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Hands-on with the built-for-Windows Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 ARM processor

The biggest problems facing mainstream PCs is the balancing act between heat, weight, size, and power. You can make a PC powerful and affordable, but it can't be thin and light. You can make a PC thin, but it can't be too powerful, lest it overheat. Intel has struggled for years to solve this equation, but Qualcomm has come in with its own solution: the Snapdragon 850, the first built-for-Windows ARM processor.

I went hands-on with the Snapdragon 850 at Computex 2018, running on a reference hardware device built by Qualcomm. To be honest, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the experience, which is exactly what I want out of a change in processor architecture. Windows 10 runs just as well on the ARM-based chip as it does on an Intel Core iX chip, but it does so with a far lower power draw, generating less heat, and it's always connected to the LTE network with far better internet performance to boot.

Snapdragon 850 chip is not remarkable — and that's good

To demonstrate just how unremarkable it is, Qualcomm demoed three gaming solutions for me: a 32-bit ARM-encoded Universal Windows Platform (UWP) game, a 64-bit ARM encoded game (Asphalt 9, coming soon from Gameloft), and even an emulated x86 game (a Chinese PUBG-style battle royale). While none of the games were particularly graphics-heavy, each played exactly as well as I'd expect from a similarly-equipped Intel tablet.

That it's unremarkable is remarkable. We're talking about what is essentially a modestly scaled-up phone processor, not unlike the chips you'll find in the latest Android flagship smartphones, just slightly bigger and more powerful. Qualcomm can get away with making small compromises on size and power thanks to the larger form factor of the PC and tablet devices the Snapdragon 850 will call home. With much larger batteries and greater heat-dispersal capabilities (though still fanless), these devices can easily support the increased power demands of the Snapdragon 850 over the 835 processor found in PCs like the HP Envy X2.

And though it seems unremarkable, the always-on and always-connected nature of the Snapdragon platform changes how you use your PC in subtle but important ways. Having Skype calls come through or emails sync even while the computer is off alters your interaction with the device and the apps on it. There's no more turning on your PC, waiting for it to connect to the network, and then finding out you missed a call — it's always connected, and thus, so are you.

That connection is enhanced by Qualcomm's LTE chops, in part due to their expansive patent portfolio. Qualcomm is quite proud of the capabilities of the X20 modem, with support for 3x and 4x carrier band aggregation and unlicensed spectrums, giving Snapdragon 850 devices support for Gigabit LTE speeds on 90 percent of carriers around the globe (of course, your carrier will need to offer such ludicrous speeds). Qualcomm set up a demo with two LTE-connected devices, a Surface Pro with an Intel processor and Intel LTE modem right next to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 reference hardware with LTE, both on Taiwan's speedy Chunghwa network — the Intel device managed 30Mbps to 50Mbps download speeds, while the Snapdragon device pulled down more than 300Mbps. For comparison, that's far faster than most home broadband connections in the U.S. but served wirelessly over LTE.

It's no coincidence the target $500 to $800 price range is right where Apple's iPad sits.

Qualcomm is targeting mainstream computers and users with the Snapdragon 850, aiming for the first devices to sit in the $500 to $800 price range. It's no coincidence that's also right where a similarly-sized and capable Apple iPad is priced; tablets have long threatened the entry-level mainstream PC space, and Intel has thus far failed to produce a credible competitive chipset for Windows PC makers. With the Snapdragon 850, they'll now truly have that option. ASUS, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung have all committed to launching Snapdragon 850 devices, and more are expected to announce them in the months ahead.

In targeting mainstream users, Qualcomm is for now ceding the high power computing market to Intel. The Snapdragon 850 isn't designed for high-power computing like Photoshop or AAA PC games; it's designed to get the most battery life for day-to-day computing uses, enabling thinner, lighter, and cooler devices that weren't possible before.

