Qualcomm Leans on Nuvia to Compete in PC Market

Posted on July 3, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 11 with 50 Comments

ARM-Based Windows 10 Portable PCs!? Hell Yes!

UPDATE: To be clear, Qualcomm is still a major partner of Arm the company and it still licenses and uses its ARM chipset reference designs. What’s happening here is that Qualcomm is building its next-generation PC chipsets using Nuvia designs, which, yes, were based on Arm designs originally. To date, Qualcomm has directly improved Arm designs for its chipsets. I felt like this was clear in the original post, but some seem to believe that Qualcomm is “dropping” Arm or whatever, and that’s not the case. —Paul

In an interview this week, Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said that his firm will finally have competitive laptop CPUs, but not until late 2022. And that those CPUs will be based on technology it acquired from Nuvia, and not be based on reference designs from Arm (the company).

“We needed to have the leading performance for a battery-powered device,” Amon told Reuters, explaining why it was dropping Arm’s designs for Nuvia’s. “If Arm, which we’ve had a relationship with for years, eventually develops a CPU that’s better than what we can build ourselves, then we always have the option to license from Arm.”

Qualcomm announced it would acquire Nuvia in January for $1.4 billion, describing the firm as having “industry-leading expertise in high-performance processors, Systems on a Chip (SoC), and power management for compute-intensive devices and applications” and pledging to integrate Nuvia CPUs across its chipsets aimed at “flagship smartphones, next-generation laptops, and digital cockpits, as well as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, extended reality and infrastructure networking solutions.”

When that acquisition was finalized in March, Qualcomm said that first the first Snapdragon platforms to feature “new internally designed CPUs” based on Nuvia technology and expertise were expected in the second half of 2022, and, most crucially, “will be designed for high-performance ultraportable laptops.”

This week, Amon expanded on those plans in the Reuters interview, and it’s now clear why we didn’t get a new flagship Snapdragon processor for PCs in December as is normally the case: Qualcomm hasn’t been able to improve Arm’s chipset reference designs enough to be viable in the PC market, and a new-generation Snapdragon 8-series SoC wouldn’t move the performance needle enough. So it is turning to Nuvia technology and dropping Arm (the company), at least in the PC space. (The new chips will still use the ARM architecture, of course.)

According to Amon, the new Nuvia-powered CPUs will “rival” the M-series chipsets from Apple, thanks in part to the expertise of some former Apple engineers that it acquired along with Nuvia.

This is interesting timing. In The Second Coming of Windows on ARM (Premium), I noted that Windows 11 will finally solve some of the key problems with this platform, most notably application compatibility via x64 emulation and the new ARM64EC technologies.

But Windows on ARM, or WOA, has some other major issues remaining, the most glaring of which is performance. Despite claims to the contrary and several generations of SoC improvements, WOA-based PCs are still not competitive with PCs using Intel and AMD chipsets. And the instant success of the Arm-based Apple M1 chipset is a huge embarrassment for both Microsoft and Qualcomm.

I’m happy to hear that Qualcomm has a new strategy for the PC market, but the long wait until 2022 is problematic. Today, WOA enthusiasts have expensive Snapdragon 8-series PCs and inexpensive but even more underpowered Snapdragon 7-series PCs, like the Samsung Galaxy Book Go, from which to choose. But what WOA needs, and badly, is the performance boost that Qualcomm is again promising. But not until late next year.

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Comments (50)

50 responses to “Qualcomm Leans on Nuvia to Compete in PC Market”

  1. peterc

    Nuvia's story is already remarkable and they only incorporated in February 2019!!! Lets see how successful Apple are in court suing Gerard Williams and trying to block Nuvias progress...

    • Username

      In which way are they remarkable - their current claim to fame is being founded by ex-Apple and ex-Google execs?

    • davepete

      I think Nuvia is remarkable mainly for making a billion dollars from the sale to Qualcomm. Although Nuvia may have chip expertise, much of the company is hires from Apple, and Apple may own some of Nuvia's IP if the company was begun while those hires were still at Apple. I worry that Qualcomm will have legal issues for years with this purchase, and I predict Nuvia's first chips won't be in Windows PCs until 2023 at the earliest. That's a long time for Windows PCs to fall behind Apple's M2s and M3s.

