First revealed back in December 2017, Qualcomm has a master plan to take over the mobile computing world: bring its Snapdragon smartphone processors to laptops and tablets to make computers work more like phones, starting with the Snapdragon 835.
Concocted in tandem with Microsoft and its Windows 10 S operating system, these laptops and tablets – of which there are three so far: the Asus NovaGo, HP Envy x2 and Lenovo Miix 630 – use the unique power-management capabilities and built-in LTE connectivity of Snapdragon processors to create truly always-on and always-connected Windows 10 computers.
Let’s just say that this major move by Qualcomm has the laptop world talking, and we’ve asked all the major manufacturers what they think.
If you ask those who have bought into Qualcomm’s mission, i.e. the aforementioned device-makers, that’s exactly what these chips do. Of course, those who have yet to dive in either have serious doubts or have their toes in the water, so to speak.
“The industry has tried – and given up – a couple times on always-on, always-connected PCs,” Acer's senior product marketing and brand manager Eric Ackerson says. “I think, with products like our Swift 7, we're trying it again and we're going to see what happens.”
However, the most recent Acer Swift 7 is not a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 laptop, but rather one with a 7th-generation Intel Core i7 processor and Intel LTE cellular modem inside – it claims up to 10 hours of battery life compared to Qualcomm’s offering of 20.
“We don't have a solution with the Snapdragon 835,” Ackerson says, “[but] that's not to say that we won't. We are evaluating, and we'll see what happens. I think, personally, it's a very interesting idea.”
Acer clearly wants to see whether it can go toe-to-toe with these Qualcomm laptops with a more tried-and-true offering before taking the plunge. Meanwhile, Lenovo is wasting no time picking up what Qualcomm is putting out.
“When we first conceived the Lenovo Miix 630,” Lenovo VP of global consumer marketing Matt Bereda says, “we really wanted to create a computing tool for the mobile user – a segment of the market that has constant connectivity through their smartphones, but needs much more computing power when they’re on the go. It’s with this in mind that we designed the Lenovo Miix 630 to emulate the convenient connectivity of smartphones, while retaining the productivity of a laptop with a full-sized keyboard.”
It’s clear that Lenovo believes Snapdragon is the way forward to this type of computing experience, and so does Asus.
“That Qualcomm SOC has really proven that it can handle a really wide variety of things, and we're able to do a lot [with it on the] Android platform,” Philip Tamaki, product marketing manager for Asus, says. “Of course, at the same time Asus has always kind of led the way with our Windows PC products.”
There’s a clear thread here between the creators of the first three Snapdragon laptops and existing relationships with Qualcomm through their phone businesses. Both Asus and Lenovo (and Motorola) have been releasing Android phones with Qualcomm’s chips inside for years, while HP has recently got into the game with phones like the Elite x3.
However, in HP’s case, it clearly feels more comfortable testing out the Snapdragon chipset within an existing product before dedicating significant design resources to the cause, repurposing its latest Envy x2 Windows tablet. (In fact, HP even has an Envy x2 model with an Intel processor inside.)
“What I love is [that] we keep the full-travel keyboard [and] great touchpad,” HP VP of customer experience and portfolio strategy Mike Nash says. “[The Envy x2 has] got a phenomenal experience whether you're using the thing in a laptop – or attached – mode or detached in a tablet mode.”
“We're really interested to see how customers respond to the LTE support that's built in as a standard on this product as well [as that], right now, basically all of the major carriers in the US [and] around the world,” Nash adds.
“It's kind of an amazing experience [to] just know that, when I'm in the office, I use Wi-Fi, [but] when I'm on the plane about to take off or in some other public place, I don't worry about logging on to whatever Wi-Fi – LTE is an amazing [and] transformational experience.”
Snapdragon still faces a rather large fence
That said, not every laptop maker is necessarily gushing about this new wave of mobile Windows 10 machines. Some companies, like LG and Dell in particular, seem to have their feet firmly planted on the other side of the fence.
“LG currently has no plans to include Snapdragon in its lineup of premium ultra-light LG gram laptops,” Hyukki ‘HK’ Kim, director of IT and product management for LG, tells us. “When comparing our LG gram lineup with the Intel processor to other previously launched devices, we did not find any with longer battery life,” Kim adds, referring to the 13-inch LG gram laptop’s claim to 22 hours of battery life on a charge.
