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ARM-based laptops


Aaron44126

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After seeing it hyped up for a few months now, the Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite SOC is starting to show up in laptops.  There were many announcements today, and these systems will start shipping next month.

 

Microsoft Surface Laptop and Surface Pro

https://blogs.windows.com/devices/2024/05/20/introducing-the-ultimate-copilot-pcs-the-all-new-surface-pro-and-surface-laptop/

 

Dell XPS 13 and Inspiron 14 / 14 Plus, and some Latitude systems

https://www.theverge.com/2024/5/20/24160859/dell-qualcomm-snapdragon-x-elite-plus-xps-laptops

 

More coming, from Acer, HP, Lenovo

https://www.pcmag.com/news/meet-the-snapdragon-x-elite-starting-lineup-from-acer-dell-hp-and-lenovo

 

Interested to see some real-world performance tests.  These are obviously mid-range systems and not trying (yet?) to replace high-performance systems like mobile workstations, high-end gaming systems, or what passes for DTRs these days.  Still, they show competitive single-threaded performance against Intel Core 7 Ultra and Apple M3, while boasting efficiency and battery life closer to what one would expect from the MacBook Air.

 

There's a lot on the technical side that I'm interested to see how it unfolds:

  • These systems will all be running Windows on ARM, which has until now been pretty uncommon to see "in the wild".
  • Will Microsoft relax their failed attempt to control the Windows ARM ecosystem and start allowing, say, ISO downloads so users can do a self-install?
  • Emulation of x86/x64 apps on ARM Windows is not in terrible state, but how many software makers will start offering native ARM builds of their software for best performance?
    • Both Chrome and Opera shipped ARM-based versions of their browsers for the first time in the past few weeks.  ...I've been running the ARM Windows Firefox build in a VM for almost a year.
  • Qualcomm says these things are decent at gaming.  Well, eh, that's a stretch.  They have a demo of Control being played at 1080p/30FPS.  (You can play it on a high-spec MacBook Pro — that is, also an ARM system — through CrossOver, at 1440p/60.)  But, more and more games are leveraging AVX instructions and requiring CPUs that support them.  Microsoft doesn't support AVX in their emulation layer (yet?), so such games have no hope at all of running on ARM systems.
    • Will game devs relax this requirement and offer builds that work without AVX, or ARM-specific builds?  Or will Microsoft add AVX support to their emulation layer?  Or will gamers who want to play on the go just have to navigate a confusing compatibility landscape?
  • Similarly, low-level software that integrates with the kernel (anti-cheat, security software, backup software, etc.) won't work through the emulation layer and needs an actual ARM build.  Haven't seen much traction in this area yet, but that seems likely to change as ARM laptops start being dumped out onto the market over the next few months, including in business settings.
  • Will anyone besides Qualcomm make ARM SOCs to try to compete in this space?  There have been rumors that both NVIDIA and AMD are interested in launching SOCs to run ARM-based Windows in the next year or two.  NVIDIA has had some success with their ARM-based Tegra SOC (see: Nintendo Switch).
    • Will anyone target the high-performance space?  (Qualcomm's marketing material shows how well their SOC holds up against Apple M3, but doesn't mention M3 Pro or M3 Max.)
    • If there's real competition here, will Intel even be able to keep up, if it becomes clear that you get a "better laptop experience" on a non-Intel system?  (Thinking about things like the noise, heat, and battery life that you experience for the same level of performance.)  We may well have a situation where it is rare to see Intel-based laptops by like 2030 (at least for low & mid-range systems).
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Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch, 2023 (personal) • Dell Precision 7560 (work) • Full specs in spoiler block below
Info posts (Dell) — Dell Precision key postsDell driver RSS feeds • Dell Fan Management — override fan behavior
Info posts (Windows) — Turbo boost toggle • The problem with Windows 11 • About Windows 10 LTSC

Spoiler

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch, 2023 (personal)

  • M2 Max
    • 4 efficiency cores
    • 8 performance cores
    • 38-core Apple GPU
  • 96GB LPDDR5-6400
  • 8TB SSD
  • macOS 14 "Sonoma"
  • 16.2" 3456×2234 120 Hz mini-LED VRR display
  • Wi-Fi 6E + Bluetooth 5.3
  • 99.6Wh battery
  • 1080p webcam
  • Fingerprint reader

Also — iPhone 12 Pro 512GB, Apple Watch Series 8

 

Dell Precision 7560 (work)

