Qualcomm Takes on Apple: the race for faster chips.

Photo of author

By vexwift.com

On October 24th, 2023, a crowd gathered in an event hall in Hawaii. They were attending a conference for the chip design firm Qualcomm. Rumors were churning that something big was coming. The crowd was chattering among themselves in anticipation. Within a few minutes, everyone in that crowd would be stunned.

“No, what did he just say?” Their chips were faster than the chips from Apple and Intel, and it uses less power. How could this be possible? The speaker, Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm President and CEO, could read the stunned faces of the audience. In his thick Brazilian accent, he stated, “Yes, take a photo! Take a photo! Our Ryan CPU exceeds the M2 Max!” [Applause] “And it’s faster than any leading ARM-compatible competitor in single-traded CPU performance. Take a photo! Take a photo!”

Qualcomm Takes on Apple: the race for faster chips

This was the biggest single event in the tech hardware space since Apple began designing their own custom chips for their MacBooks back in 2020. But as the ultimate twist in this story, the people who designed this new magical Qualcomm chip were, in fact, ex-Apple engineers. They took all their trade secrets with them. In all of this, there’s a lawsuit going on, but it’s not from who you would expect. After Qualcomm’s bombshell announcement, it has come to light that Microsoft, Lenovo, HP, Dell, Asus, and Samsung are all going to use Qualcomm’s new chip to power some of their laptops.

But it wasn’t over in a matter of days. Apple hit back with a surprising unveiling of a new chip. However, according to early benchmarks, Apple’s M3 is still beaten by Qualcomm in some cases. And don’t worry; we’ll check that out too.

Overnight, the computing industry has just gotten very interesting. We’re going to get into all of this in this [Music] episode. You are watching Cold Fusion TV.

A bit of background:

for all of modern computing history, computer microprocessors have generally fallen into two categories: x86 chips and ARM chips. X86 chips are what you usually find in Windows desktops, laptops, and even Macs until 2020. X86 chips are generally complicated, use a lot of power, but they were flexible and performed well. The major players in the x86 space are Intel and AMD.

The ARM is a British firm that licenses their chip designs for modification by other brands. Advanced RISC Machine licensing chip designs will come into play near the end of the episode. ARM chips are what you’d expect to find in phones and tablets. ARM architecture is extremely efficient, simpler in design, but was traditionally weaker in performance compared to x86. That’s the way it was and the way it always would be until things were flipped on their head in 2020 when Apple did the impossible.

They essentially scaled up a modified iPhone chip to reach desktop performance. In other words, they designed a mobile ARM chip with x86 desktop performance. I made a video on this and said that this was a change in the computing industry.

One year after the success of Apple’s M1 chip, Qualcomm decided to buy a fresh startup made up of ex-Apple engineers. But we’ll get to that part of the story later. But at the end of the day, the result of this fresh talent from Apple was Qualcomm coming through from nowhere to outperform Apple’s M2 chip.

New era of Snapdragon X Elite

“We are embarking on this journey, and our goal when we set ourselves to develop the CTU is to set the bar for the industry and establish the performance leadership for Windows PC. We have delivered, and I have to tell you, we exceeded our own expectations. So based on the announcement today, I’m very pleased to tell you that there is a new sheriff in town. The Orion CPU is the new leader in mobile computing, period. It has been designed with one thing in mind, can we have unprecedented levels of performance at extremely low power? It’s faster than any leading ARM-compatible competitor in a single-traded CPU performance. Take a photo! Take a photo! [applause].

I’m sure you want to take the next photo too. You know if you want to match that performance, you can do it with 30% less power. Isn’t that [Applause] incredible? But if we say that is the new CPU leader for mobile computing, period, I have to show you more. It’s faster than the leading x86 CPU single-traded CPU performance. The core exceeds the i9-13980 HX, which is designed for high-performance gaming devices. Okay, get ready for the next photo. That’s going to be good. And if you want to match the performance, it does it with 70% less power”

Benchmarks:

The YouTube channel Gary Explained goes over some early benchmarks when compared to Apple’s M2, which, keep in mind, is a year old at this point.

“So what we’re seeing here is the best single 3 performance is from the Snapdragon X Elite, even when it’s running in that 23-watt mode. That’s better than the M2 Pro that you get in a MacBook Pro. Even better here when you bump it up to an even higher thermal budget. And of course, multicore does depend on the number of cores you’ve got. And then you’ve got the M2 Pro. It is slightly faster than the Snapdragon X Elite when you’re running it in its 23-watt mode, but not when you bump it up to 80 watts. It’ll be interesting to see what laptops Qualcomm partners release next year to see what kind of wattage we’re going to have.”

