Snapdragon 8cx vs. Core i5

Does Qualcomm's latest laptop processor hold up against Intel's Core i5?

Core X-Series

Intel is under assault. Its long-running tenure as the king of computing CPUs is being shaken at its foundation with hot new competition from AMD in the desktop space and now Qualcomm in the mobile space. Funnily enough, it’s happening in similar fashion too. Where AMD’s Ryzen chips pushed core counts to counter Intel’s strength in single-threaded tasks, Qualcomm is bringing its mobile-orientated octacore Snapdragon SoCs to laptops and tablets with decent onboard graphics. The 8cx is the latest and greatest attempt to topple Intel from its processing throne.

Qualcomm might be a contender in the mobile space, but Always Connected Windows laptops powered by Snapdragon 835 and 850 chips have seen mixed results. Perhaps its new Snapdragon 8cx can prove to be more capable. To find out, we’ve pitted the Snapdragon 8cx versus the Core i5 Intel CPUs to see how they compare.

Both Intel’s and Qualcomm’s chips combine CPU and GPU cores on a single die, so we’ll look at the performance of each segment of the chips individually and consider their cost and efficiency too.

CPU performance

There are no cut and dry performance numbers for Qualcomm’s new 8cx CPU core, so we can’t do a direct head-to-head comparison of the chip with any relevant Intel Core i5 CPU. What we can do though, is take a look at benchmarks of older Qualcomm hardware and make speculations based on suggested features and specifications of the new chip.

The Snapdragon 8cx sports Qualcomm’s latest generation Kryo 495 octa-core CPU. That means it has eight cores to work with, four of which will likely be lower-power and operate when efficiency is more important than performance. In comparison, Intel’s mobile Core i5 CPUs tend to offer two or four cores, sometimes with support for double the number of threads using its hyperthreading technology.

Qualcomm’s new chip will be based on a 7nm process — which looks set to have big performance gains for AMD when it makes the die shrink with its next-gen chips. Intel’s smallest die CPU, on the other hand, at this time is 14nm. It has run into difficulty with its 10nm Cannon Lake generation, with no clear indication of when it will be released.

We don’t know what clock speed the new Kryo CPU cores will run at, but typically Intel holds an advantage over Qualcomm’s chips in that department. The high-power CPU cores in the Snapdragon 850 hit a maximum clock speed of 2.96GHz, while even Intel’s ultra-low-power Core i5-8200Y can turbo up to 3.9GHz. That is a dual-core CPU though, whereas the Qualcomm alternative has eight cores (four low-power, four high-power).

Assuming the Snapdragon 8cx’s new CPU cores are faster and higher-clocked than past iterations, this may result in a similar performance comparison to Intel’s Core i5 against AMD’s Ryzen CPUs. In that race, Intel excels in single-threaded tasks but offers more comparable performance in multi-threaded scenarios.

Qualcomm would have to make up some serious ground for that to happen though. As PCWorld’s testing of a Snapdragon 835 vs Intel Core i5-7Y54 showed, Intel holds a significant advantage in most general computing tasks. A major reason for that, though, is the overhead accrued by the translation from Windows x86 instructions to native ARM instructions. If Microsoft and Qualcomm have improved that process with their continued partnership, better translation efficiency could lead to big gains for Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon chip.

Graphics

microsoft failed with rt but qualcomm is doing windows on arm the right way snapdragon 8cx chip  front

Intel’s HD graphics aren’t known to be fantastically powerful, nor do they even offer credible competition for what we could consider budget graphics cards like the Nvidia GTX 1050, but they are passable. They allow users to do some gaming and if Qualcomm’s new Adreno 680 core can offer that, it might not matter if it doesn’t do much more.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what the 8cx’s new GPU core is clocked at, but Qualcomm has given us some details to extrapolate some speculative idea of its performance potential. The Adreno 680 GPU core is said to be the fastest GPU Qualcomm has ever produced, with up to twice the performance and 60 percent greater power efficiency than the Snapdragon 850.

That’s no mean feat. Looking back at the PCWorld head to head numbers, the Snapdragon chip that was tested there sported an Adreno 540. The Adreno 630 found in the Snapdragon 850 was around 30 percent faster than that, so a two times improvement again would be quite dramatic. Indeed, that would suggest that were the 8cx tested against Intel’s 7Y54 with its HD 615 core, the Snapdragon would likely win in the 3DMark Night Raid test.

However, a more modern Intel Core i5-8200Y with its UHD 615 graphics should be slightly more powerful than its HD counterpart, so graphically these chips may be roughly comparable.

We’ll need to see real world performance numbers to be sure, but we wouldn’t be totally surprised to see Qualcomm compete very favorably with Intel in 3D rendering and gaming.

App support

One of the concerns with Microsoft’s “Always Connected” PC style is the lack of native applications for the Qualcomm hardware under the hood.  Although the two companies have made sure there is emulation that allows x86 applications to run on the platforms, that’s not ideal, as it does require some processing power to perform the translation.

There are still some missing applications, most notably browsers like Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox, though Qualcomm promised that such apps will be ported to the platform in the near future. The recent addition of 64-bit app support should help fill any glaring voids in the software lineup too.

Cost and efficiency

The big selling points of the existing Always Connected line of products are efficiency and connectivity. Qualcomm has talked up efficiency gains for the Snapdragon 8cx, suggesting it could even deliver “multi-day” battery life in some products. That would be an improvement even upon the extensive battery life seen in solid entries like the HP Envy x2. That would see 8cx-equipped laptops offering greater battery life than industry leaders like the Surface Book 2.

However, competing on cost, especially since the Snapdragon 8cx will be a premium chip, may be a harder goal to achieve. Existing Always Connected PCs, like the aforementioned HP Envy x2, sell for as much as $1,000 with the Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM and a 12.3-inch display. A similarly priced laptop from HP, like the Envy, is currently priced $50 less, and yet comes with a much more powerful Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, Optane Memory, a 17.3-inch screen, and an Nvidia MX150 dedicated graphics chip.

If the 8cx ends up demanding a premium higher than that of the 835, it may be a hard sell compared to some of the more cost effective competition, especially considering laptops with Core i5 CPUs may still outstrip Qualcomm’s best effort in raw performance.

Qualcomm is chasing, but it’s probably still behind

It’s important to note that we don’t know all of the specifics of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx at this time. We don’t know how capable it is in the real world, and we don’t know how efficient it is. With the best information we have to hand right now, it seems hard to imagine it beating Intel’s Core i5 CPUs when it comes to performance. Graphically it will likely prove very capable, and the efficiency difference will be a game changer for some, but we would still expect the power advantage to remain with Intel.

It is also worth highlighting that we’re a long way off from products containing Qualcomm’s 8cx being readily available. They aren’t expected to ship until Q3 2019, which gives plenty of time for Intel to continue to refine its long-expected 10nm Cannon Lake chips. The next year also promises to see AMD bring ever more powerful and efficient CPUs and APUs to the table, which will bring even more competition to the table.

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