Microsoft showcases first Windows 10 laptops with Qualcomm chips instead of Intel

Key Points
  • Microsoft executive Terry Myerson said his Windows 10 PC running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip works for a week on one battery charge.
  • Myerson said the initial ARM-based Windows 10 machines should be fine for many office workers, students, parents and travelers.
Microsoft EVP Terry Myerson (left) and Asus CEO Jerry Shen (right) with the Asus NovaGo “Always Connected” PC.
Source: Tanya Zagumenov | Microsoft

Microsoft has long been known as an Intel and AMD shop.

But on Tuesday, the company is taking the rare step of unveiling a laptop that's powered by another chip giant: Qualcomm.

By selling Windows 10 PCs with Qualcomm processors, which dominate the smartphone market, Microsoft is aiming to reach a mobile audience that's been much more inclined to buy Apple and Android devices.

At an event in Hawaii, Microsoft showed new laptops from Asus and HP with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chips that use ARM's architecture. The PCs have a modem for LTE connectivity, so they don't have to exclusively rely on WiFi networks.

Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft's Windows and devices group, told CNBC that he uses his Asus NovaGo "always connected" convertible laptop for a week at a time on a single charge. That's very unusual at a time when most laptop and tablet batteries won't last longer than a day.

"In my day at the office, I walk around with one of these PCs and a phone," Myerson said, adding that he doesn't bring the laptop's charging cable along with him. He said that it's similar to his Fitbit wearable device, which he charges every four or five days.

While it's an experimental endeavor for Microsoft, over time this class of devices could present a challenge to AMD and Intel, whose processors have historically been the standard for Windows PCs. More than half of Intel's revenue comes from its client computing group, which includes PC and tablet chips.

For Qualcomm, teaming up with Microsoft represents another potential revenue opportunity, one that takes advantage of the research and development it's done for mobile devices, Cristiano Amon, an executive vice president, told CNBC.

'Office experience'

ARM-based chips have already made their way into the laptop market. Google has been trying to improve the performance of Chromebooks that use ARM chips and there have been reports that Apple has interest in releasing Mac computers that rely on ARM silicon.

The area of real uncertainty is how well many kinds of applications work on an ARM-based Windows 10 system. Myerson said iTunes and Spotify and many games "run great" on his Asus NovaGo. Microsoft developed a version of Office for these "always connected" PCs.

"We looked at it and said we want it to be a native Office experience," Myerson said. That involved compiling the "portions of the Office apps that are most used," he said.

This isn't Microsoft's first time trying to build ARM-based PCs. In 2012, when Microsoft introduced the first generation of its Surface tablet, one variation packed an ARM chip and ran a new operating system called Windows RT. But a year later the company announced a $900 million write-down largely because of unsold inventory of these tablets.

Microsoft first announced plans to bring Windows 10 to PCs running ARM chips a year ago, and in May it named the first six manufacturers: Asus, HP, Huawei, Lenovo, Vaio, and Xiaomi.

New Windows 10 PCs will run on Qualcomm chips, but Intel investors shouldn't worry just yet
New Windows 10 PCs will run on Qualcomm chips, but Intel investors shouldn't worry just yet

In June, Intel warned that it may bring an intellectual property case relating to Windows 10 on Qualcomm chips, depending on how it's implemented.

"We do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel's intellectual property rights," two Intel executives wrote in a blog post.

Microsoft said in a statement that it's still working closely with Intel. "We're excited to offer customers a broad range of great PCs and look forward to innovating with Intel in the future," the company said.

Asus initially has two options for always-connected PCs: a $599 model with 4 gigabytes of RAM and 64 gigabytes of storage, and a $799 version with 8 gitabytes of RAM and 256 gigabytes of storage. They deliver 22 hours of battery life and 30 days of standby time.

Asus CEO Jerry Shen underscored the importance of having fast connectivity.

"If you have the gigabit LTE, your speed is faster than the WiFi," Shen told CNBC. Asus intends to release more ARM-based Windows 10 PCs in the next two years, Shen said.

As for Microsoft, the company announced a Surface Pro device that comes with LTE connectivity in October, though it uses Intel silicon. Myerson wouldn't comment on whether Microsoft had future plans for a Surface using a Qualcomm chip.

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