Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

After 12 years of trying to make Windows on Arm happen, Microsoft has made Windows on Arm happen. That’s a long time to keep throwing money at a version of Windows that, historically, has lacked compatible software, reliable emulation, and capable enough performance for even light workloads. But it seems like Microsoft’s 12-year odyssey is starting to pay off now that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus chips are turning Windows on Arm into a viable platform.

We’ve spent the past week and a half testing seven Copilot Plus PCs, representing all four Snapdragon X chips, against a slate of similar laptops running Apple Silicon, Intel Core Ultra, and AMD Ryzen processors. This isn’t the final word on Snapdragon performance — app compatibility is changing on a near-daily basis, and we’ll have full reviews for many of these laptops in the next few weeks — but we now have a good idea of how the first wave of Snapdragon X laptops stack up against the competition and how they still fall short. 

This is the fiercest Microsoft has been able to compete with MacBooks in price, performance, and battery life, and while Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips don’t outright beat Apple’s M3 chip (with an eight-core CPU and 10-core GPU) in every single one of our benchmarks, they could make Intel and AMD scramble to catch up to another competitor — this time, on their home turf.

A new focus on power efficiency

For the last few years, laptop makers have focused on increasing power efficiency (and therefore battery life) without sacrificing performance. For Apple, that meant ditching Intel and using its own Arm-based chips; Intel wasn’t improving the power efficiency of its own fast enough. 

Arm is a processor architecture with a more efficient instruction set than the x86 set found in Intel and AMD CPUs. It uses smaller, more optimized instructions, so the CPU can process tasks faster using less power, which is one reason smartphone chips are Arm-based. Microsoft’s 12-year journey to make Windows work on Arm and reap those power savings has been slow going because the chips haven’t been fast enough to run Windows and emulate apps that aren’t compatible with the Arm instruction set — until now.

Qualcomm currently has four Snapdragon X chips: three under the “X Elite” brand and one under “X Plus.” They all share an Adreno GPU, an NPU capable of 45 TOPS, and support for LPDDR5X memory up to 8448MHz, but their core counts and max clock speeds change as you go down the lineup, from a 12-core chip with a 3.8GHz top speed and 4.2GHz dual-core boost to a 10-core at 3.4GHz with no dual-core boost.

With the Snapdragon X Elite lineup, Qualcomm ditched the hybrid architecture of its previous laptop chips. Instead of using a mix of performance cores for heavy workloads and efficiency cores for less intensive work, Qualcomm now uses a homogeneous architecture — every chip can run both types of tasks.

Competing against its new CPUs are Apple’s hybrid core Arm chips, AMD’s homogeneous core x86 chips, and Intel’s hybrid core x86 chips. (Though Intel is adjusting its hybrid core architecture by ditching just the LP cores in its next-gen Lunar Lake chips, which arrive this fall.)

The best CPU performance Windows on Arm has ever seen

We ran Geekbench 6 and Cinebench 2024 because they work across Windows and macOS as well as on Intel and AMD’s x86 chips and Apple and Qualcomm’s Arm chips. Together, they provide a broad overview of a processor’s capabilities when handling various workloads. While we tested laptops of different sizes from different brands, these benchmarks are still a great baseline of how these chips fare compared to their competitors and how they stack up. 

Single-core performance

Among the laptops we tested, Apple’s M3 chips still lead the pack in single-core performance, but Qualcomm’s higher-end X Elite chips are a touch faster in single-core workloads than the M2 Max chip in the early 2023 MacBook Pro — between 2 and 3 percent in our tests. They are also up to 24 percent faster than the performance cores in Intel’s Core Ultra 7 155H processor and up to 17 percent faster than the AMD Ryzen 7 8845HS cores. The bottom-tier X Elite and X Plus are the slowest, but they still push out impressive scores and pull ahead — albeit barely — of most of the Intel-based laptops in the table below. 