  • Intel Xeon W-11955M ("Tiger Lake")
    • 8×2.6 GHz base, 5.0 GHz turbo, hyperthreading ("Willow Cove")
  • 64GB DDR4-3200 ECC
  • NVIDIA RTX A2000 4GB
  • Storage:
    • 512GB system drive (Micron 2300)
    • 4TB additional storage (Sabrent Rocket Q4)
  • Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2021
  • 15.6" 3940×2160 IPS display
  • Intel Wi-Fi AX210 (Wi-Fi 6E + Bluetooth 5.3)
  • 95Wh battery
  • 720p IR webcam
  • Fingerprint reader

 

Previous

  • Dell Precision 7770, 7530, 7510, M4800, M6700
  • Dell Latitude E6520
  • Dell Inspiron 1720, 5150
  • Dell Latitude CPi
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The first company that engineers the following laptop can shut up and take my money: An SoC that provides 1080p/60 fps gameplay for ~4 hours on battery while being the size/weight of a MacBook Air. Silent like a MacBook Air would be amazing but not absolutely mandatory.

Desktop: Ryzen 5 5600X3D | 32 GB RAM | GeForce RTX 3080 | 4 TB SSD | Windows 11

Gigabyte Aorus 16X: Core i7-14650HX | 32 GB RAM | GeForce RTX 4070 | 1 TB SSD | Windows 11

Lenovo IdeaPad 3 Gaming: Ryzen 7 6800H | 16 GB RAM | GeForce RTX 3050 | 512 GB SSD | Windows 11

Lenovo IdeaPad 5 Pro: Ryzen 5 5600U | 16 GB RAM | Radeon Graphics | 512 GB SSD | Windows 11

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

The "how good is the emulation/can I game on it" are key for me.  A more efficient processor with better battery life?  I'll pay a little bit.  Less noise?  Useful in a laptop.  But perfect compatibility with my existing library of software and games?  Priceless.  And x86 is perfectly good enough when it comes to battery life and (with a halfway decent laptop design) fan noise these days.  We aren't in the days of the Transmeta Crusoe where the status quo in the x86 space left a lot to be desired across the board - you can buy x86 systems with quite good battery life and acoustics.

 

That said, if the emulation is good enough that the average person can't tell the difference, and can just install the programs they need without realizing it isn't an x86 CPU, Qualcomm has a chance to build market share.  That being the "if".  It needs to be good enough that retailers aren't getting a lot of returned ARM-based laptops because people tried to install the two pieces of native software they need (browser + varies by person) and couldn't get it to work.  If they can manage that, they might succeed at least among the non-gaming crowd (the latter likely being more skeptical than the public at large due to running lots of performance-sensitive native software).

 

I'm still skeptical on the whole.  The safe, conservative option is to buy an Intel or AMD laptop, and most buyers will want a low-risk option.  Most salespeople will recommend a low-risk option that they think will make a sale, unless their commission is higher on the higher-risk option.  Windows dropped the DEC Alpha and MIPS in the '90s, Transmeta and Via never became more than niche players (despite being x86-compatible and x86, respectively), and Windows 8 on ARM flopped.  ARM in the datacenter, if you just need to run NGINX and want to save on your power bill, can make sense.  But there's a long history in the consumer space of the consumer preferring the safe option that will run everything they run today without any concerns on their part.

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Desktop: Core i5 2500k "Sandy Bridge" | RX 480 | 32 GB DDR3 | 1 TB 850 Evo + 512 GB NVME + HDDs | Seasonic 650W | Noctua Fans | 8.1 Pro

Laptop: MSI Alpha 15 | Ryzen 5800H | Radeon 6600M | 64 GB DDR4 | 4 TB TLC SSD | 10 Home

Laptop history: MSI GL63 (2018) | HP EliteBook 8740w (acq. 2014) | Dell Inspiron 1520 (2007)

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12 hours ago, Sandy Bridge said:

The "how good is the emulation/can I game on it" are key for me.

 

Having been using Windows 11 ARM for almost a year now (in a VM, but with regularity) I can say that the emulation of x86/x64 software is "fine".  You don't really have to even know what's going on, it "just works".  Everything these days is done with dynamic recompilation — it will take a chunk of x86/x64 code and convert it to ARM code for execution, and keep that cached for future runs through the same code — so performance is pretty decent.  I'm sure it could be made better.  (Microsoft is touting that with Windows 11 24H2 you can get an up to 20% boost in performance for emulated apps for example, probably done by making their recompiler smarter.)

 

There are some gotchas.

