Why laptops are becoming more like smartphones

PC sales have been declining for 12 quarters straight, but Microsoft thinks it found a way to reverse the trend: make laptops more like smartphones.

Microsoft and Qualcomm just unveiled the first Windows laptops that are powered by smartphones chips. Specifically, Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, the flagship mobile processor that can be found in high-end Android smartphones like the Galaxy Note 8 and the Google Pixel 2.

Cheating on Intel

It’s a break from decades of using x86 processors, typically supplied by Intel. The relationship between Microsoft and Intel has been so tight (and so lucrative) that their domination of the PC market has even received a catchy name: Wintel.

Wintel is far from dead, but the launch of the first Snapdragon-powered laptops could turn out to be a crack in the foundation of Intel’s dominance. We don’t know what Intel execs think of Microsoft’s dalliance with Qualcomm, but we bet they’re not happy.

The new Snapdragon laptops are manufactured by Asus and HP, with another model coming from Lenovo at CES next month. They look like regular high-end laptops, with touch displays and 2-in-1 designs, and they run Windows S, a pared-down version of Windows that only supports apps from the Windows Store (though customers can upgrade to “full” Windows for free).

HP Envy x2

22 hours of battery life!

While the Asus NovaGo and HP Envy x2 look run-off-the-mill, they work very differently from other laptops.

Tap the power button and they’re instantly on and ready for work, just like your smartphone. Tap the power button again and they go to sleep, without draining too much battery in the process.

Because they are powered by chips that were originally designed for smartphones, these laptops offer amazing battery life that is comparable with smartphones and tablets. Microsoft says you should be able to get up to 22 hours of battery life out of them, so, if you’re only using your laptop every now and then, you could get away with charging it only once a week.

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Snapdragon chips, which are based on designs by ARM, are not only very battery-friendly, they’re also much smaller and lighter that x86 chips (about the size of your thumbnail). They don’t give off much heat, so manufacturers don’t need to include bulky cooling components or noisy fans. As a result, the Asus NovaGo and HP Envy x2 are sleek, light, and completely silent.

Asus NovaGo

Questions about performance

There are obviously some tradeoffs. While smartphone processors have made enormous strides in terms of performance over the past years, they still can’t compete with Intel’s well-known PC chips. While in theory, you could load up Photoshop or your favorite multiplayer game on the NovaGo and Envy x2, don’t expect the same performance you’d get from a conventional machine.

And raw processing power is not the only factor limiting performance on this new breed of PCs. There’s also the fact that Windows uses an emulator in order to run applications designed for 32-bit x86 processors (64-bit apps are not supported yet). That means everything goes through an extra layer, incurring an overhead performance cost.

This is not the first time Microsoft ventures into this territory. The Redmond-based company tried – and failed spectacularly – to get a similar project off the ground with Windows RT, which also ran on ARM-designed chips but was not compatible with x86 applications. Microsoft pulled the plug on Windows RT in 2015, but it’s now using the lessons it learned for a second go at the idea.

Good enough?

Available in two versions ($599 or $799), the Asus NovaGo features a 13.3-inch Full HD display, a Snapdragon 835 processor, either 4GB or 8GB of RAM, either 64GB or 256GB of storage, and up to 22 hours of battery life. The HP Envy x2 comes with the same processor, a 12.3-inch display, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and up to 20 hours of battery life. Its price tag hasn’t been revealed yet.

Both laptops feature always-on internet connectivity, courtesy of the LTE modem that’s incorporated into every Snapdragon 835 processor. This will allow them to handle notifications much like a smartphone, though you won’t be able to make actual voice calls on either of them.

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It’s easy to dismiss these new laptops as a desperate attempt to maintain relevancy, but customers might actually be swayed by their benefits. True all-day battery life is a huge draw, and, for most users, mobile chips already offer more performance than they actually need for web browsing and light office work.

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