5G isn’t only for phones. Here’s how Qualcomm just paved the road to 5G PCs

HP Envy X2 qualcomm's LTE PC
HP Envy X2

Qualcomm is on a mission to modernize the PC. What’s it’s plan? Be the first to introduce the world to 5G-enabled PCs. 5G promises speeds up to 1.4Gbps in early network testing, with theoretical limits running up to 7Gbps. This faster connection to the internet could reshape how we use computers.

To connect to these emerging 5G networks, Qualcomm has two secret weapons: Its new Snapdragon X55 modem and the Snapdragon 8cx PC processor. But here at Mobile World Congress, we got the exclusive scoop on how the two work together to create the first 5G-enabled PC platform.

Snapdragon X55 meets Snapdragon 8cx

In case you’ve missed it, Qualcomm has been putting chips in laptops for over a year now. Compared to traditional x86 devices powered by Intel or AMD, these “Always Connected PCs” move the emphasis away from power and high-end features. Instead, they’re all about portability and modernization. They extended battery life and add an always-connected experience where your emails automatically download in the background like on a smartphone.

But more than anything else, connectivity has always been the name of the game for Qualcomm PCs. LTE connection is included out of the box at no extra cost to you. With 5G, that’s taken to the next level.

The biggest change is faster speeds. That’s according to Puneet Sethi, the Senior Director of Product Management at Qualcomm. But that’s obvious. In an interview ahead of the company’s Mobile World Congress keynote, he noted there were other benefits too, such as more capacity and reduced latency.

Qualcomm recently launched its Snapdragon X55 modem to allow consumer devices to connect to 5G, 4G, 3G, and even 2G networks around the world. The X55 is designed to work in a variety of devices, ranging from phones to connected cars and PCs. And although you can pair the Snapdragon X55 in PCs with Intel and AMD chips, there’s a special connection with the other piece of the puzzle: the Snapdragon 8cx processor.

As always, it all comes down to speed.

The chip was announced last December, and it’s meant to be Qualcomm’s first true PC-specific processor platform. In other words, it’s meant to actually compete toe-to-toe with Intel’s mobile chips. It’s designed to run Microsoft’s full Windows 10 operating system on an ARM-powered device. More importantly, when coupled with the X55 modem, these Always Connected PCs with 8cx processors will benefit from even faster internet speeds.

That’s right, as with Qualcomm’s previous modems in the past, you won’t get the same benefits that you would on Qualcomm’s Always Connected PC platform, explained Miguel Nunes, the Senior Director of Product Management for Qualcomm Technologies. Again, it comes back to speed. When manufacturers like Samsung and Lenovo build PCs with an x86 modem, the devices will consume more power.

Despite the higher power requirements behind the new 5G modem, Qualcomm isn’t revising its estimates of up to 20 hours of battery life for its Always Connected PC platform.

“The amount of bandwidth is also greater on 5G, so the time that you’ll need to complete the workload is going to be shorter,” Nunes said. “So, if you’re looking at it from a watt per megabit type of thing, 5G is going to be more efficient than LTE.”

And that right there is the main selling point of these new 5G PCs, along with the new capabilities that increase in speed brings.

Changing the way we use PCs

Beyond faster speeds, Qualcomm hopes that the way we use our PCs will start to change. One clear example they gave was that faster internet speeds translate to faster connection to the cloud.

When you’re looking at cloud computing and having your files stored in the cloud — all those things are going to be experienced with 5G because you have much less latency and higher bandwidth,” Nunes said. Your cloud storage is going to start performing much more like local storage.

“Users won’t care whether they’re running it locally on the device or remotely on a server in the cloud.”

And as processing intensive applications, like Adobe’s Creative Suite, begin to move to the cloud, we may start to see our laptops, tablets, and convertibles start to function like thin clients. Thin clients are already popular in the enterprise markets because most major applications run on the cloud and get rendered on the PC, making it easier and more secure for businesses to manage software. With 5G networks, the idea can begin to spread to consumer apps, including games, which traditionally either require a lot of processing or graphics power to run locally on a machine.

“There’s also a lot of talk about services in the cloud, whether it’s gaming or apps that are running in the cloud, and you’re connecting via a remote terminal,” Nunes explained. “Whether you’re running cloud apps or gaming services, the user experience is going to fantastic, and users won’t care whether they’re running it locally on the device or remotely on a server in the cloud.”

qualcomm-always-connected-laptop

Despite embracing the processor shift to the cloud, Qualcomm isn’t concerned that its 5G efforts will cannibalize the company’s mission of building faster processors, like the Snapdragon 8cx, for PCs. Qualcomm views remote computing as a balance between the speeds of 5G networks and the performance of local processors.

“What 5G allows you to do is purchase a great thin and light form factor that lasts a really long time and does 95 percent of every workload you need, and you can rely on the cloud for the remaining five percent,” Nunes said. “So, you don’t have to buy this super high-end equipment.”

But in order to get a good user experience, these “thin clients” will still need strong graphics capabilities to render the apps on the device, and that’s where Qualcomm’s investment in Snapdragon 8cx comes into play.

Qualcomm’s overall vision for PC connectivity is to be able to deliver seamless handoffs as you’re moving between networks. This means that you can start a computing task on your home Wi-Fi network, move over to a carrier-operated 4G or 5G connection on your drive to work and automatically switch to your office’s private enterprise 5G network comprised of small cells, Sethi said.

The company views 5G as a complementary technology to existing networks, like Wi-Fi and 4G, and not as a replacement.

The future is at hand

“At Qualcomm, our goal is to deliver the best radio solution in all the technologies that are available, because the reality is that we need all these technologies together,” Sethi said.

Qualcomm may not have had an actual 5G-enabled PC ready to show off at Mobile World Congress, but then again, networks aren’t quite ready for that anyways. 5G networks will only start to become available later this year, and Qualcomm told us that data pricing for its 5G PCs will be disclosed at that time.

But, why stop at 5G? Some, like U.S. President Donald Trump, have already begun looking towards 5G’s successor. In a recent tweet, Trump implored American technology companies to launch 6G networks, perhaps without knowing quite what he was asking for. But even when we do get there, Qualcomm seems confident in its position as a leader in these new technologies.

“Our belief is that 5G has a long road ahead of us,” Sethi explained in response to the President’s recent tweet. “And with next-generation 6G, our goal as a company is to be a leader in providing the best radio technology that we can. We’re doing that on Wi-Fi. We’re doing that on cellular with 4G, 5G, and the next release. We’re guns blazing on all those different directions.”

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