The “X” stands for “extreme.” That’s what Qualcomm’s marketing department wants you to think about the new eight-core Snapdragon 8cx.
It’s a brand-new processor for always-connected Windows laptops and 2-in-1 convertible PCs, and from Qualcomm’s perspective, it might seem a little extreme. Physically, it’s the largest processor the company has ever made, with the most powerful CPU and GPU Qualcomm has devised yet. Qualcomm says it’ll be the first 7nm chip for a PC platform, beating a struggling Intel to the punch, and the biggest performance leap for a Snapdragon ever. The company’s promising “amazing battery life,” and up to 2Gbps cellular connectivity.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx reference design for laptops
It’s the mobile chipmaker’s first purpose-built chip for Windows, instead of the tweaked smartphone chips it’s tried to squeeze into laptops before. “It’s a real PC, that can do real multitasking and productivity,” the company says.
Mind you, none of that necessarily means it’ll deliver “extreme” performance compared to rival laptop chips from Intel, Nvidia, and AMD. We’re talking about thin laptops, not beefy gaming rigs. But this time, Qualcomm may have finally wrung enough power from its silicon to build a competent portable PC. Qualcomm expects the first 8cx computers to ship in the second half of 2019.
When it comes to graphics, Qualcomm says its new Adreno 680 Extreme GPU in the 8cx is twice as fast as the one in its previous Snapdragon 850 for Windows laptops — the one in Samsung’s recently released Galaxy Book 2 and the Lenovo C630 WOS — and 60 percent more power efficient than that chip to boot. It can also support two 4K HDR external monitors simultaneously, up from just one monitor before.
Apple may not be the only one with ARM chips faster than Intel
On the CPU side of things, Qualcomm claims its 8cx has performance comparable to a 15-watt Intel U-series processor, the same type you’ll find in most of today’s thin-and-light Windows machines. Except Qualcomm’s chip will draw less than half the electricity — just 7 watts. And in sustained performance, Qualcomm believes its processor is twice as fast as an Intel chip that has to work within a thermal envelope of just 7 watts. (Compare to Intel’s own 7-watt Y-series processor, like the one in Apple’s new MacBook Air, or imagine a U-series Intel chip that’s in an unusually thin laptop with less room and no fan to cool down.)
Qualcomm wouldn’t tell us which benchmarks it used to generate those numbers, though.
If there’s a performance advantage, it’s probably because it’s the first 7nm PC chip ever made. With smaller circuits than Intel, Qualcomm can theoretically choose to get more performance or more battery life from that extra efficiency, and it seems to have chosen performance here.
But maybe the biggest deal here is that Snapdragon might finally have enough memory to power Windows properly. A mere 4GB in the Galaxy Book 2 felt pretty limiting, enough that a dozen Chrome browser tabs felt like too much to handle. But the Snapdragon 8cx will support up to 16GB of LPDDR4x RAM, with greater bandwidth, as well as speedier NVMe solid state drives — though some manufacturers may still opt for slower storage.
No 5G for these Snapdragon laptops — at least not yet
And of course, we’re talking about laptops that’ll likely come with built-in cellular connectivity — it’s a Snapdragon, after all! But you might be surprised to learn this Snapdragon won’t come with built-in 5G, and it doesn’t support Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem either. But that’s no big loss right now, and Qualcomm says it’ll have a 5G solution later. In the meanwhile, it’s got Qualcomm’s new X24 LTE modem baked in for (theoretical maximum) 2Gbps speeds. That’s the same modem you’ll also find in Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 for phones, and the laptop chip will similarly support 4×4 MIMO antennas for LTE.
Qualcomm says battery life will be comparable to the Snapdragon 850, which is good — our Galaxy Book 2 review showed us that a Snapdragon laptop can easily last all day. It’ll also support USB-C quick charging using Qualcomm Quick Charge 4+. There’s also support for USB 3.1 Gen 2, theoretically doubling how much data you can sling over your USB cables to 10Gbps, as well as both Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistants.
You can probably expect these devices to cost more than a Snapdragon 850 laptop, too: Qualcomm says it’ll continue to offer the Snapdragon 850 alongside this machine, and shoot for different pricing tiers.
Of course, having a first-class citizen of a Windows laptop means more than just performance and features. It requires app support, and it’s impossible to say right now if it’ll have the apps you personally use when it comes out. But Qualcomm does say it’ll support Windows 10 Enterprise, both the Chrome (well, Chromium) and Firefox web browsers will run natively and many more apps are or will be ported over. Here’s a snapshot of some supported apps that Qualcomm wanted to highlight:
Last month, Microsoft removed a big hurdle to Windows on ARM development by letting developers recompile their existing apps to new 64-bit ARM versions.
So that’s the Snapdragon 8cx — though one major missing detail is which manufacturers will actually build computers around the chip. Honestly, this was a little weird:
So that was super weird. Lenovo’s Matt Bareda walked onto the Qualcomm stage to talk about the promise of always-on laptops, and to highlight its partnership with Qualcomm in the past — and then walked off again *without* actually promising to make a Snapdragon 8cx device.— Sean Hollister (@StarFire2258) December 6, 2018
You shouldn’t read too much into it yet, but a Lenovo exec walking on and off stage without actually promising to build a Snapdragon 8cx computer is a weird way to end the day. Qualcomm does have a reference device at the show, though: the company briefly flashed a silver slab of laptop at the very end, and we’ve gotten to play with it since.
Update, 7:12 PM ET: Clarified that Qualcomm’s performance comparison at 7-watts is to other chips with a 7-watt thermal envelope, not necessarily Intel’s 7-watt Y-series chip.