  2. prof dr jan onderwater

    We'll see, for now it seems to be mostly a lot of chest beating. And if they have fast SoC, that's great, then they also need an OS that is fully optimized for this SoC and not a generic OS, Apple has quite a head start there, and they still have to get application developers to develop for that platform. 

    I don't see this happening. They're going to put together an ARM SoC, and then probably Windows 11 ARM will come on that. That means they don't have an optimized OS and they are 20-40% less efficient than Apple for that reason alone. If they stand to their statement and not do an ARM, what OS are they gonna use? Chrome OS?

    Few seem to get this. Apple's M-series is not that fast just because it is raw power, it is not, it is mostly Smart Power, and that is partly a very good SoC design, but also the OS that is completely tuned to that, and Compilers and SW design specifically for that design that make the SW so fast.

    Throwing more cores at it to be faster makes your SoC more expensive, more Ghz eats Power, so less Battery Life or a more expensive, larger battery, and most importantly more heat.

    I do wish Qualcomm, Intel, Samsung, google, MS, etc etc all good luck, and Apple I do wish lots of competition that will ensure that Innovation continues to go fast, but that requires more than foam hitting or just faster hardware.

    Anyway, clearly Apple's move to Apple Silicon and real world performance has caused a big change in the industry. The Success of Chromebooks on the other side of the market is also debit to that. Intel has come off the pot and suddenly does start to innovate. Intel is going to bet heavily on RiskV, MS is now coming out with a Windows 11 version for ARM that is fast though, several companies are now betting on ARM. 

    In short, within now and a few years the landscape will be completely different. 

    I think this is bad news for the tinkerers who put together their own PC, the far-reaching integration of systems will end that, and x86 will marginalize within a few years.

    • locust_infested_orchard_inc.

      Quotes by 'prof dr jan onderwater':

      "The Success of Chromebooks on the other side of the market is also debit to that."

      "Intel is going to bet heavily on RiskV"

      Your subtle ironies have been noted.

    • davdaddy

      I wouldn't bet on x86/64 going anywhere. Sometimes people have to actually do some work. There is no way an ARM processor is going to replace in x86 in many, many workloads.

      Serious gaming comes to mind. There is no way an ARM processor can handle a serious simulation. IRacing or DCS will never run on ARM. The consoles PS & Xbox will never switch to ARM chips.

      Apple does a good job of customizing the hardware and os to give the appearance of fast hardware. Let's see them support some backwards compatibility for old Mac programs. It'll never happen because that would expose the fact while they have some truly impressive single thread performance. They are not capable of truly running complex instructions and if they try to run multi thread with Intel or AMD mid range chips they'd turn that processor into a pile of goo.

      • pecosbob04

        "Let's see them support some backwards compatibility for old Mac programs."

        Not sure I understand what you are saying here. Isn't this what Rosetta 2 does?

      • bettyblue

        "Apple does a good job of customizing the hardware and os to give the appearance of fast hardware"

        So these tests where both Final Cut and now Adobe Premier can render video jobs (100% CPU intensive jobs for long periods of time) faster than the Intel x86/64 CPU's they replaced by minutes of time, sometimes many minutes, is just the "appearance" of being fast and is not really faster????

        Please explain. When the M2, or M3 is even faster than the M1 will it increase the gap even more? Yes it will. I predict the video/photo market will swing into the Apple camp big time over the next 3 years.

        Gaming is not something that Apple really cares about. Personally I think PC gaming has peaked, and with the new consoles performance to price comparison, especially when you consider the cost of GPU's, the new generation of consoles are going to be the go to choice of mainstream consumers when it comes to gaming. The cheating in the PC gaming world is simply destroying MP gaming on that platform.

  3. hrlngrv

    Do Nuvia processors use the same instruction set as ARM chips? Presumably they're nothing like Intel/AMD chips. Would Nuvia chips require a translator to run native ARM machine code? Would software need to be available in 3 processor flavors to get the most performance out of each? I could see that happening with Linux. As soon as one has a bootstrap kernel, compiler and linker, one can flesh out Linux for a new processor architecture. Would there be a WON (or WOQ?) any time soon?