The tech world was stunned, and AnandTech writes,

“If nothing else, the introduction of a clean sheet high-performance CPU design makes Orion the most interesting story in hardware tech right now. And the most interesting thing to happen in the CPU space since the introduction of Apple’s M1. And if the Snapdragon X Elite as a whole can deliver on the performance claims CPU GPU and NPU, that makes things all the more interesting. The fact that we’re talking about the Snapdragon X Elite in the same breath as the M2 or Raptor Lake is a major achievement for Qualcomm”

And the competition is heating up. Nvidia and AMD have also mentioned plans to get into the ARM-based PC space. But as we all know, things weren’t over.

Apple vs Qualcomm:

The very next week, Apple hits back by announcing the M3 chip. So the question has to be asked: how does Apple’s latest chip compete with the Qualcomm X Elite?
Well, we don’t have all the data yet. At the time of writing, the X Elite has been seen in benchmarks in the wild, running two versions:
a low-power 23W version
and a high-power 80W version.
For context, the base M3 uses 25W of power, and the M3 Max uses 30W of power. So take this with a grain of salt because it’s not the full picture.

Qualcomm Takes on Apple: the race for faster chips

In single-core performance, the 80W version of the X Elite is unsurprisingly the fastest because it uses the most power. Meanwhile, the 23W version of the X Elite is defeated by all versions of the M3. However, multi-core is a different story. The 80W X Elite is beaten by the M3 Max by 19%, but it still manages to outpace all other versions. The 23W version of the X Elite sits between the base M3 and the M3 Pro.

The betrayal of Apple:

So, how did Qualcomm achieve all of this so suddenly? Basically, as you know, they poached talent from Apple. It all began with the establishment of the Navea team in 2019. Navea is a company founded by John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerald Williams III. These individuals are the who’s who of chip design at Apple, key high-level architects behind many generations of Apple’s iPhone processors. Williams was the key architect on all of Apple’s CPU designs, including the recent Lightning core in the A13. The three founders have over 100 patents related to systems engineering and silicon design. Their accolades include engineering leadership roles at Google, Apple, ARM, Broadcom, and AMD.

The company aims for an upheaval in the industry, describing it in their own words as a “step function increase in compute performance and power efficiency.” Their stellar track record and recent achievements prove this. Qualcomm purchased Navea in January of 2021 for $1.4 billion and folded the company’s technologies into their roadmap for future chips. The X Elite is their very first product, marking a remarkable turning point for Qualcomm and perhaps the industry as a whole.

As mentioned earlier, Microsoft, Lenovo, HP, Dell, Asus, and Samsung are all on board and using Qualcomm in some of their upcoming laptops. Now, all that has to happen is for Microsoft to take Windows on ARM seriously. Once this is done, things could get really exciting. The departure of chip designers from Apple to start their own startups reminds me of the 1960s when Fairchild Semiconductor engineers moved throughout Silicon Valley to create startups, one of which was Intel. So, I have to wonder if history is rhyming.

Intel vs Qualcomm:

Speaking of Intel, what’s going on with them? They’re releasing their new generation of laptop chips, but so far, according to what we know, Intel’s new laptop processors dubbed Meteor Lake offer a slight improvement over what Intel is currently offering and AMD. However, they prioritize power efficiency and all-day battery life. Intel has announced that its 14th Gen Core Ultra Meteor Lake-based processors will launch on December 14th. These new CPUs offer all the performance of 13th Gen Raptor Lake chips with half the power draw. With Meteor Lake, Intel finally joins its competitors with its first CPU using independently fabricated chiplets. Some tiles will use Intel’s bleeding-edge Intel 4 process, while others will use TSMC’s 5nm process.

The chips use a new type of efficiency core, which Intel calls a low-power island designed to handle light workloads without powering up a more energy-hungry compute tile. Reportedly, doubling integrated graphics performance per watt.
Unfortunately for Intel, AMD’s next-generation processors based on the Zen 5 architecture are just around the corner and expected to perform better.

What about this lawsuit?

According to Bloomberg, the British firm ARM “accused Qualcomm of building on technology it acquired from Nuvia without negotiating a new license.” Qualcomm filed a countersuit, claiming that it’s done nothing unlawful and that ARM can’t demand that it destroy processor chip technology built with Nuvia’s intellectual property.

So, armed laptops are venturing into the mainstream, and Apple will have some great competition on their hands in a year or two. This is ultimately great for consumers, and I’ll be watching closely from the sidelines.
Read more on vexwift: NVIDIA story: From startup to a $1 trillion giant

Join us on Facebook

Join us on X

Leave a comment