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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform will go head-to-head with Intel’s processors

By Vijay Anand - on 7 Dec 2018, 9:36am

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform will go head-to-head with Intel’s processors

Apparently, the new Snapdragon 855 isn’t the most powerful processor that Qualcomm has up its sleeves. That honor goes to the Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform that was just unveiled and it will go head-to-head with Intel’s processors in performance, while championing its always-on, always-connected PC strategy with battery life that can last for days instead of hours.

Rumors have been floating about that Qualcomm would have a Snapdragon 1000-series processor that would be specifically tailored to address PCs rather than use modified higher clocked versions of existing processors like it did for the Snapdragon 835 and Snapdragon 850 chips that also go into always-on, always-connected PCs. While the name didn’t pan out, the Snapdragon 8cx certainly looks the part as Qualcomm says it has been designed from the ground up and is a much larger SoC to deliver a lot more performance to the next generation of personal computing in thin and light form factors.
 

What's the Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform made of?

Compared to the Snapdragon 855, the Snapdragon 8cx packs a much beefier GPU dubbed the Adreno 680. While Qualcomm qualified the Snapdragon 855’s Adreno 640 GPU to be 20% faster than its predecessor, the Adreno 680 is said to be twice as powerful as the previous generation (which could be referring to either the Snapdragon 835 or the 850), that packs double the transistors, offers double the memory bandwidth, has a high efficiency video encoder and second generation HDR playback (just like the Snapdragon 855). Even with all that, Qualcomm says it’s still 60% more power efficient than the GPU featured in the previous always-connected platform using the Snapdragon 850.

Even the CPU is a class above the Snapdragon 855’s Kyro 485 with a more powerful Kyro 495 core with huge caches that total 10MB in total. Qualcomm hasn’t yet revealed details of its core clocks or inner workings/architecture though they claim it’s their fastest Snapdragon yet. Here’s a quick snapshot of what it boasts:-

Interestingly, while the Qualcomm AI engine using the Hexagon 685 DSP is the same as that on the Snapdragon 855, the Image Signal Processor is seemingly an higher tier part - Spectra 390 instead of Spectra 380. Peering deeper at the spec sheet (855 vs. 8cx), one of the more prominent differences is that the Spectra 390 supports the DX12 API and has 4K HDR video playback at 120 frames per second to cater towards smooth head-mounted VR content playback.

So we know it’s a fairly powerful always-connected PC platform, but exactly where does it stand? Qualcomm says they are on par with Intel’s 15W solution, but where they really shine is at a low power operation such as at 7 watts where they claim to be twice as fast as the competition. Those are bold, but early claims as we don’t have details on how they derived these comparisons:-

Adding on to the SoC’s capability, it will also support pro-notebook level features like faster and wider memory bandwidth, high-speed storage like NVME SSD and UFS 3.0 and Qualcomm’s X24 LTE modem for gigabit-class downlinks up to 2Gbps to deliver the next generation of thin, light, powerful and always-connected PC.

Apart from performance, to go head-to-head with productivity laptops, Snapdragon 8cx will need more features to match up against competitive offerings and better them. To that extent, the new compute platform will support the following:-

  • First Snapdragon Compute platform to support Quick Charge 4+ for lighting fast charging on the go.
  • Qualcomm Aqstic audio technology (a suite of tech that consists of hardware and advanced audio + voice software tech) to increase accessibility of voice assistant usage, and deliver Hi-Fi audio using wireless peripherals thanks to Qualcomm aptX HD integration.
  • USB 3.1 (Gen.2) over Type-C and PCIe Gen 3.0

Take note of the last point above as this allows a Snapdragon 8cx based machine to support dual 4K HDR monitors for serious multi-tasking needs across three screens (inclusive of the notebook’s own display). The previous mobile-centric chips could only effectively support a single output or much lower resolutions at dual screens due to bandwidth limitations.

Yes, we checked - the Snapdragon 8cx reference platform could output to two 4K HDR screens via two USB Type-C ports, which is great for work requiring extra screen real estate to manage your work.

A quick overview of all the key features of the Snapdragon 8cx compute platform and its 3 core pillars of extreme offering.
 

Does the Snapdragon 8cx replace the currently available Snapdragon 850 and 835?

No. Qualcomm will continue to offer the Snapdragon 850  and Snapdragon 835 options for always-connected devices. The Snapdragon 8cx will be offered as an elite tier for extreme performance.
 

When can we expect Snapdragon 8cx based notebooks to arrive?

Interestingly, the most powerful Snapdragon processor also happens to be the world’s first 7nm chip for the PC platform, evidently beating Intel at its own game (at least in process technology advancement). There’s a catch to this statement though – Qualcomm says that the Snapdragon 8cx is currently sampling to its customers and is expected to begin shipping in commercial devices sometime in Q3 of 2019. That’s nearly a whole year away and a lot could change within a year, including AMD and Intel catching up or even leapfrogging Qualcomm. This time period of product availability could also bode well to give time to the OEM vendors to come up with products, showcase/launch them at Computex 2019 and thereafter pushing them into the retail channel.

Nevertheless, we welcome competition as time and time again, it has proven to bring consumers choice, better pricing and spur innovation.

Meanwhile, if you can’t wait till the Snapdragon 8cx to arrive in a commercial product, there are other options based on the Snapdragon 835 and 850 that are available now (though not in Singapore).


Are there any confirmed vendor design wins?

Unfortunately, other than Lenovo coming on stage to lend support to Qualcomm's goal and why they've chosen the existing Snapdragon 850 for their Yoga C630 WOS device, there weren't any devices for show a the Snapdragon Summit 2018. This was quite unlike last year's show when ASUS and HP had ready products to showcase at the press event.

Instead, what Qualcomm did have is a Snapdragon 8cx reference design unit that was used across the show floor.
 

How does the Snapdragon 8cx reference unit look like?

Honestly, it has a striking similarity to an ASUS Flip-series device:-

Side profile. Looks like it can be converted into a tablet form factor - just like an ASUS Flip-series product.

It has twin USB 3.1 (Gen.2) Type-C ports.


Early performance expectations of the Snapdragon 8cx reference unit

Over 160 images were loaded up in Adobe Lightroom CC and it didn't seem to faze this reference notebook one bit when we applied filters and effects while it had a few browsers with several tabs open in the background. #Hopeful

One of the biggest questions of a Windows on Snapdragon (WoS) device has been application compatibility. Since the platform runs an ARM microarchitecture, it doesn't process x86 code natively. Fortunately, Qualcomm's WoS capable processors can execute x86 code under emulation and Microsoft has been working with Qualcomm to smoothen this process.

Still, running software in emulation has never been preferable due to 1) compatibility or 2) performance concerns. If the prospective buyer is looking to run popular 32-bit Windows applications and apps from the Windows Store, it's probably safe to say he/she would have a low chance of running into compatibility issues. For performance concerns, we've personally seen the reference Snapdragon 8cx in action and we can safely say it is quite a smooth operator that should delight the average user. Here's a quick look at it in action:-


Any other milestones?

Yes indeed. The Snapdragon 8cx marks the first time a Snapdragon platform is ready for Windows 10 enterprise customers! This gives IT managers the tools to do more and stay secure as enterprises move to harness the power of the cloud to help reduce the complexity of managing today’s modern IT device environment.

Snapdragon on Windows is going places.