Here's why Microsoft wanted a custom chip for the Surface Pro X's brains

Microsoft bets its SQ1 tweak to Qualcomm's 8cx processor will speed up Windows on Arm and attract crucial software developers.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Microsoft's Surface Pro X

Microsoft's Surface Pro X uses the company's SQ1 processor, a variation of Qualcomm's 8cx chip for Windows laptops.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We knew we'd get a bunch of new laptops at Microsoft's Surface event on Tuesday. What we didn't know is we'd also get a new Microsoft processor, a Qualcomm-derived chip called the SQ1. That chip in the new Surface Pro X carries a message from 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.

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.

Watch this: First look at Surface Pro X, Pro 7, Laptop 3

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."

Microsoft Surface Pro X

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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 Surface Laptop 3, and the Lakefield chip for next year's more exotic dual-screen Surface Neo 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.

Microsoft SQ1 processor for the Surface Pro X laptop

Microsoft's SQ1 processor for the Surface Pro X laptop

Microsoft/Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

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 Snapdragon 8cx, 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.

Adobe demonstrated its Fresco drawing app on Microsoft's Surface Pro X and will bring other Creative Cloud apps to Arm-powered PCs.

Adobe demonstrates its Fresco drawing app on Microsoft's Surface Pro X. It'll bring other Creative Cloud apps to Arm-powered PCs.

Microsoft/Screenshot by Lauren Routt/CNET

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 Fresco drawing app on the Surface Pro X 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."

Watch this: Microsoft reveals 5.3mm ultrathin Surface Pro X