    • bkkcanuck

      The first "clean room" implementation of their SoC/CPU was ARM based (Phoenix). They compared the performance against AMD chips though (confusing). Qualcomm is so confident about these new chips that they also mentioned their backup plan was to use new ARM cores if this failed...

      • ikjadoon

        It was compared to AMD because NUVIA was planning server chips.

        NUVIA’s first core is faster than Intel Tiger Lake, AMD Zen2, and Apple A13 (iPhone 11).

        But, yeah: not confidence-inspiring after spending $1.6b on custom cores!

        • bkkcanuck

          The issue is none of this supposed performance was based on independent testing (that I know of), that and the fact that it was a startup. I have worked with many startups - and we tended to be overly enthusiestic with our promises.... Nuvia was not a public company was it (if it was not a public company they would not be held to the same standard with regards to their public statements).

          • ikjadoon

            Excellent point.

            That’s where the supposed $1.6b comes into slightly clearer view. ?

            I mean, Qualcomm may be a monopolistic aircraft carrier, but they know when CPUs are trash (aka late-Gen Kryo, Centriq, etc).

        • Oreo

          Was there every any independent testing to confirm this? I'm not doubting nuvia's chip designers are good, but I'd be cautiously optimistic rather than just take nuvia's (now Qualcomm's) claims at face value.

    • SWCetacean

      Nuvia is using the Arm ISA, so it will be binary compatible with Arm's own processors. They have a different microarchitecture, just like how Apple's chips use the same Arm ISA, but their own custom microarchitecture.

    • ikjadoon

      The headline is a little confusing. It’s still Arm the ISA, but now they’re custom-engineering their own cores.

      Just like Apple. It’s Arm, so it can run any Arm OS: Linux, Windows, macOS, etc.

      Arm sells the Arm licenses and Arm cores, which are a reference implementation of the ISA.

  4. red.radar

    Exciting times for productivity computing.

  5. angusmatheson

    I just got Windows 11 on ARM running on my raspberry pi 4. ARM chips are awesome!!

  6. Saarek

    This is all great news. After years of boring stagnation Apple has lit a fire under the arse of everyone else and suddenly the CPU world is interesting again. The next few years are going to be brilliant for the entire computing industry.

  7. abdulla77

    I've been using my Surface Pro X (SQ1) for the last couple of months, mostly in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem (Outlook, Office apps, Teams, OneNote etc.) and I occasionally use the Edge browser for everything else (streaming/browsing etc.), and all I can say is it's been a great ride. What's even better is the fact that I can work anywhere with it thanks to the LTE. I have no complaints with the SQ1 chip as everything's quite zippy and I can't hear a single sound from the machine. Just for context, I did have my iPad Pro 11-inch prior and it's been my go-to for all things mentioned above, however I always had a limitation on the dual-windows. It's just not practical and simply iPad can't handle the multiple nature of windows and work-flows which I can do with a Surface Pro X, which is ironic as the Apple chips should be more capable than the SQ1 chip.

    Anyway, not to babble on too much but as far as I'm concerned, my experience using a WOA machine has been quite positive.

  8. codymesh

    Good to see Qualcomm have an actual strategy to turn up performance for their laptop chips. ARM clearly isn't going to deliver a design that rivals the M1 anytime soon

  9. saint4eva

    Instant success of apple m1. lol. how many pieces have been sold?

  10. bluvg

    "the long wait until 2022 is problematic"

    Apple fans wait for years for CPU updates. PC folks are nowhere near as forgiving.

    • digiguy

      Problem is that by late 2022 Apple will have their M chip based on A16 (whether it's M2 or, more likely, M3 by then), which will be quite a bit faster than M1 is now... My guess is that Qualcomm will not even match M1 by then.... Let alone much more powerful M1X, M2X etc in laptops. Having said that, even something inferior but close to M1 would make Windows on Arm competitive with Intel... But Intel is not resting... They will be making Risc-V chips next year (but I am skeptical about them, based on where R-V is now, they will mainly replace Atoms and Celerons) and if they manage to make competitive big-little chips on 3nm (with TSMC) within 2 years they might outperform the performance per watt of these new Qualcomm chips for Windows on Arm, with full Windows....