  • Software that installs a driver (.sys file) will not work unless said driver is compiled for ARM.  That could be device drivers, obviously, but it could also be other low-level software like antivirus/firewall apps, disk/backup utilities, or even multiplayer games that use kernel-mode anti-cheat protection.
  • Software that uses AVX instructions will not run on ARM systems.  That includes a number of newer "AAA" games, it's becoming pretty common to see there.  AVX has been supported in Intel CPUs since 4th gen (2013) but Microsoft is not supporting translation of these instructions in their Prism recompiler.  It could have been excluded for performance reasons — ARM didn't even support vector instructions until ARMv9, which is pretty new and would be limited to newer Snapdragon chips from 2022 and up or the Apple M4 lineup.  But I think that more likely, it is excluded for IP/patent reasons.

Since I wrote this, a couple of other interesting things have happened.

Anyway, I think there's a real chance that there will be a surge in Windows ARM systems within the next few years and that market segment will become impossible to ignore for software developers.  They will have to start offering ARM support for things like anti-virus and backup tools, and make sure that there are AVX-free code paths in games even if the performance is a bit lower (if they don't want to offer a full ARM build).

 

On the subject of games, that's one area where I think Qualcomm still needs to do major work.  They are touting their system as gaming-capable, but performance is middling as I mentioned above (Control running at 1080p/30FPS/low settings should not be touted as a massive success).  But it is not like an ARM system can't game — Qualcomm just doesn't have the GPU up to snuff yet or hasn't bothered to build a truly high-performance chip there.

 

Apple’s (admittedly expensive) "Max" chips smoke Qualcomm’s in terms of GPU performance.  You can see on YouTube that Mac users have shown Control running at 1440p/60FPS — effectively quadruple the performance that Qualcomm is touting.  On my end personally, I just started Horizon Zero Dawn on my MacBook Pro a few days ago.  And it's not just "sort of working"; it is actually a really good experience.  I'm running at 1510p resolution at "original" (medium) graphics settings, it looks great and is running at completely smooth 60 FPS.  And it’s not even a native port.  That's a Windows (x64) build of the game running on CrossOver and being translated to ARM through Rosetta 2, and using Apple's D3DMetal to handle graphics conversion.  (I can also get 60 FPS with "high" graphics settings at 1080p, but I prefer the higher resolution…)  This is running on the same system that I left unplugged and powered on for 13 hours yesterday and the battery level was still at 70%!  (It was not being actively used a lot, but never actually "sleeping", I have disabled the sleep function so that I can access it remotely whenever I need to.)

 

The Dell Precision systems that I have can't make it more than 3 or 4 hours away from the charger even if they are running idle.  I know there are better battery laptops out there but I'm not aware of any that can also do hard-core gaming.  I don't know if Qualcomm has plans to roll out higher-end chips, but I hope that Qualcomm or NVIDIA or someone makes a decent high-performing but otherwise high-battery low-heat/noise non-Mac laptop finally possible.

  • Thumb Up 1

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch, 2023 (personal) • Dell Precision 7560 (work) • Full specs in spoiler block below
Info posts (Dell) — Dell Precision key postsDell driver RSS feeds • Dell Fan Management — override fan behavior
Info posts (Windows) — Turbo boost toggle • The problem with Windows 11 • About Windows 10 LTSC

Spoiler

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch, 2023 (personal)

  • M2 Max
    • 4 efficiency cores
    • 8 performance cores
    • 38-core Apple GPU
  • 96GB LPDDR5-6400
  • 8TB SSD
  • macOS 14 "Sonoma"
  • 16.2" 3456×2234 120 Hz mini-LED VRR display
  • Wi-Fi 6E + Bluetooth 5.3
  • 99.6Wh battery
  • 1080p webcam
  • Fingerprint reader

Also — iPhone 12 Pro 512GB, Apple Watch Series 8

 

Dell Precision 7560 (work)

  • Intel Xeon W-11955M ("Tiger Lake")
    • 8×2.6 GHz base, 5.0 GHz turbo, hyperthreading ("Willow Cove")
  • 64GB DDR4-3200 ECC
  • NVIDIA RTX A2000 4GB
  • Storage:
    • 512GB system drive (Micron 2300)
    • 4TB additional storage (Sabrent Rocket Q4)
  • Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2021
  • 15.6" 3940×2160 IPS display
  • Intel Wi-Fi AX210 (Wi-Fi 6E + Bluetooth 5.3)
  • 95Wh battery
  • 720p IR webcam
  • Fingerprint reader

 

Previous

  • Dell Precision 7770, 7530, 7510, M4800, M6700
  • Dell Latitude E6520
  • Dell Inspiron 1720, 5150
  • Dell Latitude CPi
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