Major chip manufacturer Qualcomm introduced an updated laptop processor, the Snapdragon 7c Gen 2.
Designed to power entry-level laptops, it will yield better performance and battery life.
While it’s not challenging Apple yet, Qualcomm is helping improve both PC hardware and software.
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On Monday, the major chip manufacturer Qualcomm introduced an updated laptop processor, the Snapdragon 7c Gen 2. This is an update to one of two systems on a chip (SoCs) the company introduced last year that’s specifically designed to power entry-level laptops and Chromebooks.
Apple’s Silicon M1 has set the standard by which all other laptops are measured, but PC makers aren’t giving up. In fact, I think you can argue that this update could be one of the most important steps in giving manufacturers what they need to compete at the entry level by establishing that you don’t have to compromise on performance or battery life just to keep costs down.
On the surface, it would be easy to see the Gen 2 as merely a spec bump in an otherwise niche product. The types of laptops this SoC is designed to power aren’t nearly as exciting as, say, Apple’s latest MacBook Air or the latest Core i7 EVO laptops from Dell or Lenovo.
But that’s kind of the point. The laptops most people buy aren’t the top-of-the-line high-performance workhorses but $300 or $400 budget PCs or Chromebooks.
The new version of the 7c is more efficient and faster.
Qualcomm boosted the clock speed to 2.55 GHz, which it says is 10% faster than competing platforms. That means it’s faster at running the tasks you do on a regular basis, like launching apps, scrolling through photos, and navigating websites.
Not only that, the chips are 60% more power-efficient than Intel’s comparable products. Qualcomm says battery life should be up to 19 hours. For comparison, the top-selling budget laptop on Amazon, the Acer Aspire 5 Slim, gets a little under seven hours.
The eight-core chip also includes a 4G LTE modem, providing wireless connectivity even when you aren’t connected to WiFi. Qualcomm also added an artificial-intelligence engine designed to improve tasks such as encryption, security, and voice recognition.
Finally, it has support for up to a 32-megapixel video camera or two 16-megapixel cameras. Laptops in general have pretty bad webcams — even high-end laptops like the Dell XPS 13 have cameras that are less than 1 megapixel.
Since Qualcomm usually makes processors for mobile devices, all of which have advanced cameras compared with laptops, it’s able to draw on that experience to offer manufacturers the ability to incorporate better image processing, even in entry-level devices. Considering the amount of time most people have been spending on video meetings, that’s a real benefit.
The point is that Qualcomm is upping the baseline for a low-cost, highly efficient processor, something that makes a big difference in the performance of entry-level laptops.
It’s a better fit for entry-level devices.
There are two main types of chip architectures, ARM and x86. For years, the divide was clear: x86 chips, like those from Intel and AMD, were for high-performance devices. They delivered better performance but required more power.
ARM processors, like those from Samsung and Qualcomm, were for mobile devices, largely because of their lower power consumption.
Over the past few years, PC manufacturers have been looking to ARM processors as a more affordable option for low-cost consumer devices. Until now, that generally meant compromising on performance since existing ARM chips weren’t designed to handle multitasking or other more intensive workflows.
The Gen 2 isn’t a dramatic leap forward, but it’s enough of a bump that using one won’t feel like you’re using a smartphone processor in a laptop.
Qualcomm is also working on higher-end chips, including the 8cx Gen 2. But most people buying higher-end laptops are using them for more than just web browsing — they’re using Photoshop, or video-editing software, or complex database software.
A second problem is that because ARM chips were mostly used in mobile devices, they run best with mobile operating systems like Android or iOS. But if you’re trying to build a mass-market laptop, you need to be able to run Windows or ChromeOS. Except, Windows on ARM isn’t a great experience.
Because ARM and x86 are completely different architectures, they use different instructions to tell the processor what to do. Software designed for an Intel device, for example, needs to be recompiled — or rewritten — to run on ARM, or it needs a translator.
Most apps written for Windows haven’t been recompiled to run on ARM and, as such, are sluggish or — in some cases — won’t run at all. Using a Chromebook, on the other hand, is fine until you need to do something other than run a web app in Chrome.
It will help move Windows to ARM more successfully.
That poor experience is a large part of the reason more entry-level Windows PCs aren’t using ARM processors. That’s unfortunate considering they can theoretically offer better performance at a comparable cost, assuming the hardware and software are optimized for each other.
It would seem logical for more manufacturers to make the switch, but until the PCs optimized, doing so would mean that users would have to navigate the mess of which apps will run well and which can’t be installed at all.
Considering that Qualcomm’s new processor is targeting the largest portion of the laptop market, it has the ability to encourage more manufacturers to move to ARM, if the software follows.
That leads to the other news — that Qualcomm is introducing a developer kit.
The developer kit looks a lot like the one Apple introduced last year to help developers get their apps ready for Apple Silicon and the M1. But in this case, the goal is to make running apps on Windows for ARM a better experience by helping developers test and optimize their software to run on the different architecture.
That benefits both Qualcomm and developers since it ensures the best experience for users. It also helps minimize the compromise that comes with low-cost devices.
To be clear, the 7c Gen 2 isn’t anywhere near the same category as the M1, which outpaces almost every laptop made while still getting all-day battery life. Even Qualcomm’s higher-end chips aren’t really competing with the M1 yet.
But Apple’s Silicon efforts show what’s possible when the hardware and software are optimized to work together.
And if Qualcomm, and by extension PC makers, plan to offer the same no-compromise experience that Apple has figured out on the Mac, they need to keep improving both the hardware and software. The most impressive thing about this announcement is that Qualcomm is helping solve both those problems.
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