Apple’s MacBook Pro Faces Its Biggest Fight Yet Against Windows

Apple’s MacBook Pro Faces Its Biggest Fight Yet Against Windows

Updated April 9: article originally posted April 6.

Since the launch of Apple Silicon and the M1-powered MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, the Windows ecosystem has been working hard to catch up to Apple’s ARM laptops. Qualcomm’s latest chipset could be the answer needed by Microsoft and its partners.

When Apple Silicon’s M1 chipset debuted on the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air in 2020, it represented a generational jump in desk-bound computing. The move away from Intel’s x86 platform to Apple’s own ARM-based platform offered significant advantages over the Windows-based competition and older Intel MacBook laptops.

The new MacBooks offered a notable increase in performance compared to similarly specced laptops at the same price. The battery life was extended and could be maintained even when higher performance was demanded. And, of course, Apple ensured that an emulation layer allowed users to run x86-based apps without any lag impacting the experience.

There was no immediate response to match Apple’s advance from the competition. Instead, Windows 10 on ARM, alongside Qualcomm’s ARM-based chips, focused on bringing the benefits of mobile to the platform; many devices, such as Microsoft’s ARM-based Surface Pro X, leaned into connectivity, mobility, and ARM’s instant-on capability.

This was all balanced against the weaker emulation, with full emulation of 64-bit apps not generally available until 2021 (some two years after the launch of the standard-bearer Pro X).

It’s been relatively calm sailing for Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops, now on the third generation of the Mxx chipsets. That’s set to change later this year as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite ARM starts to appear on Windows-powered laptops.

This week, Qualcomm demonstrated the X Elite chipset to a number of reporters, giving them open access to reference design hardware to experience the platform and test several games and apps. While not real-world settings, the broad state of the X Elite can be understood.

Apple is about to face a company with Qualcomm and its partners looking to exceed the capabilities of the current M3 chipset.

Update: Tuesday April 9: The team at Winfuture has picked out not only the model numbers of Qualcomm’s X Elite chipset for Windows but also an additional lower-specced model. If X1E denotes the X Elite chipset, we have found the presumptively titled X Plus.

As the summer approaches, the Snapdragon X Elite chipset is poised to lead the pack, offering a straightforward narrative of power and performance through its ARM-based technology. The first laptops to showcase this technology will be pitted against Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, setting the stage for an intense and eagerly anticipated comparison.

After that moment, there is a larger opportunity for Qualcomm’s new chipset and Microsoft’s plans for more ARM-powered Windows devices. Apple has resolutely kept the entry-level price for the MacBook at $999, yet many laptops are available for less than this totemic amount.

This could be where the X Plus chipset could come into its own with performance gains and increased battery life that rivals the MacBook. Without those benefits, the MacBook becomes a more expensive laptop that does not run Windows 11 or offers the native ability to run a consumer’s existing Windows apps.

Benchmarking-wise, Qualcomm offered several that allowed for a direct comparison with Apple’s current hardware, although some match-ups were noticeable by their absence. Andrew Freedman spotted the gaps for Tom’s Hardware:

“In terms of Apple comparisons, Qualcomm was a bit thin, only covering multi-threaded CPU performance in Geekbench 6. Qualcomm claims the X Elite beats the M3, 15,610 to 12,154. Single-threaded performance wasn’t mentioned, nor graphics. And Qualcomm didn’t bring up the M3 Pro or M3 Max, either.”

One of the most demanding areas of Windows computing is gaming, where every frame counts, every polygon is needed, and every bit of performance can make a critical difference to the outcome. No matter what a benchmark number says, if it doesn’t feel right when playing, it’s not right. Qualcomm showed off Baldur’s Gate 3 running on its reference hardware laptop. While it was not a specific gaming laptop, it delivered what appears to be a solid experience. Matthew Connatser for The Register:

“The demo showed Qualcomm’s typical Snapdragon X Elite reference laptop with 32GB of DDR5 running the critically acclaimed roleplaying game. According to the X user who filmed the demo and shared it, Baldur’s Gate 3 was running at 1080p with a framerate “hovering around 30 FPS.” For reference, 30 frames per second is generally considered to be the minimum playable framerate for games.

Baldur’s Gate 3 was running under emulation rather than as a native ARM-based application. Given the weakness of emulation under the Windows On Arm project, this is one of the areas where the X Elite has to deliver. Rich Woods calls out the gaming experience as “good enough”, but other areas still need work, as he worked through several processing and export tasks in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom:

“[denoise] took way longer on the Snapdragon X Elite; however, it’s worth noting that Adobe still isn’t running this feature on the NPU, so those 45TOPS that Qualcomm is promising don’t mean anything. This feature runs on the GPU. While emulation improvements are an expected feature of Windows 11 version 24H2, it’s worth noting at this time that GPU performance has always been pretty bad in emulation, with OpenGL compatibility issues and more.

“The timing of the export was more impressive, roughly on par with the Core Ultra 7 155H that’s in the Asus Zenbook. That’s the chip that Qualcomm is claiming superiority over in all of its comparisons… Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results, although I do hope they can sort out the GPU performance on the Denoise task.

Update: Monday April 8: More details and experiences from Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite day have been published, with Laptop Mag’s Mark Anthony Ramirez testing the native capability of a Windows laptop running on ARM hardware. While emulating Intel-based apps on ARM-based hardware is crucial in the short term, native ARM-based apps will offer more power and potential in the future.

To illustrate and experience this, Ramirez tested Blackmagic’s Davinci Resolve video editor for his test of the X Elite laptops. It’s fair to say that video editing is seen as one of the fortes of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, which makes Ramirez’s report all the more interesting.

“Where do I begin? Does it work? Is it smooth? How quickly does it render? Yes, yes, and fast! But to dig in a little more, Resolve runs beautifully smooth on the X Elite demo system, smoother than on most MacBook Airs, and lower-spec MacBook Pro M3s I have used. Yup, I said it, I mean it, and I will throw hands in defense of this statement.”

There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation here; developers will program for ARM if there is consumer demand, but consumers will not demand an ARM laptop if there are no apps. Which is why the balance between emulation and native is key. Emulation means that the laptop is usable out of the box, getting the hardware into consumers’ hands, at which point the advantages of ARM-based apps can be leveraged.

Qualcomm has taken a long time to reach a point where parity with Apple Silicon is within reach. Apple has a significant head start, and the advantage is that it can tailor macOS to dedicated hardware, while the X Elite will be a more general-purpose chip available to any manufacturer. But the Windows ecosystem needs to reach that parity quickly.

Paul Thurrott, as well as looking back at Windows’ previous adventures with ARM-based hardware, summed up the experience of the X Elite hardware demonstration and what it means for the future:

“Yes, we still have more to learn, and real-world experience with real, shipping PC laptops will tell the full tale. But exuberance about the Snapdragon X Elite no longer feels irrational. Indeed, it feels quite rational: This chipset and its successors have given Microsoft the runway it needs to drive Windows forward for the next decade.”

Laptops from various manufacturers will ship with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite this summer, at which point the victories and the flaws will be apparent, the market demand will come into sharp focus, and Apple will have a yardstick to compare its MacBook laptops to the renewed and hungry competition.

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