Multicore performance

The Snapdragon chips really shine in multicore benchmarks, overtaking all the other CPUs aside from Apple’s M2 Max and M3 Max. The M3 chip in the MacBook Air only has eight cores compared to the 12 or 10 cores of the Snapdragon chips, so it makes sense why it fell behind. The 16-core M3 Max far outpaces the rest of the field, and the 12-core M2 Max is slightly faster in Cinebench 2024 multicore than the fastest X Elite chips.

Our results are mostly in line with what Qualcomm claimed during my hands-on in April, though, as you can see in the graph above, there are some outliers — notably the multicore scores for the 13-inch Surface Laptop 7 and Galaxy Book4 Edge. But I suspect those outliers are either due to core count and clock speed or how much power the CPU draws.

Power profiling

There’s no meaningful performance difference between AC and battery power on any of the Snapdragon laptops we’ve tested, provided they’re using the same power profile each time. The numbers above are from the “best performance” power profile or equivalent, on wall power; manufacturers have the ability to tweak the power profiles on their devices. 

We repeated our CPU benchmarks on the Dell XPS 13, Samsung Galaxy Book4 Edge, and Microsoft Surface Pro 11 with balanced or recommended power settings enabled to compare to the results above. With the recommended power setting enabled, the Surface Pro 11’s performance decreased between 7.5 and 16 percent across all CPU tests.

But the XPS 13 and Galaxy Book4 Edge’s performance actually increased slightly on most tests in balanced mode: between 0.9 and 2.7 percent on the XPS 13 and between 1.3 and 8.3 percent on the Book4 Edge.

Balanced versus performance (plugged in).

Snapdragon falls behind in GPU performance

Qualcomm has been careful to position this wave of Snapdragon X laptops as productivity machines, rather than gaming or workstation PCs, and the integrated GPUs are fine for that. They can run laptop displays at up to 4K at 120Hz and up to three 4K external displays at 60Hz. 

But integrated GPUs aren’t great for gaming, 3D rendering, or any other heavy graphical workloads, and that includes all of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X chips. (Apple’s integrated GPUs are an exception, especially as they scale up; the massive 40-core GPU on the MacBook Pro M3 Max blows past AMD, Intel, and Qualcomm.)

Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs lag behind higher-end Intel and AMD integrated GPUs in our initial benchmarks. In Geekbench 6 GPU, Intel Arc is 29 percent faster than the more powerful Adreno chip in the highest-end Snapdragon chip and about 39 percent faster than the other Snapdragon chips. The AMD Radeon 780M is 17 to 29 percent faster, respectively, but the MacBook Air 15 is about 39 percent slower.

Only two of the Snapdragon laptops fared a little better in the PugetBench Adobe Photoshop benchmark. Photoshop has a native Arm64 version; the Surface Pro and 15-inch Surface Laptop surpassed the Dell XPS 14 and Acer Swift Go 14 AMD by 10 percent. The MacBook Air 15 wins here, though, by 42 percent.

This is just an early snapshot of iGPU performance, though. It’s hard to get a real feel for it when most of the benchmarking programs we use, including games, don’t have native Arm64 versions yet — and when emulated versions often don’t hit the GPU properly or at all.

Gaming on Arm

These Snapdragon laptops are not gaming laptops, but they can run games — sometimes. Very few games have native Arm64 versions, so Microsoft leans heavily on emulation here. Microsoft automatically enables Auto SR (its own version of Nvidia’s DLSS or AMD’s FSR, which increase frame rates by dropping the in-game resolution and then upscaling with AI) on a short list of games, which includes The Witcher 3 and Control. But those games have already been optimized to run well on processors with integrated graphics, so they don’t actually need Auto SR — and in most cases run better without it.

The same goes for some games that haven’t been optimized, like Palia and What Remains of Edith Finch. In those games, there was no discernible difference in frame rate, responsiveness, or visual fidelity between having ASR on or off. In other games that are supposed to be optimized for Windows on Arm, like Control and Borderlands 3, turning on ASR degraded the visual quality with distracting flickering lines on or around fine details like mesh screens and hair.

