Qualcomm digs Apple chip engineers, and wants to make cores to beat M chips

In 2017, after Apple launched the newly designed MacBook Pro series, Qualcomm began to cooperate with Microsoft to build the Windows on Arm ecosystem with its sense of smell in the field of mobile phone chips.

At that time, Qualcomm provided the SoC based on the Snapdragon platform for the Windows platform, which did not give full play to the energy efficiency ratio of the Arm architecture. On the contrary, it exposes the disadvantages of weak performance and high price, and it is difficult to attract consumers who are willing to try it.

▲ Surface Pro X picture from: theverge

Even after Microsoft pulled its own Surface series and launched an Arm-based Surface Pro X, it failed to reverse the tepid status of Windows on Arm.

It was not until the appearance of M1, or Apple's strong entry, that the Arm chip was completely broken on the PC platform.

Last year, with the Snapdragon 8 Gen1 flagship SoC, Qualcomm also launched the Snapdragon 8cx Gen3 and 7c+ Gen3 chips for PCs, and promised a significant leap forward at the press conference.

Recently, the ThinkPad X13s equipped with the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 chip was launched as scheduled, and related theoretical tests also surfaced.

Compared with the previous generation, the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 has indeed improved significantly. According to the GeekBench running score, the single-core has increased by 40%, and the multi-core has increased by 85%.

However, compared with the M1 released by Apple a year ago, there is still a very obvious gap in multi-core, let alone the "core monsters" such as M1 Pro and M1 Max.

▲ Apple M1 chip day group

Qualcomm, which has achieved such results, does not seem to be discouraged. Instead, it has prepared a chip code-named "Hamoa" to compete with Apple's M chip. The time is set in 2023.

Beat the Apples the Apple Way

Even though the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 has made significant progress, it is still a bit "whimsical" to catch up with Apple's established M chips in just a few years.

What's more, Qualcomm's road to mobile SoCs in recent years has not been smooth. The performance of flagship chips is half and half. Even if GPU, baseband, AI, ISP and other modules have been significantly improved, they will still be clamped by Arm's public version architecture. .

In order to master the core competitiveness, Qualcomm also aimed at the IP architecture core designed by itself, that is, like Apple, it obtained Arm authorization and designed the core by itself.

For this purpose, Qualcomm acquired Arm chip design company NUVIA for $1.4 billion in March 2021.

Crucially, NUVIA was co-founded by former Apple chip engineers Gerard Williams III, John Bruno and Manu Gulati.

Among them, William participated in the development and design of A7~A12X, and has been in a leadership role. In addition to the chip design, in the first few years of NUVIA's founding, he also served as the layout design of the A chip.

▲ Picture of the three who co-founded NUVIA from: NUVIA

At the beginning of NUVIA's creation, the goal was to develop an Arm-based server chip and use it to shake up the industry.

After being acquired by Qualcomm, NUVIA's goal has also turned to consumer-grade Arm chips, pointing directly to PCs.

▲ Arm public version of the core IP image from: Arm

In other words, Qualcomm has indirectly dug the corner of the Apple chip core team, which may be one of the reasons why Qualcomm has overtaken the M chip in a few years.

Similar to Apple's M chip, Qualcomm gets rid of its dependence on Arm Cortex public IP with the help of NUVIA's independent core design capabilities.

Of course, independent core IP is not only Arm chips for PC platforms. Keith Kressin, vice president of Qualcomm, emphasized in anandtech interview, "We will focus on evaluating each indicator, and selecting appropriate designs to apply to corresponding products."

It is not ruled out that the Snapdragon 8 series SoC for smartphones will also have its own architecture in the future.

▲ The splicing method of Apple M chip

The "Hamoa" chip that is rumored to be marketed in 2023 is very likely to be a CPU designed by NUVIA with modules such as Adreno GPU and Hexagon DSP.