Snapdragon 850 and the future

Qualcomm is working with app developers to make some of the heavier mainstream apps out there native to ARM instead of emulating, and it is even developing an ARM-compatible Chromium engine to enable web-wrapper apps like WhatsApp and Slack to perform dramatically better on the platform. Microsoft is also taking significant steps in support for ARM, putting one-button encoding to ARM into the latest version of Visual Studio. Apps deployed to the Microsoft Store will simply serve the most compatible version offered to customers, making ARM deployment practically a no-brainer.

The Snapdragon platform and Windows will enable thinner, lighter, and cooler devices, as well as new form factors.

It's worth remembering that these are still the earliest days of proper support from the Snapdragon computing platform for Windows. Not only will we see an evolution in form factors enabled by the reduced power and cooling demands of ARM chips versus x86, moving to thinner and lighter and longer-lasting devices, but it in the years ahead we'll see an expansion of PC-focused Qualcomm processors, which should seriously concern Intel.

As the Snapdragon processor range reaches higher into the PC market and more app developers support the ARM chips, it'll be harder for customers to justify buying the hotter, slower, and bulkier Intel devices. I for one look forward to the day I can buy an ARM-powered device with the power competently to run Adobe Premiere. I wouldn't be surprised if devices like the dual-screened ASUS Project Precog end up powered by Qualcomm chips.

The first devices with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 are expected to be released by the end of 2018, just in time for the holiday shopping season and at price points that will make them enticing buys. We're coming up on an exciting time for computing, and it's going to be adapt or die for manufacturers like Intel.

