Prepare for Copilot+ & AI PC migraine

A few years ago, ARM-based laptops were the kind of chips that ended up powering low-cost Chromebooks. MediaTek system on a chip devices used to offer a low cost alternative to the more powerful and usually significantly more expensive, Intel-based devices.

With the launch of the M1 chip, Apple showed the world that with premium Macs  there is no performance advantage in having an Intel device. Devices powered by Apple silicon, which is based on the ARM architecture, are generally considered performant machines. A few weeks ago Apple introduced the latest version of its processor, the M4, which powers its new premium iPad Pro device.

While Windows does support ARM, arguably ARM on Windows was previously considered a niche. But this has now completely changed. Coinciding with its Build annual developers’ conference in Seattle, the Microsoft campus in Seattle was the launchpad for a new category of Windows PCs designed for AI, called Copilot+ PCs. These use Qualcomm’s ARM64 architecture

The big news – at least what Microsoft is promoting – is the AI capabilities that the Qualcomm chipset offers, which it claims is 20x more powerful and up to 100x as efficient for running AI workloads. Software firms including Adobe and Da Vinci are among a number of companies showcasing the AI capabilities of CoPilot+ PC hardware. Adobe PhotoShop and Da Vinci Resolve use the Neural Processing Unit (NPU) in the Qualcomm chipset of Copilot+ PCs to accelerate certain video and image editing tasks.

Along with its own Surface device, Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung are releasing Copilot+ PCs from June 18. Microsoft says the devices will have a starting price of $999, which it claims is up to $200 less than similar specified devices from the likes of Apple.

The fact that the major PC manufacturers are all backing the Copilot+ PC specification means that there is going to be a concerted effort across the industry to build up momentum for the new technology.

PC makers have also been releasing AI PCs that are based on x86 (Intel or AMD processors). AMD unveiled the Ryzen Pro AI chip for business laptops in April. Intel has its Core Ultra chip targeting AI acceleration in PCs.

There is an on-going debate over whether there is a market for such AI devices. It will be led by applications and now, with so many alternative architectures to choose from, Windows developers will have the headache of having to write software that supports all of them.

It used to be the case that a Windows PC ran an Intel-compatible x86 processor. AI and Copilot+ PCs open up a new dimension of complexity, testing and compatibility issues.

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