At this week’s Computex show in Taiwan Qualcomm announced the next generation of silicon for the Windows on Snapdragon platform. The new chip is called the Snapdragon 850, and rather than simply repurposing an existing high-end smartphone processor the company has cooked up a modified chip specifically for the Windows PC market. Qualcomm says the new chip will provide a 30 percent system-wide performance boost over the previous generation. I’m pleased to see Qualcomm pushing forward here, as this area will eventually evolve into a crucial piece of the PC market. However, announcing it now, with an eye toward new products appearing by year’s end, puts its existing hardware partners in a very tough spot.
Tough Reviews, And a Short Runway
Qualcomm and Microsoft officially launched the Windows 10 PCs powered by the Snapdragon Mobile PC Platform in December 2017. The promise: By using the Snapdragon 835 processor and related radios, Windows notebook and detachable products would offer instant startup, extremely long battery life, and a constant connection via LTE. Initial PC partners included HP, Lenovo, and ASUS.
Reviews of the three initial products have been mixed at best, with many reviewers complaining about slow performance, driver challenges, and app compatibility. But most also acknowledge the benefits of smartphone-like instant on, the luxury of connectivity beyond WiFi, and battery runtimes measured in days versus hours. I’d argue that the technical issues of rolling out a new platform like this were unavoidable. However, the larger self-inflicted wound here was that nobody did a great job of articulating who these products would best serve. This fundamental issue led to some head-scratching price points and confused marketing. I talked about the missed opportunity around commercial users back in December.
There was also the issue of product availability. While the vendors announced their products back in December, shipments didn’t start until 2018. In fact, while HP’s $1,000 Envy X2 started shipping in March, neither Lenovo’s $900 Miix 630 nor ASUS’s $700 NovaGo TP370QL is widely available even today. Amazon recently launched a landing page dedicated to the Always-Connected Windows 10 PC with a bundled option for free data from Sprint for the rest of 2018. The ASUS product moved from pre-order to available on June 7; Lenovo’s product still has a pre-order button that says it will launch June 27th.
That landing page appears to have gone live just days before Qualcomm announcing the 850 in Taiwan, and promising new hardware from partners-including Samsung-by the end of the year. Now, if I’m one of these vendors who threw support behind Windows on Snapdragon early, only to have Qualcomm Osborne my product before I’ve even started shipping it, I’m not a happy camper.
Might as Well Wait
As a frequent business traveler, the Windows on Snapdragon concept is very appealing to me. I realize that performance won’t come close to what even lower-end X86 processors from Intel and AMD offer, but I’m willing to make that trade for the benefits. As a result, I expect that for the first few years these types of PCs will be better as companion/travel devices rather than outright replacements for a traditional PC. In my case, I could see one competing for space in my bag with the LTE-enabled iPad Pro I carry today. Except when I carry the Pro, I still must carry my PC because there are some tasks I can’t do well on iOS.
Both the Lenovo and HP products are detachable tablets, whereas the ASUS is a convertible clamshell, which is the form factor I’m most eager to test. I was close to pulling the trigger on the ASUS through Amazon when the Qualcomm 850 news hit. Buying one now seems wasteful, with new, improved product inbound by the holidays. And that’s not the kind of news vendors want to hear.
Now many will say that this is the nature of technology, that something new is always coming next. And while that’s essentially a true statement, this move seems particularly egregious at a time when Qualcomm and Microsoft are trying to get skeptical PC vendors to support this new platform. Plus, we’re not talking about a speed bump to a well-established platform, this is a highly visible initiative with an awful lot of skeptics within the industry. Qualcomm might have decided that the poor initial reviews warranted a fast follow up; one hopes their existing partners were in on that decision.
Bottom line: I continue to find the prospects of Windows on Snapdragon interesting, and I expect the new products based on the 850 chip will perform noticeably better than the ones running on the 835. But if Qualcomm and Microsoft expect their partners to continue to support them in this endeavor, they’ve got to do a better job of supporting them in return.