Computing

Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx vs. Intel Core i5

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

Photo by David Cogen

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 both AMD and Qualcomm in the mobile arena. Where AMD’s Ryzen chips pushed core counts to counter Intel’s strength in single-threaded tasks, Qualcomm is bringing its mobile-oriented octa-core Snapdragon chips to laptops and tablets with decent onboard graphics. The 8cx is the latest 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 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

The Snapdragon 8cx sports Qualcomm’s latest generation Kryo 495 octa-core CPU cores. It has eight of them to work with, four of which are lower-power, “Silver” cores running at 1.8GHz, while the others are “Gold” cores running at 2.84GHz. Intel’s Core i5 mobile CPUs use a more traditional design with four general purpose cores, but with support for hyperthreading meaning that they can handle up to eight threads at once.

Intel’s eighth-generation Whiskey Lake Core i5 CPUs operate at 1.6GHz but can turbo boost up to 4.1GHz on a single core as and when required, or up to 3.7GHz across all four cores simultaneously. Its 10th-generation Ice Lake CPUs have a lower clock speed, of between 0.7GHz and 1.2GHz base clock, but turbo up to 3.7GHz on one core, and 3.3Ghz across all of them simultaneously.

Ice Lake CPUs are based on a 10nm process node too, which helps propel Ice Lake CPUs ahead of Whiskey Lake chips even with a lower boost clock, but Qualcomm’s 8cx is based on a more refined 7nm process. The same one that has seen AMD make big gains with its desktop chips. Intel’s older CPUs and its Core i5 Cascade Lake processors are built on a 14nm process.

With no Snapdragon 8cx devices out in the wild as of early February 2020 (though you can pre-order the Samsung Galaxy Book S), we don’t exactly know how Qualcomm’s 8cx will compare to new Ice Lake CPUs. But we do know how well it does against an older, eighth-generation Kaby Lake, Core i5-8250U CPU. Teaming up with UL Benchmarks (formerly Futuremark), Qualcomm delivered some performance results for a new version of PCMark at Computex 2019, showing us just how well its new 8cx stacks up against a popular Intel mobile CPU.

In an application benchmark that looks at performance in Microsoft Office applications and its Edge browser, the Snapdragon 8cx pulled ahead of the Intel chip in PowerPoint, Word, and Edge. It fell noticeably behind in Excel by more than 10 percent, but in the other tests, it had an impressive lead of between three and 16%. That’s doubly impressive because the ARM CPU was technically emulating Office, rather than running it natively, as Windows Central highlights.

Another comparison worth making, however, is with the Microsoft Surface Pro X’s SQ1 chip, which is a modified Snapdragon 8cx. In some reviews, that CPU falls behind Intel’s Core i5 and i7 processors in the Surface Pro 7 and Surface Laptop 3.

It seems likely that Intel’s newer-generation mobile CPUs will still hold a performance lead over the 8cx, even if they may be competitive with one another in some settings.

Graphics

Photo by David Cogen

Intel’s onboard graphics, typically its HD and UHD variants, have never been known as gaming powerhouses. They don’t hold a candle to entry-level graphics cards like the Nvidia GTX 1650 and 1650 Super, even if they do enable some very low-level gaming. That all changed with Ice Lake, which proves to be far more capable at enabling decent frame rates at 1080p resolution in many popular e-sports games, and even some modest FPS in older AAA games, like GTA V.

We don’t know the clock speed of the 8cx’s new GPU core, but Qualcomm has given us some details to extrapolate a 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% greater power efficiency than the Snapdragon 850. It also supports the latest DirectX12 API.

In graphics tests performed at Computex 2019 against the Intel 8250U with its onboard Intel UHD 620 graphics core, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx performed favorably. In the PCMark 10 Night Raid benchmark it achieved a graphics score as high as 6,266, while the Intel chip was only able to achieve a score of 5,831. That’s a more than 20% uplift in performance for the Snapdragon SoC and equates to a difference of 29 fps for the Intel chip (at best), versus the Snapdragon’s 37 fps.

These are impressive results that suggest the Snapdragon 8cx will be a solid gaming chip for entry-level and indie titles. But it will likely still fall behind the capabilities of Intel’s 11th-generation graphics chips found in Core i5 Ice Lake CPUs. And especially so with its upcoming Tiger Lake Core i5 CPUs, set to release later in 2020, with 12th-generation Xe graphics.

App support

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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 built 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.

That said, the Electron cross-platform app development system is integrated with Windows 10, making it easier than ever for developers to port their programs to run on Arm hardware just as well as Intel. That brings popular apps like Slack, Discord, Microsoft Teams, and Spotify into the fold of native ARM applications, which could lead to a great increase in performance on Qualcomm chips. The Unity development engine is also consistently improving support for, and performance on, ARM hardware, like the Snapdragon 8cx.

More native applications are hoped for in the future, especially popular ones like Google’s Chrome browser, but the Mozilla Foundation released a beta build of its Firefox browser for ARM hardware in 2019, so additional support is coming.

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, and perhaps see 8cx-equipped laptops offering greater battery life than industry leaders like the Surface Book 2.

The first 8cx-equipped laptop, the Galaxy Book S, is said to have a battery life as long as 23 hours. That’s something quite special. Even if it merely approaches such numbers in real-world testing, we’ll be happy.

Battery life comparisons with Intel’s i5-8250U CPU at Computex 2019 saw the Snapdragon beat it handily, lasting nearly 20 hours during a video loop test, while the Intel equipped laptop managed just 12 hours. However, it’s important to note that the Intel laptop was running a screen at 2K, where the Snapdragon-equipped one was limited to 1080p. This isn’t a conclusive test, especially when we consider new Intel Ice Lake chips and their improved efficiency, which Intel claims could allow some devices to reach 25 hours of battery life.

Competing on cost will be a little more difficult, though not impossible. Always Connected PCs using both older Snapdragon and Intel Core i5 designs have come down in price significantly in recent months, making them attractive buys for people wanting a new laptop with great battery life and performance. But with the new Samsung Galaxy Book 2 starting at $1,000, it may stretch beyond more modest budgets.

8cx intrigue can’t trump pedigree and performance

Qualcomm’s 8cx is shaping up to be an impressive SoC with strong performance in general computing and graphics, as well as decent battery life. It may well compete favorably with Intel’s older CPUs and may even face off well with AMD’s latest Ryzen APUs. But Ice Lake, and before long, Tiger Lake, introduce some real competition from the 8cx’s place in the market. Ice Lake is already a powerful generation of CPUs and its 11th generation Iris Plus graphics are more than capable enough to go toe to toe with Qualcomm’s best efforts.

We’ll want to see more benchmarks and third-party testing before we can say for sure how strong the 8cx will perform in the wild, but Core i5 Ice Lake CPUs have already shown themselves very capable. For now, Intel’s CPUs represent the most proven hardware, but when the 8cx is more readily available, it could prove a potent competitor.

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