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

72 Comments
  • I can't wait till Fall(Autumn). I'm getting the same feelings I got when they introduced the surface pro 4.
  • Yes, I wish that they drop Andromeda this Fall.
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  • Is the cache mem size of the 850 the same as the mobile versions ie. 835 and 845?
  • I like this collaboration between Qualcomm and Microsoft, is like if Microsoft now is getting customized CPU's like Apple does for their iPad Pro devices.
    I'm pretty sure we may see light of a $800 Surface device powered with Snapdragon 850 for Holiday season of 2018.
  • I'm curious how many people are using tablets with LTE today. Maybe it's only me, but the idea of an always connected tablet sounds great and all, but I don't think it's worth $30 extra a month for access. Plus, at least my AT&T unlimited plan is throttled to 3Mbps. Does anyone really care about 1.2Gbps modem vs. 1Gbps modem? Is anyone actually going to be able to take advantage in the lifespan of these devices?
  • This...
  • I think it's the idea that it allows you to work/play practically anywhere that doesn't have a wifi nearby. You could work while sitting in your car in a parking lot, on the beach, at a park, etc.
  • Just like my Surface 3 does right now.
  • It's the main reason why I haven't replaced my Surface 3 LTE yet. Dedicated LTE vs smartphone hotspot just isn't the same.
  • In tablets the demand is reasonably small in my webstore. Maybe 1 in 10, or 1 in 5. Most people just use wifi, and don't want to pay extra money for the odd occasion where they can just make a hotspot. A lot of peoples devices never leave their homes, even laptops and tablets. It'll be a huge selling point to some, but I think the always connected and battery life will be far more important to most people.
  • I'm sure this is the case now, but for people like me, so many places I try to work have wonky, slow, or privacy invasive wi-fi that the opportunity to use good wi-fi when I can but LTE in those not so good places would be a real asset that I would pay for.
  • Till one day e-sim is in every devices and we can run 1 profile in multiple devices at the same time! As a not-so-small pocket WiFi (but light weight, slim and long lasting), useful for travel or business trip.
  • Not that it makes a big difference between Snapdragon 835 (1Gbit modem) and Snapdragon 850 (1.2Gbit modem). However the difference to the LTE modems built into PCs like the Surface Pro is huge, as most PC are using Intel modem like the XMM7360, which top out at 300MBit.
  • My carrier doesn't charge extra for multiple devices using my data plan.
    My carrier is also rolling out updated LTE Advanced connectivity this year, bringing 1Gbps to all compatible devices. I'm in Canada.
  • If AT&T allows subscribers to piggy back this on their already existing unlimited data plan for phones, only then will I be in.
  • T-Mobile /sprint
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  • I think some people will love being connected anywhere and have the disposable income to burn on an extra monthly plan. I'm more of a "saver" than a "spender" so probably not me. That said, I might buy the HP x2 Envy anyway, just because it's a great tablet that I can take with me more places than I do my laptop. Have had an iPad in the past, my wife has one currently and loves it, but I prefer Windows, with Spotlight, desktop themes, Cortana, Bing, Edge, etc. What I really hope for though is for eSim to take off in these devices, and for MS to come out with some sort of LTE "on demand" model, kinda like a hotel does with wifi. I'd pay $3.99 or $4.99 for 24 hour access to the internet, when I need it. And could see myself doing so several times throughout the year if it was easy enough to do, and if I could do it on the go.
  • These devices will be available outside of the US where carriers do not throttle connections. And I think most carriers offer data only add ons at a discount.
  • I use an LTE iPad Pro primarily because it has LTE. Makes a difference when you start using it, you don't want to be without it. I'm more likely to drain the crap out of my phone battery tethering it to a laptop than I am the battery on my iPad using it pretty heavily for a full day. Now imagine that with a real operating system.
  • @Richard Devine, there are security implications in regards to always on Desktop PCs however as long logon methods are isolated to hardware on device only then the risk is lowered. Also Cellular connections are somewhat more secure than WiFi, especially with 802.11 AC. I can see my neighbours router from down the street on my WiFi list. The risk is compounded by the fact new builds use plasterboards instead of brick walls with cavity insulation. So higher the strength of WiFi signal, higher the risk.
  • While it may be true that LTE for larger devices are not too popular, so was the smartphone when the technology beginning to ship from 3G to LTE. No one said it would make a difference, bit now it made a difference.
    In my country (Thailand), LTE is very speedy (1GBps is possible in some area for almost a year now) and doesn't cost more when requesting for another sim.
    So, iPad with LTE is quite popular here and I would expect the ACPC to be the same, if out ever land in my country.
