Here’s a sign that the troubled Windows on Snapdragon platform isn’t going away anytime soon: Qualcomm is announcing today its new made-for-PC processor based on ARM design. The Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 follows up 2018’s Snapdragon 8cx, and back then the company said the “x” in the name stood for “extreme” power. This year’s model offers better AI performance and support for newer standards of WiFi and Bluetooth, but doesn’t appear to run any faster than before. Acer and HP both also announced today that they’ll be offering laptops with the new chipset, with Acer’s Spin 7 being the first to use it. HP’s product will be a business-centric notebook, and the company said more information will be shared later this year.
Instead of comparing the latest chipset to the previous generation, Qualcomm said the new 8cx delivers more than 50 percent greater “systemwide performance and battery life versus competing solutions.” In a briefing video, Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon said the first generation 8cx outperformed competition like an Intel Core i5 chip while using “a fraction of the power,” while the new 8cx offers 18 percent better system performance than a tenth-generation Intel Core i5. That’s all similar to the earlier generation, and there don’t seem to be actual performance improvements in terms of clock speeds here.
Amon pointed out the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2’s image signal processor (ISP) as a means to help webcams deliver better quality. The Spectra ISP here will support sensors up to 32-megapixels sharp, as well as up to 4K HDR recording. It will also enable HDR streaming and playback. Like the previous generation, the new 8cx can output to two 4K monitors, but this time around it supports 4K at a higher 60 fps framerate via a single cable. Qualcomm also uses its Aqstic echo-cancellation and noise suppresion tech here to make your voice sound clearer on calls amid noisy surroundings.
The 8cx Gen 2’s AI engine will also enable faster processing of things like an “eye contact” feature that was also available (albeit experimentally) on the Surface Pro X with the earlier chipset. With this, when your computer can tell you’re not looking at your webcam during a video conference, it will prompt you to make faux eye contact instead of staring at your screen. Qualcomm also announced features like a Loom.AI-powered avatar that can replace you in a call and match your facial expressions in real time, just in case you were all Zoomed out and wanted a digital character in your place.
As for one of the greatest draws of a Snapdragon PC — connectivity — like the first-generation 8cx, this chipset is compatible with 5G but won’t actually have an integrated radio for it. To support 5G, laptop makers will also have to add the Snapdragon X55 modem in their products, or an X24 if they only want to enable LTE. Qualcomm said that while the X55 doesn’t come standard, it expects most 8cx Gen 2 machines will have 5G.
Microsoft commits to taking responsibility for app compatibility
One of the biggest challenges plaguing the Windows on Snapdragon platform is app compatibility. While Microsoft has made improvements on enabling 64-bit app support for ARM and a native emulator for 32-bit apps, there still isn’t widespread compatibility for the mobile-friendly platform. Microsoft’s chief product officer Panos Panay joined Amon in Qualcomm’s video to tease some information coming about its App Assure program for Windows on ARM. “We’re now moving the App Assure program to all our customers using Snapdragon,” Panay said.
Desktop App Assure was launched in 2018 to help developers make their Windows 7 apps compatible with Windows 10. It allowed people who come across app compatibility issues to work with Microsoft engineers until their problems are resolved. With support for Windows 7 having ended in 2020, it was crucial to enable a smooth shift to Windows 10. Panay said the Snapdragon offering of App Assure would similarly have Microsoft engineers engage with developers at no cost and get those apps to work across all of Windows. He didn’t have many more details to share, saying more information was coming “in a couple of weeks,” but he did explain that Microsoft was “putting a lot of energy into this. There's a lot of momentum.”
While the actual performance promises of the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 don’t seem like a great leap forward, Microsoft’s update certainly injects some hope. We’ll have to wait till the Acer and HP laptops are available before we can determine if Snapdragon PCs will finally be reliable machines or if they’ll continue to disappoint.
Update: This article has been edited to clarify that manufacturers will need to use the X24 radio to enable LTE, not the X20 as previously stated.