It may be difficult for Qualcomm to catch up with Apple's M chips with a single acquisition, but it is better to first focus on the energy efficiency advantage of the Arm architecture.

Catching up with hardware is easy, but ecology is not

The CPU core of Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 is actually taken from the combination of the super core X1 of the Snapdragon 888 and the large core A78.

The Hamoa chip may have a qualitative improvement on the CPU, and it is also possible to narrow the gap with the M chip.

▲ Surface Pro X with weird Arm ecology Image from: Microsoft

However, the lack of hardware strength is not the root cause of the Windows on Arm jointly built by Qualcomm and Microsoft.

Later Surface Pro X, the hardware is not a short board, but an ecology.

Even with Microsoft's hands-on Arm platform, many of its own programs have failed to migrate, let alone professional-grade tools and productivity environments on Windows.

Not to mention, Microsoft has lost its voice in ecological appeal, and many traditional PC manufacturers are still on the sidelines. After the release of Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3, only consumer-grade devices have appeared until now, and the rhythm is too slow compared to the M chip next door.

Apple gave two years for Mac to switch from x86 to Arm, and during the two-year transition period, Apple provided Rosstta 2 translation technology to minimize the impact of the transition period on users.

Ironically, after Mac switched to Arm, Microsoft adapted the Arm version for Office for the first time, and Adobe also quickly adapted.

And it also provided the corresponding Arm version for Windows, and many people joked that Microsoft is Apple's best developer.

In Windows on Arm, in addition to its own program adaptation and translation efficiency, it is difficult for Microsoft to call on third-party software to actively adapt to the compatible Windows ecosystem.

Therefore, in the current environment of Windows on Arm, Qualcomm may also need to call on third-party manufacturers to abandon the x86 platform and turn to Arm together before achieving results.

In a few years, it is necessary to cooperate with Qualcomm, Microsoft and third-party manufacturers to switch to Arm as successfully as Apple, not just a processor with outstanding energy efficiency ratio.

▲ Apple's "computers"

In the past two years, Apple's All in Arm strategy has been very successful, and the excellent performance of the M chip is really eye-catching, but behind this, Apple has an unprecedented ecological control, which finally makes the Mac that embraces Arm impressive. .

Arm-based PCs are the future

To be precise, Arm-based portable PCs are the future.

The advantages of Arm chips are energy efficiency, portability, low price, and customizability. PCs equipped with Arm chips can be extremely thin and light, reduce costs, and allow hardware manufacturers to participate in customization.

▲ Google's deeply customized Tensor SoC

Not only Qualcomm, but also Google and Microsoft are forming their own Arm teams to enter the emerging Arm market.

However, unlike Qualcomm, Google and Microsoft are closer to customizing Arm chips to foundries to meet the needs of equipment. Google's Tensor is an example, its architecture is almost a customized version of Samsung's Exynos chip.

However, Google has reorganized in terms of AI performance and CPU core collocation according to its own needs. And in the future, Tensor will be extended to ChromeOS devices.

According to a study by Strategy Analytics, in the Arm processor market in 2021, Qualcomm's revenue will account for 34%, and Apple's 31%, the gap is only a few percentage points.

If you switch to the Arm PC market, Apple eats 90% of its revenue, and Qualcomm only 3%. Moreover, through the strength of M chips, Apple Mac has already accounted for 9% of the market share in the PC field in 2021, an increase of 26% compared to the previous year.

▲ Apple has taken the lead

Compared with the stable smartphone market, the Arm PC market is in the ascendant, and Qualcomm's purpose of betting on Arm PC is the future market potential.

Qualcomm pinned its hopes on NUVIA's technology to make breakthroughs in Arm chips and overtake M chips in one fell swoop. But to achieve the Mac achievement, Qualcomm still needs to work with Microsoft to promote the Arm ecosystem and persuade traditional PC manufacturers to abandon x86 chips.

Either way, it's an epic challenge for Qualcomm.

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