When you're in Hawaii, you don't want to be stuck inside, so perhaps it was the perfect location for Qualcomm and ASUS to unveil the world's first gigabit laptop, the NovaGo.
The "Go" in the laptop's name denotes both a sea change for ASUS — a company that was among the first on a number of well-received innovations, from the ultrabook to the 2-in-1 to the netbook itself — and, perhaps, the mobile industry.
I say "mobile industry" on purpose, because the two devices being announced at Qualcomm's annual Snapdragon Summit — the other being the HP Envy x2 detachable — are essentially smartphones running Windows 10 S. They may look the part of a laptop, and in the case of the NovaGo a fairly unremarkable convertible, but they offer all the benefits of your average smartphone. From Windows Central Executive Editor Daniel Rubino's summary of the "Always Connected" PC category:
The main benefits of Windows 10 on ARM and Always Connected PCs comes down to three main features:
- Instant on — Like your smartphone, Always Connected PCs don't hibernate; instead, they just turn on instantly even after hours of being on standby.
- Always connected — Again, like a smartphone, there is no need for either the Wi-Fi or LTE network to disconnect with Windows 10 on ARM; these PCs will get notifications, alerts, and pull data without ever disconnecting.
- Battery life — Smartphones already get all-day battery life, but an Always Connected PC is at least four times the size, meaning larger batteries to match the same hardware. so pushing a whole week of usage without recharging is likely not out of the question.
On their own, these three elements probably aren't worth giving up the native advantages of Windows 10 on x86, but together you start to see a pattern emerging, and it has the same fundamental advantages that netbooks offered years ago, and ultrabooks a few years after that: flexibility.
Intel has made strides in thermal efficiency, but nothing comes close to ARM right now.
Despite the battery life advantages inherent to 8th generation Intel Core chips — you're hearing about 20+ hours of battery life on really high-end hardware these days — nothing Intel builds today comes close to the thermal efficiency of an ARM chip. Add LTE and the potential for always up-to-date apps and services (background refresh happening anywhere, not just when the computer is connected to Wi-Fi) and the proposition is pretty compelling.
ASUS NovaGo specs and design
This brings us to the first product that will showcase Microsoft's and Qualcomm's vision for the ACPC: the NovaGo. Available in the spring of 2018 starting at $599 for the 4GB/64GB model, the laptop is, by all accounts, fairly pedestrian. Here's what the spec sheet looks like:
- Windows 10 S (upgradeable to Windows 10 Pro)
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform @ 2.6GHz
- Adreno 540 GPU @ 710MHz
- 13.3-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) LCD panel with 100 percent sRGB color gamut
- 4GB/8GB 1866MHz LPDDR4x RAM ($599/$799)
- 64GB/256GB UFS 2.0 storage ($599/$799)
- HD camera (1280x720)
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi (2x2 MIMO) / GPS
- Snapdragon X16 modem (1Gbps DL / 150Mbps UL, 4x4 MIMO)
- 52Whr LiPo battery (22 hours max.)
- 12.44 in. x 8.7 in. x 0.59 in
- 3.06 pounds
- Backlit keyboard
- Glass-covered Precision Touchpad
- Fingerprint sensor (Windows Hello)
- Two USB 3.1 Type-A, one HDMI, one DC in
- one audio jack, one nanoSIM slot, one microSD card reader
So you can see, it's not going to break any spec records. I had a chance to use the laptop, and it's solid — perhaps a little chunky and heavy, but it looks like it'll stand up to a beating.
The keyboard and touchpad are excellent, with clicky keys and responsive tracking, respectively. The touchscreen is good enough for indoor use, though it lacks enough brightness for prolonged outdoor exposure. The port selection is adequate, though I'd substitute the HDMI for a DisplayPort myself. A fingerprint sensor on the trackpad is a nice, ahem, touch, too.
Finally, the hinge to tent or turn the laptop into a tablet is extremely stiff and lives up to ASUS's legacy of excellent hardware quality. Kudos.
ASUS NovaGo Snapdragon
Here's where things get interesting. The NovaGo runs a Snapdragon 835 SoC at 2.6Ghz, some 5.8% greater than the fastest clock speed found on an Android phone running the same silicon.
Windows on ARM has been a long time coming, and Windows 10 feels ready to take on the challenge.
Given the larger chassis of a laptop, the 10nm-built chip has more thermal headroom and is less likely to throttle from those high speeds as a result. (The Adreno 540 GPU, on the other hand, remains at the standard 710Mhz of the chipset.)
Qualcomm and Microsoft have been working on optimization Windows on ARM for a year now, and the companies say that users probably won't notice a big performance difference when running Win32 applications; the main difference is that, on initial boot, the emulated app is compiled and kept in memory, so some additional loading time is to be expected.
Of course, the NovaGo's so-called 22 hours of battery life is contingent on the laptop running ARM-optimized apps; despite what Microsoft claims, there should be a battery impact when running Win32 apps in emulation. How much impact, however, remains to be seen.
Qualcomm is also confident that its Adreno 540 GPU will be able to maintain a certain performance threshold while playing games or engaging in other graphics-intensive activities since the thermal output is much lower than Intel's HD Graphics components.
The move to a single SoC also makes room for a larger battery and brings with it other meaningful sensors and radios, like GPS, which will help more quickly locate the laptop when using mapping applications.
ASUS NovaGo Cellular and Sprint
Sprint is the exclusive carrier launch partner for the NovaGo and other ACPCs in the U.S., and the company says that it wants to make the purchase and activation process as simple as possible.
Eventually, Sprint says, it intends to use eSIM technology to allow buyers to activate LTE service at any time — even on an as-needed, temporary basis like you find on today's iPad Pros. That's the future, though: the NovaGo has a typical nanoSIM slot, and Sprint intends to offer dedicated data plans for ACPCs. It's unclear if other carriers in the U.S. will offer support, though Qualcomm says that providers in China and many other countries will have their own LTE offerings next year.
The main value proposition of having LTE on a laptop is to be able to pick up work wherever, whenever, without needing a Wi-Fi signal. Microsoft also believes there are security benefits here, too: many public Wi-Fi signals are not properly secured and may open up devices to man-in-the-middle attacks.
But it's unclear whether users, most of whom will already have a smartphone with hotspot support, want to invest in a separate plan, or are willing to potentially give up a significant amount of performance for the benefits of Qualcomm's SoC.
Moreover, will Windows 10 S behave the way a smartphone behaves — the way iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile were built — to constantly and intelligently update apps and services behind the scenes so versions are always current and synchronized? Applications will need to be updated to accommodate these new user behaviors: you're not necessarily going to want Dropbox using LTE to keep your files up-to-date, especially if you don't have an unlimited plan.
ASUS NovaGo: An exciting time
The NovaGo isn't ASUS's most exciting laptop, but it represents an exciting new time in mobile computing. There's no question that with Qualcomm becoming more involved in the Windows 10 story, and helping push laptops, convertibles, and detachables into the world of ubiquitous connectivity, it's a good time to be in the Microsoft ecosystem.