    • ikjadoon

      Because Apple was stuck with Intel. Why upgrade to 14+++++ when you have 14+++? Waste of engineering: these refreshes were purely made to shift goods and avoid fallout with OEMs.

      Apple releases new CPUS in new SoCs every single year. They’ve never missed a single A-series release in the better part of a decade.

      Apple releases new CPU architectures faster than Intel and AMD. Only Arm—and only sometimes—matches Apple’s pace for top-tier cores.

  11. JH_Radio

    Well if Windows 11 really doesn't change these processor requirements, and I have to buy a new PC come 2025 then I'll have my research cut out for me, won't I.

  12. cseafous

    Do you think this will revive the Neo? Do you think we could see WOA version of the Duo?

    • VancouverNinja

      You are bang on. I have not seen anyone mention this. If Windows 11 now runs Android apps Microsoft can leave Android behind and offer a Windows mobile device. It seems like the logical move. It could be a game changer and really be a threat to Android itself. One OS that runs across tablets, phones, and PCs. Sounds like a winner to me.

      • Paul Thurrott

        That's a terrible idea. Windows 11 can't run "Android" apps, it can run the subset of Android apps that come from Amazon's store, and not the majority that people want, which require Google Play.

        More to the point, what Qualcomm is doing here is aimed at high-performance devices, especially PCs, not mobile devices.

        Android is still the right choice for mobile apps that need to run Android apps. And Windows apps still make no sense, for the most part, on mobile devices.

        • locust_infested_orchard_inc.

          Surely Android Apps (APKs) shall be able to be sideloaded into Windows 11, thus foregoing the need to use either/both the Amazon/Microsoft Stores ?

          The APKs can be anonymously obtained directly from services.googleapis.com (direct from Google) via a Windows application command-line APK downloader named 'gplaydl'.

          This Windows application has allowed me to expunge the data trafficking Google Play Store app from my Lumia 950 XL OnePlus 8 Pro.

      • rob_segal

        I do not understand this desire to resurrect Windows Phone or Mobile. It had some good ideas, but those ideas have been surpassed by the advancements made by IOS and Android. A laptop with good performance, good compatibility, and great battery life have a market. Reviving Windows Phone or Mobile is a really bad idea that will only cost Microsoft a lot of money. Surface Duo is struggling in the market and that uses the most widely used phone operating system. A Windows phone would do significantly worse than that, especially coming from a company that doesn't connect with the vast majority of consumers.

        • RobertJasiek

          I do not buy Android phones because privacy is attacked and updates are too short. I do not buy iPhones because file management is terrible, therefore prices are too high and updates are still too short. Therefore, I very much want a Windows phone or tablet with phone functionality.

          Windows 11 (Pro) does work on an old Windows phone as a proof of concept. Hence, there is no justification for not offering new Windows 11 (Pro) smartphones! They might even replace some notebooks.

          Windows 11 only on devices larger than 9" is the latest of Microsoft's most stupid decisions in history! Lost 7bn on Nokia. Lose more than 7bn by not entering the smartphone market.

          • hrlngrv

            | Windows 11 (Pro) does work on an old Windows phone as a proof of concept.

            Can handsets running Windows 11 make voice calls? Or are they really small tablets?

            • RobertJasiek

              Windows 11 ARM can do voice calls on a Microsoft Lumia 950 XL.

              • locust_infested_orchard_inc.

                Actually your comment is slightly disingenuous. According to the Gustave Monce (@gus33000) in relation to Lumia 950 XL running WoA 11, "the component responsible for handling calls is not part of Windows 11. We lift it straight from Windows Phone with bridge components so it kinda works on here".

                So WoA 11 cannot do voice calls out-of-the-box.

                If my memory serves me well, Microsoft removed the internals of the voice capability is some build during 2019. It would appear from @gus33000 that the voice component is absent in Windows 11.