Control was the only game I was able to try on a reference laptop with a Snapdragon X Elite chip during a hands-on demo back in April, but it runs just as well on the XPS 13, Galaxy Book4 Edge, and Yoga Slim 7x I tested. To get a stable 30fps, the graphics preset must be set to low and the resolution can’t be higher than 1200p, but it runs smooth and is responsive.

If a game doesn’t work, you will learn quickly: it will crash as soon as you launch it, or after you load one of your saves, or if you have the resolution or graphics settings too high. In the best-case scenario, it will run under 20fps even on low settings. There are a lot of variables, and they differ from game to game in the dozen I tested.

There is a third-party website that tracks what games are compatible on Snapdragon Windows Arm PCs, but it won’t always tell you what resolution or graphics setting to select or if it will work on a system with less than 32GB of memory. You game at your own risk with Windows on Arm.

Emulation is fine for the little stuff

One of Microsoft’s big claims was that Snapdragon-configured Windows laptops would have “faster app emulation than Rosetta 2,” Apple’s emulation software that lets x86 Mac apps run on Apple Silicon. Microsoft hasn’t had the greatest reputation when it comes to x86 emulation on Arm, and while its new Prism emulator is much faster, it’s still not fast enough for heavyweight apps. 

We tested all the Snapdragon laptops using the emulated x86 version of Blender, a popular free 3D modeling and rendering program that’s a core part of our benchmarking suite. We also tested a few with an alpha build with native Arm64 support. Neither the emulated x86 version nor the alpha native version detected the Adreno GPU, so the CPUs had to do all the work, but the native version still performed about 40 percent faster. 

But faster doesn’t mean fast — while the CPU rendering times with the Arm64 version were within a minute of integrated GPU rendering times on the Intel Arc, and near identical to the AMD Radeon 780M, it still took over four times longer than the base MacBook Air M3.

While these Snapdragon laptops are not what you’d want to buy for 3D rendering — you’ll want a discrete GPU for that, regardless of platform — the massive difference between emulated and native CPU rendering shows how important it is for developers to have Arm64 versions of their software, especially if it’s designed to handle heavy workloads. 

We couldn’t run our Premiere Pro benchmark since Adobe hasn’t released a native Arm version, and Adobe blocks the x86 version from emulation on Arm. (For a couple of days, it didn’t block all the Snapdragon X CPUs, but the emulated results were not great.) My colleague Tom Warren has a wonderful deep dive into the current state of Windows on Arm if you’re looking for more information on x86 emulation, and we’ll continue to test the Prism emulator as we find opportunities to do so.

Battery life

Microsoft claims that its Copilot Plus PCs with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite processor will offer “20 percent more battery life than the latest MacBook Air 15-inch.” When I tested the latest 13- and 15-inch MacBook Airs, they lasted about 18 hours on a charge when I used them as I normally would during a regular week, with the display brightness set as close to 200 nits as possible. 

None of the Snapdragon laptops’ batteries lasted 18 hours like the M3 Air, but most weren’t far behind, averaging 14 to 16 hours. That’s still a lot longer than most of the Intel- and AMD-based laptops I tested, with the exception of the Intel-based Samsung Galaxy Book4 Ultra, which got near identical battery life to the Snapdragon-based Galaxy Book4 Edge, at over 14 hours each.

In Tom’s testing, the Microsoft Surface Laptop with the Snapdragon X Plus CPU lasted about seven hours with the brightness set to 100 percent while being pushed with all sorts of tasks like downloading games from Steam and taking video calls. In lighter workloads on 50 percent brightness, the battery drained just 25 percent after four hours. My own experience with the Snapdragon Dell XPS 13 was similar.