  • Here it's quite common to have "twin cards" with normal cell phone accounts, for use with tablets. No extra cost except maybe for the initial extra sim.
  • At some point down the road, we're going to have the feasibility for LAN As A Service - our networks will run essentially as VLans within the carrier's networks, replacing much of our wired LAN infrastructure. Having constantly connected devices is an initial step along that path.
  • My wife and I currently have the S3 with LTE, we are on TMO $10 per month for 2GB data. We both love it. So, These new devices always ON ARM will be a major step up, if it catches on market wise especially with proposed eSIM, that is a good competition for data carriers securing customers and could spell good prices for customers.
  • Hyped for this. Let's hope we see a new surface with this chip and the new form factor we have been seeing in patents. Time for a pc category...
  • Me too, but I'm also buying a house (being in the UK on the south coast, where everyone wants to live it seems, these are amazingly expensive things to buy) so I'm hoping the affordable price point comment from the article comes good. I'm keen to replace my laptop convertible, tablet and phone with one pocketable always-on Windows not-Phone (that can make phone calls).
  • I'm very excited about this development. I'm happy with my current Ryzen laptop, but having a device with multi-day battery life and that can let me run my productivity apps for work would be awesome. It's also important that Microsoft make it as easy as possible to recompile existing apps for Win 10 ARM, because without native-level performance, they couldn't really gain marketshare (not to knock the emulation, but native >>>>emulation any day).
  • Yea, having apps compiled for ARM will be much better, and I am glad they are making it as easy as they can. I am just concerned developers won't bother doing it. They didn't get any traction in the past. Even Amazon isn't getting much traction in their app store, even though it's all just Android. I think Microsoft is facing a real uphill battle here, and I am not so sure it's going to be successful.
  • I think that the key difference now is that now developers can also make standard Win32 apps compiled for ARM (which was officially prohibited on Windows RT) whereas before Windows RT sort of forced developers to go through the Microsoft app store.
  • Yes, Microsoft is supporting the transition from Winform/WPF to UWP with. Net Core 3.0 and UWP Island control.
  • Good points everyone
  • Surely they'd just make standard UWPs, that can run well on anything, with the slight advantage of giving what will likely be a growing portion of one of the fastest selling markets - laptops and hybrids an experience that doesn't make then rate the app is *****.
  • umm......ms store is built right into windows unlike the amazon store. (don't really have idea how/where to use the amazon store). but ms store comes preloaded into windows n devs. so...that is an advantage worth considering heavily
  • I was just thinking MS needs to have their own custom chips like Apple and look what happened. Obvious moves are obvious. Still this should be a big plus and hopefully willove Windows forward into the 21st century
  • I'd rather people stuck with UWP. Easier to have it run well on anything than having all sorts of different compiles.
  • In order to stick with UWP, a developer would have had to support UWP in the first place. They didn't.
  • PWAs will take over.
    Mark my words.
  • *Screenshots*
  • its not too late n now they have a reason to support UWP.....can target 2 diff architectures with UWP....considering WOA is successful
  • I do not see a problem making a Win32 App run well.
  • I totally agree, but in order for UWP to take off again MS simply MUST come out with small form factor, pocketable, device. A foldable tablet like Andromeda will be cool, but in my opinion, speaking as a developer of UWP apps, it should just plain be a phone, a Surface branded premium phone with an 850 chip in it, that comes with a pen. Basically Microsoft's version of the Galaxy Note. Every month that goes by where MS delays doing this is another month where UWP app sales dive lower and lower, until devs finally just give up and pull their UWP apps from the store.
  • PS. There only needs to be ONE version of the Surface Phone. One that comes bundled with the pen. There's no need for a SP 650, SP 950, SP 950XL. Just one device! One that does inking well. Easy peasy Microsoft! No need to over complicate it.
  • Agreed, one ultra mega mobile device, dual sim and having esim would be nice. I would put my work sim in it and use it as a device that can happen to make/take phone calls, it runs full Windows so any special work apps will be on there, work saml should be fine on it, use cisco vpn anyconnect as needed... Perfect companion device to my main work laptop
  • Agree. Dual SIM Dual ACTIVE....LTE capable at both SIMS (remove the LTE only on SIM1, 2G/Edge on SIM2 limits). However, I have no problem giving up Win32 support, provided Microsoft sets the example and releases a fully developed native ARM64 Office Suite as a set of UWP apps. (yes even Access, Publisher, Project and Visio).. Everything else I'll use Edge. When I need to do serious Visual Studio Development or AutoCAD Drafting, well I want to use my Dual monitor Windows 10 Workstation w/ a physical keyboard, mouse, headphones and microphone. So, my Win32 stuff only needs to work on Windows 10 Workstation (x64) and not Windows 10 on ARM (SD850). But I don't think any of this will come about. So I will probably keep using a mid range Android Phone (ditched our 950XLs a few months back) as my primary mobil device... and keep a WIndows 10 Laptop for Travel work and WIndows 10 Workstation at my Home Office for serious development. And that's not so bad. With Google Drive and One Drive and a plethora of Microsoft Apps (Word, Excel, Outlook, Edge) available on Android... The Desktop and Laptop will stay relevant a few more years.
