption alongside cutting-edge performance.

I recently had a chance to see the Snapdragon X Elite series at a demo event hosted by Qualcomm, and there are definitely some big claims being made in terms of their performance, particularly as positioned against Apple’s M3 silicon. These improvements aren’t just theoretical projections up against emerging AI technology but easy-to-understand metrics that laptop consumers are concerned about now, such as boot-up speed and app launch speed, not to mention the significant reduction in power consumption, which means smaller designs that run cooler and with batteries that last longer.

Also: For the age of the AI PC, here comes a new test of speed

Up until now, Windows laptops and PCs have run almost exclusively on Intel and AMD chips, but Microsoft’s replacement of Intel Core Ultra processors in the new line of consumer Surface Pro and Surface laptop with the Snapdragon X Elite chips signals an industry change, not just in manufacturers’ confidence in Qualcomm’s product, but a potential new norm for new devices. 

When the The Snapdragon X Elite was announced in October of last year, Qualcomm claimed it was 21% faster than Apple’s M3 chip in a multi-core CPU performance benchmark. However, questions still remain about the Snapdragon X Elite’s thermal capabilities, as they will likely run hotter than Apple’s M3 chips and require cooling fans. Apple, on the other hand, has the ability to optimize every element of its chipset’s design as the manufacturer of both the hardware and operating system in which it lives.

snapdragon benchmark composite

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

This new series of devices running the Qualcomm processors will likely be the first ones to gain access to Windows’ cutting-edge AI functionalities. The Snapdragon X series features a large amount of space dedicated to neural processing, resulting in what may be among the fastest AI-powered devices on the market.

Also: Surface vs. MacBook: Can Microsoft’s new Arm-based AI PCs compete with Apple?

The implications for running Windows on Arm architecture are not entirely smooth sailing, as there will likely be some ironing out of compatibility issues with certain apps (particularly with gaming), but emulation of applications designed for the x86 platform is estimated to, for the most part, be seamless.

Microsoft’s banking on the Snapdragon X series’ performance seems, to us, to be just one part of a larger picture here, with Windows 11 being infused with a host of AI-powered tasks that will likely be elaborated on by CEO Satya Nadella on a special Windows and Surface AI event on May 20th, just ahead of Build 2024.

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