Meanwhile, Dell seems to think that it’s achieved Qualcomm’s vision of ‘always-on, always-connected’ mobile PCs just fine on its own (and with Intel).
“It’s important to find the right balance of performance and battery life, which we believe is the case with our current portfolio of consumer and commercial PCs,” Jay Parker, Dell’s president of its Client Product Group, says. “Combine that with LTE connectivity, which we offer today on many products, and that constitutes ‘always on’ in the customer’s mind.”
Samsung, one of Qualcomm’s biggest partners and customers worldwide through its Galaxy phone business, is surprisingly hesitant integrate Snapdragon into its laptops. But, the firm’s restraint to fully buy into Qualcomm’s vision seems to have more to do with Microsoft’s baggage regarding Windows on ARM-based processors than anything.
“We want to make sure that it is perfect,” Samsung senior director of mobile computing product marketing Shoneel Kolhatkar says. “There are some historical elements of Windows RT etcetera, but we’ve seen some good signs with the new Windows [10 S] on Snapdragon.”
“We feel that the Notebook 9 Pen, Notebook 9 and Notebook 7 Spin meets the needs of the consumer,” Kolhatkar adds, “especially the Notebook 9 which has a 75 watt-hour battery that’s getting about 20 hours. We believe that a consumer has a choice today and we're definitely looking at Windows on Snapdragon again to potentially target a more value consumer.”
Will Snapdragon’s ripples turn into waves?
While it’s still early days for Snapdragon-based Windows laptops and tablets, one can’t help but wonder what effect these devices will have on the laptop scene at large. For the longest time, almost every Windows laptop and tablet runs on an Intel chip, save for the odd AMD option.
Will that paradigm be truly shifted, thanks to Qualcomm?
“[Snapdragon is] not going to be a kind of revolution to the industry – more [like] a progression,” Asus’s Tamaki says. “People have phones all the time, and they're used to being always connected on the phone, but a lot of times people simply demand [to be] connected on something that has a bit more screen real estate and for more professional or purpose-built use cases.”
In particular, Tamaki sees this breed of laptops and tablets being particularly popular with professionals like journalists and real-estate agents – people whose careers see them constantly on the move. On the other hand, Lenovo sees a wider impact in the tea leaves, but Snapdragon’s success in the PC world rides quite heavily on distribution and carrier data plan pricing.
“We’re seeing a growing desire from consumers for computing devices that are powerful, portable and truly mobile,” Lenovo’s Bereda tells us. “The Lenovo Miix 630 is a compelling offering that checks all the boxes, but carrier support for distribution and compelling data plans will play a big part of the category’s success.”
Of course, despite that, we’re told that Lenovo is confident in a ‘bright future’ for the ‘always-connected’ PC and that it’s working hard on the network operator piece of the puzzle.
If you ask Samsung, the baggage of two previously failed attempts at Windows on ARM could weigh heavily upon the masses, but an even bigger factor will be whether power management or performance are considerably compromised in the endeavor.
“Let's see the reactions to the initial [products],” Samsung’s Kolhatkar says. “Is there any baggage that consumers have in terms of perception? More importantly, it has to be [that] the performance, the power and [the] portability have to balance each other. There has to be absolutely no compromise.”
In this case, HP is simply following what it believes in ‘based on insights from customers,’ we’re told, that folks certainly want power and the flexibility of a 360 design from their laptops and tablets. But, as HP’s consumer insight data tells it, there’s an increasing amount of people that are doing more on their computers on the go than ever before, hence the draw of the LTE-equipped, always-connected PC.
To Acer, it all comes down to brand positioning and messaging, which at this point requires quite a few parties – Qualcomm, Microsoft, the device makers and the carriers – to all work together.
“I think it's great to have choice, but at the same time it can be overwhelming for end-users that maybe aren't as in tune to the space or the individual technologies as you and I might be, right?” Acer’s Ackerson asks. “On the upper end of the performance and price spectrum, those are a little more knowledgeable users. They'll do some research, they'll read reviews that you're going to write and they'll use that information to guide them.”
While there’s plenty to be excited about regarding Qualcomm’s move into the PC world – laptops that last more than 20 hours?! – whether Snapdragon inside mobile Windows PCs will be the norm this time next year depends on several factors. Of course, the most important of which is how well these devices deliver on the promises of ‘always-on’ and ‘always-connected.’
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