  • UWP will take off because first a new category ACPC and then Mobile computer Platform (MCP) , then new category of writing mobile apps specific to MCP - using UWP
  • @OnTheSurface what you just described Is the Surface Mini With LTE (it was cancelled). I hope it makes a resurgence with Windows On ARM.
  • @OnTheSurface, it's good to know that you're a UWP developer. Tell me more which app you developed, would love to give them a try 😉 .
  • How much memory will these devices support?
    We see phones with up to 8 GB nowadays in the mainstream with the 845 CPU so this should also support that much and we all know how much better Win10 works with 8 GB vs. 4 GB.
    Memory constraints is one of the main issues with the AAA titles like PhotoShop/PUBG/etc. not CPU power.
    Is the memory on them DDR4 LP? How many channels? 1 or 2?
    I suspect the ARM HAL in W10 is tuned for something specific there.
  • In addition to memory the storage interface is very important and The bottleneck factor in performance. Will SD850 support PCIe NVMe M2 or similar form factor, or would it be the traditional UFS or a new UFS with performance similar to NVMe?
  • SD850 at least supports UFS2.0
  • Can someone comment how the low thermal signature of ACPC improve SSD over SATA option?
  • SD850 definitely calls for UFS 3.0 which is a lot faster than UFS 2.0...
  • Andromeda+Snapdragon 850 FTW.
  • Yes
  • 855
  • Yaaawnn. Tell me when they can do AAA games. For always connected stuff, I have my Razer Phone with 4000mah that's lasts almost two days. Skype, emails, chats, social media, etc... Plus I don't want another cell data sub. Skype rings, are you really going to bust out your 13inch always connected PC, or whip out your phone? I'd whip out my phone that's in my pocket or on my nightstand within reach. How about needing to send physical document, digitally? I'd whip out my phone, take a snap and email/text it. You could also do that with your always connected PC, but who would use a 13inch camera? I know these are niche scenarios, but those are my pain points. It's just not convenient for my everyday use.
  • Would have been perfect in my old real world job. Still perfect in my current job. I hate using a phone for literally anything besides basic communication, playing a few games, music, camera etc. You know, phone things. I can't stand doing anything productive on a small screen. Sure that's my use case, but I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. The great thing is you don't need to buy one, choice is never a bad thing. And you and I both know if you want AAA games you're not buying an ARM anything anytime soon. So that's just a cop-out. Sea of Thieves barely runs on Intel graphics.
  • Bye then
  • A larger screen is better for watching videos, Office (Excel), coding, photo editing etc. So for all of the scenarios you listed, there are quite a few scenarios in favor of PC.
  • And finally we begin to see the early days of ARM on all PCs. We are just getting started. It's time we let x86 go. Once AMD completes it's K12 design, we will be one more step closer to ARM everywhere.
  • ACPC with ARM is a valid business use case, replacing x86 ecosystem (e.g. Tensorflow running on Cuda of Nvidia) with ARM is a whole new different story.
  • God no, ARM isn't even close to powerful enough to do what I need to do for work, we are years off from that, and by then I'll need even more computing power.
  • But as ARM devices start increase, the software may follow. Maybe some day the software you need for work gets updated to run smoothly on ARM.
  • Microsoft is right on in putting Windows 10 on ARM's CPU devices. they were
    late to the smart phone game but wont give up on the ARM's CPU mobile devices
    World. The fact is a lot of Business and Average People do not need high
    powered Intel CPU Computers unless they are doing special Complex Computer
    aided design programs for Science & Engineering or high level Video editing and
    Gaming.. if a Computer can do Netflix well & Microsoft Office well and surf the web,
    do email and ebooks that's OK with them. Folks I Predict Intel will make their
    OWN ARM's CPU's soon. in fact Intel is making ARM CPU's for a Customer now so
    look for Intel to make their OWN Custom ARM's CPU's as well
    as their more powerful regular Core m. i3, i5, i7, and new i9 CPU's
  • folks Intel wont sit buy and loose Money. I predict that in 2019 Intel will make it's OWN
    ARM'S CPU's to offer to their Customers before Intel looses to much market shares
  • Looks like someone at intel has been reading the comments section 😂, if what you say is true. So gotta ask - source link?
  • OK. So will there be an ARM64 version of Visual Studio?
  • Dan, this is a good question
  • "it's going to be adapt or die for manufacturers like Intel" AMD comes to mind. Any others?