What is a Windows 8 PC?

What will a Windows 8 PC look like? We won't know until we see one, but you can bet many Windows 8 devices won't look like the PC you're using today.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
Lenovo hybrid sold in China.
Lenovo hybrid sold in China. Lenovo
A future Windows 8 device like the Motorola Atrix?
A future Windows 8 device like the Motorola Atrix? Sarah Tew/CNET

Though the iPad got the ball rolling, Windows 8 may be the catalyst that finally brings about the "post-PC" era, as Apple likes to call it (and others prefer not to).

While many digirati were attending a conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., I was further down the coast in San Diego attending a less glamorous but hardly less important Qualcomm conference. Qualcomm is, after all, the enormously profitable company (with a market cap just shy of $100 billion, rivaling Intel, which is at about $115 billion) that supplies the guts of many of the world's feature phones, smartphones, and, increasingly, tablets.

Chips it designs essentially define the hardware and performance of the phones many people use. Qualcomm's role in the phone industry is analogous to Intel's in the PC industry. (Qualcomm said at the conference that 250 future devices are being designed around its "Snapdragon" processor.)

Which brings us to the future Windows 8 PC. Qualcomm chimed in this week, saying it will build quad-core Snapdragon processors for Windows 8 devices, in addition to the dual-core chips it is beginning to supply now for tablets like HP's upcoming TouchPad.

"This will require high-performing, low-power processors...with features like 3G and 4G wireless wide area network (WWAN) connectivity," Qualcomm said in its Windows 8 statement Wednesday.

When Qualcomm speaks about Windows, people should listen. As Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs is always quick to point out, Qualcomm is the exclusive supplier of processor silicon for all Windows Phone 7 devices.

So, with Qualcomm and others set to supply high-performance ARM processors for Windows 8, what will these Qualcomm-powered Windows 8 devices be exactly? Jacobs gave us a hint this week. "You will see some clamshell looking devices. Some of them will be convertible. Some of them will be just tablets. We're going to see a wide range of stuff going on," he said at press conference on Wednesday.

Though Jacobs was referring to products coming out later this year and early next year, similar design themes will apply to Windows 8 devices.

What will a Windows 8 PC be? A few rough ideas:

  • A 2.5GHz quad-core ARM chip-based Windows 8 tablet?
  • Newfangled Windows 8 tablet-centric hybrid with slider keyboard?
  • Motorola Atrix smartphone-with-laptop-dock kind of device?
  • Tried-and-true clamshell laptop sporting a high-performance ARM chip?

I say all of the above will be a PC, if that's the primary device you do most of your personal computing on, including lots of business productivity apps like Microsoft's Office suite. Along these lines, a comment at one of the technical sessions at the Qualcomm conference stuck with me: many young people in the future may skip the traditional PC all together. They may grow up using a device that bears little resemblance to today's laptop.

Windows 8 interface
For more on Windows 8's interface, see the Microsoft video, Building Windows 8. Micorosft

Intel will contribute to this, too. Intel's next-generation Haswell chip design--due roughly in the same time frame that Windows 8 appears--will be the company's first system-on-a-chip, or SoC, for mainstream laptops. An SoC is the same kind of all-in-one chip design Qualcomm uses today for feature phones, smartphones, and tablets. And, by the way, it's what Apple uses in its iPhone and iPad.

That means Intel also subscribes to a very different kind of future PC design. And with Qualcomm, Microsoft, Google, and others like Nvidia behind this, Post-PC or not, the PC will look very different for a lot of people.

For more on Windows 8 interface, see Microsoft's video, "Building Windows 8."