At 75 percent brightness (or as close to 200 nits as possible), the XPS 13 kept a charge for around 15 hours — two to three hours longer than the Dell XPS 14 I recently reviewed with an Intel Core Ultra 7 155H, despite the smaller battery on the XPS 13. It also lasted longer than the Acer Swift Go 14 AMD I tested with a Ryzen 7 8845HS CPU. That one got me between 12 to 14 hours, depending on how often I used it, how I used it, and how high I had the display brightness cranked.

We have more testing to do on all of these laptops — the Surface Pro in particular hasn’t gotten the battery life we expected, and we’re working with Microsoft to try to figure out why — but so far, the Copilot Plus PCs seem to beat comparable AMD and Intel machines on battery by several hours. 

Here’s why I’m not mentioning the NPU

Yes, these are Copilot Plus PCs. Yes, they run a bunch of AI stuff. But my colleagues and I have yet to figure out a reliable method to test relative NPU performance in a meaningful way. The Copilot Plus AI features, with the possible exceptions of Studio Effects and Live Captions translations, currently feel more like gimmicks than useful apps most people can incorporate into their day-to-day life, and Microsoft doesn’t plan to release Recall, its most-hyped AI app, until it addresses security concerns.

But the NPUs are there — and not just on Arm PCs — so we expect apps to take more advantage of that processing power soon. We’ll revisit NPU benchmarks as it makes sense.

More for less… more or less

This wave of Snapdragon Copilot Plus PCs starts at $999 and can cost in excess of $2,500. They feature nearly everything most other laptops in that price range do: beautiful OLED displays; high storage capacity; long battery life; fast processors; metal chassis; and in some cases, the latest Wi-Fi 7 adapter. It’s all the same stuff you get with Intel- and AMD-based laptops, and even MacBooks, often for less money.

As MacBook Air competitors, they have a few nifty features that have been baked into Windows for a while that Apple is only just adding to macOS, like phone mirroring and automatic window tiling — and you can use up to three external monitors, with or without the lid closed. They can also be priced more reasonably. At $1,099, the base 13-inch MacBook Air M3 has an eight-core processor, 8GB of memory, and 256GB of storage. But at $999, the base 13-inch Surface Laptop 7 has a 10-core processor, 16GB of memory, and 256GB of storage — and you can easily upgrade that storage yourself. 

The Snapdragon laptops are generally cheaper than their Intel or AMD counterparts, too. The Qualcomm Dell XPS 13 is $200 cheaper and the Samsung Galaxy Book4 Edge is $150 cheaper, while the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7x is $100 more. Better performance and longer battery life for less money are going to be the major selling points for most people — and these Snapdragon Copilot Plus PCs hit all three.  

Where does Qualcomm go from here?

Unlike previous Windows on Arm laptops — even up to 2022’s Surface Pro 9 (SQ3), these Copilot Plus PCs finally have processors fast enough to run the operating system and emulate most x86 programs. And now that every major Windows laptop manufacturer has at least one Snapdragon X-based machine, there should finally be enough of an install base to entice developers at large to create native Arm64 versions of their apps, which will make these an easier sell.

But with Intel Lunar Lake and AMD Ryzen AI coming soon, it’s unclear how long Qualcomm will hold onto its lead. Lunar Lake will be closer in design to Apple Silicon, with RAM incorporated into the chip itself, and Intel claims that getting rid of hyperthreading will decrease power consumption, so laptops with these chips will supposedly get better battery life than its current-gen processors. Ryzen AI will have a 12-core and 10-core variant, just like Qualcomm Snapdragon, on its Zen 5 architecture, clock speeds up to 5.1GHz, and a more powerful iGPU, so that could increase the graphics performance lead it currently has over some of the Snapdragon X Elite chips.

We’ll have plenty more to test in the coming weeks as app compatibility improves and full reviews of many of these Snapdragon X laptops soon. Qualcomm has shown us that Windows on Arm is finally feasible. Now, it’s up to Intel and AMD to convince people not to make the jump.

Photography by Joanna Nelius / The Verge

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