          • rob_segal

            There are not nearly enough customers to justify the cost of building and maintaining a phone operating system, managing mobile carrier relationships, and convince other companies to manufacture Windows Phone devices. There are far fewer customers willing to buy a Microsoft Windows phone than there are people willing to buy a Microsoft Android phone and so far, there haven't been many people wanting to buy and keep a Duo. If Microsoft spent $7 billion on Windows Phone again, they would lose $7 billion again.

            • RobertJasiek

              A Windows phone operating system is not needed. Windows 11 (ARM) does it.

              Therefore, there is zero "cost of building and maintaining a phone operating system, managing mobile carrier relationships, and convince other companies to manufacture Windows Phone devices."

              Fewer customer willing to buy a Windows 11 phone than an Android or iOS phone? I get that. This is no excuse to just not take the 1 - 10% market share during the first 1 - 3 years. Microsoft has shown that it can offer Windows for the right price: $0 on small devices! It does not matter whether small means at most 9 or at most 6.5". Therefore, the price of Windows 11 would not prevent anybody from buying a Windows 11 phone. (Maybe this actually Microsoft's secret plan behind the specification of larger than 9" for Windows 11 on regular computers?)

              The Duo was a niche market concept. A regular smartphone is a mainstream market device.

              Microsoft needs to spend ca. $100.000 on maintaining a smartphone app as part of Windows 11. It is peanuts - not another 7bn. Microsoft does not need to build its own smartphones if it does not want to take the risk - OEMs will do it.

              Reinventing Windows Phone might lose billions again but what I am suggesting is fundamentally different: use Windows 11 on smartphones.

              • jimchamplin

                That would be an incredibly bad idea.

                It seems clear that Microsoft has prioritized desktop performance in this release, but current Snapdragon SoCs still can’t keep up with even low-end parts from Intel and AMD. How would running a desktop OS on an even more constrained SoC end in anything but disaster? Sure for basic operations it would be fine assuming it has 8GB of RAM and high speed storage. But once a handset designer saddles it with the minimum RAM and a cheesy eMMC drive, it’s Netbook City.

                Windows on a phone is a done deal. As cool as we think it might be, it never panned out and it’s over.

                • RobertJasiek

                  On slow hardware, it would be bad indeed. Sufficient hardware (CPU, SSD) is needed. Of course, it would be only for basic computing: phone, browsing (without ad-overloaded webpages), text reading, viewing pictures, music. Good enough for me.

      • miamimauler

        "One OS that runs across tablets, phones, and PCs. Sounds like a winner to me"

        Gee, where have we heard that before.

        • hrlngrv

          Well, there are 2 kernels which run across phones, tablets and microcomputers: Apple's Mach-based one, and Linux's one which underpins Android and Chrome OS in addition to Linux. For that matter, the Linux kernel also runs on mainframes and supercomputers as well as running on embedded systems too small to be able to run any version of Windows. From a perverse perspective, other than microcomputers and servers, Windows is a failure.

          That said, who wants the same UI across all device types? That was the fatal flaw in MSFT's vision for Windows 8.

          • bluvg

            "Apple's Mach-based one"

            I think they would prefer it be called XNU? XNU is a derivative of Mach, but I think the micro- vs. hybrid-kernel distinction is important (everything has moved towards hybrid in some fashion).

      • hrlngrv

        Who'd make Windows phone hardware? OEMs? Only if MSFT didn't charge for OS license kits. MSFT? Is it, more specifically its board of directors, willing to burn through another US$10 billion at least to establish Windows as the #3 phone OS? Could MSFT make profits on phone hardware this side of 2050?

    • Paul Thurrott

      I do think we'll see Surface Duo at some point. Not sure if it will be WOA or x64, obviously.

  13. davepete

    Paul, I think your headline and even your update are unclear. Qualcomm will still be making ARM instruction set chips, but instead of using ARM's reference designs they'll use Nuvia's. Just as Apple uses ARM's instruction set but does its own chip designs. For a headline, how about "Qualcomm's ARM chips to be based on Nuvia designs"

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