The world of computer chips just got a wake-up call.
In a recent jam-packed tech keynote, Microsoft unveiled the next generation of its popular Surface Pro line of PCs. The unusual thing is, it did it twice: first revealing the Surface Pro 7, a capable iteration of its powerful-tablet-computer-with-slap-on-keyboard design, and then almost immediately showing it up with the Surface Pro X, a thinner, sleeker, pricer machine with a larger screen that boasts better battery life and much higher cool factor.
The dual announcement was odd. But even odder is what’s powering the Surface Pro X: the Microsoft SQ1, a central processing unit that’s an entirely different species of computer chip than the typical power-hungry Intel processor found in the vast majority of Windows machines today. This is the first Surface Pro that packs a chip optimized for mobile devices, which Microsoft spent three years designing with smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm.
“We wanted to take Surface Pro and bring the next-generation design to the table,” says Pavan Davuluri, Microsoft’s general manager of Surface development. “And that very much meant that we had to go back to the foundation of building and start with the core silicon chipset.”
While most computer users don’t spend a ton of time thinking about what’s under the hood of their devices, Microsoft’s decision to put a mobile chip in the Surface Pro X is a major development with significant implications for the industry, and for the gadgets you’ll be using in the future.
Generally, mobile chips are great if you want a skinny device and good battery life, but they struggle to keep up with tasks heavy on, well, computing — think video editing and gaming. At least that was the conventional wisdom a couple of years ago. Today, a new class of chips is challenging that notion. Apple was arguably the first to raise the bar in mobile performance with the iPad Pro, ushering in an era where a mobile chip doesn’t have to mean trading performance for portability.
The first real portable computer, the Osborne 1, debuted in 1981. If you slide the Osborne’s 25-pound chassis up next to a MacBook Air, you’ll really appreciate how far miniaturization has progressed. However, we’re starting to reach the limits of that progress: Attempts to go even slimmer, like the discontinued 12-inch MacBook, tend to compromise on performance, since powerful chips typically need cooling systems and struggle to provide anything close to the “all day” battery life of smartphones. For PC processors, you can have ultra-portable or ultra-powerful, but usually not both.
On the mobile side, however, where virtually all chips are based on technology from ARM Holdings, that compromise is being renegotiated. Driven by nonstop demand for bigger and better smartphones with multiple cameras, augmented reality, and always-listening assistants, mobile chips have improved by leaps and bounds. Your Mac today performs better than the one you had 10 years ago, but the iPhone 11 is in a whole other world than its ancestors from the same era.
“ARM architecture over the past four-to-five years has matured to the point where it can handle higher compute loads,” says Ben Bajarin, a technology analyst at Creative Strategies. “It’s not going to do everything, like CAD or GPU work. But we’re at a point where it handles more than 90% of a normal worker’s day and 100% of a mobile worker’s.”
Much of that is due to typical technological progress, but for leading chipmakers like Apple and Qualcomm, it’s not so much the number of transistors they can fit on a chip (which has been multiplying year after year thanks to a little idea called Moore’s Law), but how different parts of the chip interact. Having a workhorse CPU is step one, but pairing it with dedicated silicon for specific tasks (like AI or analyzing motion) and integrating a modem (which otherwise can be a big power hog) on the same “system on a chip,” or SoC, is how you keep that horse lean, and make big gains in power efficiency.
It’s thanks to those efficiencies that the Surface Pro X can do something so seemingly easy as gaze correction — fixing that annoying part of video conferencing where your eyes aren’t looking directly at the camera. It’s a task that would push the limits of a regular processor, but with SQ1’s AI computing engine, the Pro X can adjust in real time without breaking a sweat.
“The amount of computing power [gaze correction] needs is mind-blowing,” says Miguel Nunes, head of Qualcomm’s PC division. “To run this use case on a traditional PC, with an external GPU, would consume about 15 watts of power. Running that same use case on the Qualcomm AI engine on the SQ1 consumes about 300 milliwatts. So it’s 50 times less processing.” Translation: Better battery life in a more capable device.
This inflection point has been in the works for years. Around the same time the first iPad Pro went on sale in 2015, Microsoft and Qualcomm partnered up to create a new class of mobile chips that could run Windows — full Windows, not the baby version (called Windows RT) that crashed and burned because it couldn’t run many apps — making it available to manufacturers like Samsung, Lenovo, and HP.
Laptops and tablets that use those chips have been trickling out over the last year, but Microsoft added rocket fuel to the effort with its turbocharged SQ1, which boasts better on-paper specs than any mobile-powered PC so far. Moreover, by calling it a Surface Pro — the company’s stamp of portability and power — Microsoft isn’t so much unveiling a gadget as making a statement: Mobile chips are ready for serious computing.
Are they really, though? Chip and PC geeks have been cautious in their reviews of PCs with mobile processors so far, and given the false starts of the past, they’re justified in their skepticism. However, benchmarks don’t lie, and machines packing Qualcomm’s latest chip tech are scoring well. Still, we’ll have to wait until November to know whether the Surface Pro X really delivers on its promise of next-level performance in everyday use. On the Apple side, the iPad Pro’s more established processing chops have lent credence to reports that Apple has an ARM-based MacBook on its product roadmap.
If Intel is worried about Qualcomm and Apple encroaching on its territory, it’s not showing it. Part of the reason is its counteroffensive: Project Athena, a multi-year effort to make devices less bulky and more power efficient, while also better addressing those signature mobile competencies of always-on, long battery life, and cellular connectivity. The first devices under the Athena banner began shipping earlier this year.
“Athena is not about delivering one thing,” says Josh Newman, vice president of Intel’s client computing group and general manager of mobile innovation. “[The devices] are all targeting nine or more hours of battery life under real-world stress conditions — having a bunch of background applications open and much brighter screen brightness and typical battery life metrics do. And all of them will also support fast charging.”
For now, the portion of the PC market with mobile chips is so vanishingly small that analyst firms aren’t even tracking it yet. But disruptors have to start somewhere. It’s a given that the “work” computers of the future will be thin, light, and powerful — but what will be powering them is much more of an unknown than it was just a few months ago.
Correction, Oct. 14
The original version of this story misstated what Miguel Nunes said about the SQ1’s efficiency. The given example would involve 50 times less processing, not 15 times less.