If Intel can't come up with a Qualcomm-killer soon, it's game over for x86 PCs

Qualcomm's introduction of the Snapdragon X, which runs every new Copilot+ Windows PC, has created an existential crisis for Intel. Can the x86 architecture handle the competition?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
HP Omnibook X 14
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft and Intel have been inseparable partners. Intel made the x86 chips that were the heart of a PC motherboard, and Microsoft made the Windows operating system that ran on those PCs. The two brands were such a perfect fit, in fact, that industry analysts mashed them into a single word: Wintel.

Over the past three decades, rivals have mounted brief challenges to Intel's place at the top of the CPU heap. Most have a market share that's almost too small to measure -- can you name a PC built using a Via processor? The most successful challenger, AMD, has managed to reach a PC market share of roughly 20% by appealing to gamers and other performance-focused buyers.

Also: I saw the future of AI at Qualcomm's headquarters, and Copilot+ PCs were only just the beginning

Now, Qualcomm's introduction of the Snapdragon X series has the potential to flip the game board completely.

In my review of the cheapest Surface Pro 11 configuration, I delivered my summary in four words: "This machine absolutely rocks." I'm writing this article on the same Surface Pro 11 I described in that article, and I have no intention of going back to my old Intel-based machine.

Lest you think I am some sort of outlier, allow me to highlight some of the reviews my colleagues have published of the new crop of Snapdragon X PCs.

Zac Bowden, reviewing the Surface Laptop 7 at Windows Central, calls it "the best clamshell laptop on the market," adding that battery life on the high-end 15-inch model he tested was "nothing short of phenomenal."

At PC World, Chris Hoffman called the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7X "a showcase for Qualcomm's Snapdragon X Elite hardware." He, too, highlighted the "amazing battery life" that the ARM architecture made possible.

Also: I tested HP's OmniBook X Copilot+ PC, and it almost made me a Windows on ARM believer

And at Engadget, Devindra Hardawar displayed visible relief in his review of the Surface Pro 11. Microsoft's latest model is "the best Surface tablet ever made," he wrote, adding: "Microsoft has finally made an ARM-powered Surface tablet that I don't want to toss out of a window."

These are all experienced, slightly jaded reviewers who are not afraid to tell Microsoft when the company is messing up, and they are not saying anything of the sort.

In fact, the only negative review I could find of these next-gen Windows PCs was from Wired, where Christopher Null called the Surface Pro 11 "ghastly expensive" while praising the "awesome battery life" of the device.

The first benchmark tests also deliver some powerful backup for Qualcomm's hardware. Tom's Guide published a detailed rundown and concluded that "Snapdragon X Elite laptops offer excellent performance and (potentially) strong battery life. ... [I]t's safe to say that Qualcomm has put Apple and Intel on notice." The only weak spot, they noted, was in gaming.

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If I were an Intel executive, I would be sweating bullets. ARM-based designs are demonstrably superior on the desktop right now, and they're becoming a thing in data centers too, with serious advantages in power consumption that are compelling in the AI era. Intel can probably survive on inertia for a while, but the Snapdragon X processors are really going to expose their weaknesses in a way that has not been seen on the PC side before.

If you're thinking, "Wait a minute, I've seen this movie," you're right.

This is the same bad breakup that happened to Intel four years ago, when Apple launched its new MacBook lines powered by M1 processors. There, too, the new ARM-based generation of Apple-branded laptops won major kudos for battery life and performance, but some reviewers were still skeptical, like the folks at Macworld, who dithered in epic fashion with their "Should I buy an M1 Mac?"

On its website, Apple goes out of its way to slag the performance of those Intel-based machines. You might still be able to find an Intel-based Mac over at Apple.com, but I didn't have any luck when I went looking.

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Apple, of course, had one big advantage when it decided to file for divorce from Intel. It's the only supplier of hardware that runs MacOS. The PC marketplace is far more diverse. If you were trying to describe today's Wintel relationship in social media terms, you would simply say, "It's complicated."

That's what, ultimately, will be the lifeline for Intel on the Windows side. Qualcomm is going to take a huge chunk of market share from Intel, but the notoriously conservative population of business buyers are probably going to steer clear of the untested Qualcomm platform with its compatibility question marks. All those legacy apps, designed to run on Intel hardware, will be a powerful motivator for corporate buyers. Gamers, too, are likely to remain loyal to the older platform and its guaranteed high frame rates.

Still, the pressure is on Intel, for sure. The company hasn't had serious competition in decades, and we haven't even talked about what happens when Nvidia decides to add SoCs to its GPU hegemony.

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In a Slack chat last month, my colleague Jason Perlow predicted that x86 will never disappear, but there is no question that the architecture has reached the end of its productive lifespan. The question now is whether Intel has the technical chops to start innovating in ARM. Because if it can't come up with a "Qualcomm killer" soon, then it's game over.

Just ask anyone who's using a modern MacBook.

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