Qualcomm opened up about its efforts to bring new PC silicon to market last week, but the news isn’t altogether good. Systems based on Qualcomm’s new SoCs may not arrive in-market as quickly as initially expected. The company still intends to bring best-in-class silicon to the party, however.
Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon opened up about the company’s plans for the CPU business in a recent interview with CNet’s Roger Cheng. “With the acquisition of Nuvia, we are aiming to have performance leadership on PC on the CPU period,” Amon said in the recent interview. This echoes some of Nuvia’s own marketing, which showed its own CPUs with a considerable performance/watt advantage over both Intel and AMD.
When Qualcomm bought the CPU design company Nuvia, it declared that it would use Nuvia’s ARM-based microarchitecture to enter the PC market and compete against companies like Intel and AMD. While ARM-based Windows PCs have technically existed since the launch of the Surface RT back in 2012, these efforts have always focused on the ultra-portable and ultra-low-power market segments. Nuvia promised much stronger performance, and the success of Apple’s M1 in its various iterations demonstrates that ARM-based CPUs can compete with x86, even at the top of the consumer market.
But while Apple’s M1 and M2 are potent competitors for x86, the gap between Windows and macOS functions as a moat for Intel and AMD. There’s a similar, but far smaller moat between x86 devices on Windows and their ARM counterparts, because driver and software support still overwhelmingly favor x86. While Qualcomm has made some updates to its PC platform, including the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3, it isn’t powerful enough to lead the market. Windows on ARM devices aren’t yet a big enough deal for vendors to focus much attention on them. Portable gaming devices like the Steam Deck will never do Switch-like numbers, but they help AMD demonstrate that x86 can compete in handheld gaming.
A new ARM CPU with high-end x86-competitive performance on a homegrown architecture would be a dream come true for Qualcomm. Unfortunately, it may take a little while longer for these systems to hit the
market. Qualcomm’s original goal was to sample systems in August 2022, with shipments following in the back half of 2023. During the interview, Amon referred to sampling chips to customers for design “next year.” He also implied volume shipments might slip into 2024. “Late next year / beginning of 2024 you are going to see Windows PCs powered by Snapdragon with a Nuvia designed CPU,” Amon said.
These two statements imply that Qualcomm may be at least a few months behind schedule.
Qualcomm is one of a handful of companies that could plausibly challenge the AMD/Intel CPU design duopoly. Some of the people who founded Nuvia worked on Apple’s CPUs (there’s still some ongoing litigation on this issue) and the company was always confident it could challenge much bigger players thanks to an intrinsically superior architecture. Pulling the launch back a few months is ultimately less important than demonstrating whether ARM CPUs can shake up the Windows side of the PC industry the way Apple is busy shaking up the Mac side of things.
It would be a mistake to assume that Intel and AMD won’t be ready to meet this kind of challenge. By 2024, Zen 5 and Arrow Lake should be moving into market. Intel will have shifted to EUV manufacturing by then and picked up the benefits from what we used to call a full node die shrink (from 10nm to 7nm). Winning isn’t guaranteed by any means, but that’s what makes this kind of competition interesting.
I’m looking forward to Qualcomm entering the market, if only because it will help equalize the playing field between CPUs when evaluating performance — but the battery life and dead silent computers that a lot of M1 owners talk about wouldn’t hurt, either.