We knew we'd get a bunch of new laptops at Microsoft: It's time for laptops to get phone-like all-day battery life, but not if that means sacrificing processing power to get there.on Tuesday. What we didn't know is we'd also get a new . That chip in the new carries a message from
Microsoft's Surface products, with their integrated hardware and software, serve a dual role. First, they're a serious business at Microsoft. Second, they also let the company show consumers and other computer makers Microsoft's view of the future of personal computing.
The SQ1 gives Microsoft a bit more control over that future while telling software makers they'd better get with the program, too.
And it could offer better competition to Apple, whose influential designs already are tightly integrated. iPhones and iPads use Apple's own A series of Arm-family processors, and its future MacBook is rumored to be embracing Arm chips, too.
For Microsoft, steering its own chip designs is "crucial for maximizing user experience and battery life, as Apple has demonstrated over the last decade with custom iPhone chips," Forrester analyst Frank Gillett said.
Anemic Arm PCs
Arm-based PCs haven't caught fire so far, even with good battery life and an ability to connect to mobile networks. They just can't match the performance of x86-family chips from Intel and AMD, and there are software compatibility problems since mainstream software for x86 chips won't run on Arm machines.
But Microsoft isn't afraid to raise performance expectations this time around.
The SQ1 gives the Surface Pro X "incredible power," said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president for Microsoft's modern life, search and devices group. "We've got amazing graphics power. We're going to do AI on the chip."
The companies didn't share many performance specifics, though. The graphics performance is twice that of the eighth-generation Intel Core processor from two years ago or of last year's Qualcomm 850 smartphone chip, Qualcomm said. And Microsoft preferred to focus on efficiency, not raw performance, when comparing the Surface Pro X to its Intel-powered Surface Pro 6.
"This product has three times more performance per watt than the Surface Pro 6," Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay said at the event. That older model Microsoft laptop uses an Intel eighth-generation Core processor.
Intel still a close Microsoft ally
Microsoft is hardly abandoning Intel, its business partner for decades. Indeed, two new Surface designs rely on Intel chips -- the Ice Lake chip for premium laptops this year, like the 13-inch, and the for next year's more exotic that's something like a folding tablet. Microsoft also shared the love with perennial Intel rival AMD, picking its mobile Ryzen chip for the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.
But figuring out how to bring Arm chips into the Microsoft fold -- and let mainstream PC users benefit from battery life that means they can just leave their charger at home -- is the bigger challenge.
Arm licenses its chip designs and lets others build compatible models of their own design, and a rich library of options can be added -- "intellectual property" in industry licensing terms. That flexibility has let many Arm licensees tailor chips for different products, prices, performance and power consumption levels.
Now it's Microsoft's turn to do the tailoring. "We brought our engineering and we brought our IP with the Qualcomm team to build basically a brand-new chip," Mehdi said.
The move is "really smart," said Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart. "It suggests unique capabilities and it allows Microsoft to avoid direct comparisons with other Qualcomm-based products," the Arm-based laptops available from companies like HP, Lenovo, Asus and Samsung.
How is the SQ1 different?
The SQ1 is based on Qualcomm's mainstream offering for PCs, the, Qualcomm said, but it's not the same chip you'll see in 8cx-based laptops. For one thing, the graphics processing unit (GPU) is different.
"The GPU and its cores were optimized for Surface Pro X specifically to enhance the performance and user experience for graphics-rich applications," Qualcomm said. "Microsoft wanted a truly mobile experience, from long battery life to rich displays to LTE connectivity and of course to be 'instant on' like a smartphone."
Boosting graphics performance is a good idea, said Real World Tech analyst David Kanter.
"Qualcomm's GPU can run Windows, but it's weaker than Intel, AMD and Nvidia graphics," he said. That's especially the case when it comes to the critical Windows DirectX drivers, software that apps use to control the graphics hardware, he said.
The SQ1 includes dedicated hardware: the fourth-generation AI Engine also used in the flagship Snapdragon 855 processor, Qualcomm said. Accelerating AI software boosts software that uses brainlike processing for tasks like understanding human speech, recognizing who's in a photo or automatically editing video.
Attracting software makers to Arm PCs
One of the big sticking points for Arm PCs has been software incompatibility. The Surface Pro X and the fact that Microsoft is willing to co-design a special chip for it could help Microsoft lure those developers, though.
One big holdout has been Adobe, maker of Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere Pro, Illustrator and many other apps used by creative types. But Adobe shared Microsoft's stage to demonstrate its new and commit to bringing more of its Creative Cloud software suite along, too.
"Surface is an important platform for Creative Cloud and will become even more important in the future," said Scott Belsky, Adobe's chief product officer for Creative Cloud. More than half of today's Surface customers are also Creative Cloud customers, he said, so Adobe decided to bring "much of" the software suite to Arm-based Surface machines, he said.
"We're working hard to bring other key parts of Creative Cloud to the Surface Pro X as soon as possible," Belsky said. Adobe declined to share details about which apps besides Fresco will arrive, though.
Software support is the ultimate key to the success of the Surface Pro X and other Arm-based laptops, Forrester's Gillett said. "It all comes down to whether developers -- and Microsoft's Windows team -- can make the experience sing without x86 processors."