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Windows' AI-powered future could feature 'Qualcomm Inside'

Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite v WindowsImage: Mark Hachman / IDG

For years, AMD and especially Intel have dominated the PC industry, even after Qualcomm introduced its first Snapdragon processors for laptops. Now, Microsoft may be giving pride of place to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite processor with an upcoming Windows feature — and leaving AMD and Intel out in the cold.

In May, Microsoft will host its annual Build conference in Seattle. Microsoft will open that conference with a presentation from chief executive Satya Nadella to “share our AI vision across hardware and software,” according to Microsoft. That presentation is expected to introduce the Surface Pro 10 and Surface Laptop 5 for consumers, both featuring Qualcomm’s surprisingly powerful Snapdragon X Elite processor, based on the Arm architecture. Microsoft has already launched versions of both devices with Intel processors inside, for businesses.

But it’s the “software” version of Microsoft’s AI vision that’s intriguing. Microsoft’s last feature update of Windows 11 may have introduced AI PCs, but Microsoft is moving more aggressively to a future where AI is more tightly integrated into the operating system. Microsoft appears to have a more formal definition of an “AI PC” waiting in the wings, and we know that it includes a Copilot key as well as the AI coprocessor known as an NPU.

But which NPU? We’ve always assumed that Microsoft would be fairly agnostic about which processors it would allow inside AI PCs. But we’re seeing the first indications that certain processors might not be up to snuff.

From Microsoft’s Build schedule, we know that Microsoft is hosting a session on building a new AI PC feature. That feature has been said to be something called “AI Explorer,” probably an AI-powered version of the now-deprecated Timeline feature that could be a holistic search engine for seeking out a crucial bit of information. We don’t know that the Build session is on AI Explorer, but it’s a pretty good guess.

Now a Twitter leaker says that they have found evidence within Windows 11 build 26100 that AI Explorer will be limited to Arm64 CPUs — and specifically Snapdragon X Elite.

If this is true, it would be an enormous endorsement for Qualcomm, and a rather embarrassing omission for both Intel and AMD.

Microsoft has been a staunch proponent of Windows on Arm for years now, even if Windows on Arm PC sales have been a tiny fraction of what they are from Intel and AMD. But Microsoft hasn’t given up: there’s yet another session on the “next generation of Windows on Arm” that Microsoft will present at Build.

“Learn about the exciting new experiences for Arm-powered Windows this year, such as intelligent Windows apps that leverage rich capabilities of the NPU,” Microsoft promises.

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Microsoft already ships an NPU-powered feature, Windows Studio Effects, on laptops that include an NPU, whether from AMD, Intel or Qualcomm. That app includes both video and audio filtering, and works pretty well. But it certainly isn’t “new.” That certainly sounds like Microsoft has more NPU-powered experiences up its sleeve, most likely AI Explorer.

Does Microsoft’s decision lock out AMD and Intel from AI Explorer? Probably not. Code is code, after all, and Microsoft could either patch it in or issue an update. Intel promises three times the AI performance in the upcoming Lunar Lake chip, which Intel will obviously hustle out as quickly as it can.

What this does tell us is that Microsoft believes strongly in what Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite can deliver — perhaps more stoutly than what Qualcomm has delivered previously. Qualcomm has already attracted an unprecedented level of PC OEM support, evidence that the hardware industry considers Qualcomm’s claims legit. Microsoft now appears to be on board, too.

Looks like Qualcomm, and Arm, are coming hard for both Intel and AMD. And in the AI future Microsoft envisions, Qualcomm could have a leg up.

Further reading: The best laptops we’ve tested

As PCWorld’s senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.

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