May 22, 2024 - Technology

Microsoft uses Arm to squeeze Apple's Mac

An image of the Microsoft logo being lifted by balloons.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Microsoft is hoping that AI will reinvigorate PC sales, but it also sees its new Copilot+ line of Windows computers as finally able to challenge the popularity of the Apple Silicon-powered Mac.

Why it matters: The Mac has gained significant market share in recent years, with Apple's chips giving the company an edge, but the long pendulum of personal-computing competition could be swinging back.

The big picture: New Qualcomm chips, based on Arm's architecture, help Microsoft better compete against Apple on performance and power consumption, while the new AI features give Microsoft-based PCs more clear differentiation from Apple's Macs than they have had in years.

  • Microsoft is touting the new Qualcomm-powered Surface devices as offering nearly 60% better performance than an M3-powered Mac as well as 20% better battery life, all while costing $200 less.
  • "People do buy on performance," Microsoft consumer chief marketing officer Yusuf Mehdi told Axios, adding, "We've not had the supremacy on performance in a long time, and now we are back."

Driving the news: Microsoft on Monday debuted the Copilot+ branding, along with a new Surface Pro tablet and Surface laptop, both running on Qualcomm chips and set to begin shipping next month.

  • Microsoft's PC partners are also launching Qualcomm-powered Copilot+ laptops, with Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo and Samsung all unveiling new machines at yesterday's event.

The new Copilot+ PCs, in addition to lasting longer on a single charge, have new AI features powered by algorithms running on the machines.

  • The signature novelty is a Recall function that uses AI to provide a timeline and searchable database of everything a user has viewed on their PC.
  • Other AI features include a systemwide language translator that, on the fly, translates any spoken content into English.
  • There's also a new "cocreate" option within Paint that lets people use their own sketch to help guide the output of a generative AI prompt.

Yes, but: Software compatibility has long been an issue for Windows machines running on Arm processors.

  • However, Microsoft has been working hard to get more software to run natively on Arm-based computers. It's also delivering a new emulation layer, dubbed Prism.
  • Mehdi said Prism runs fast enough that most people won't notice a difference from the same app running on an Intel-based PC.
  • Mehdi said Microsoft's data shows the average person will spend 90% of their time within apps that run native, with the other 10% running in Prism.
  • "We're in a great place," Mehdi said.

Context: Qualcomm and Microsoft have been working together for Windows on Arm for years, but the new chips — based on Qualcomm's Nuvia acquisition — are the first to offer enough performance to realistically compete with either the Mac or Intel-based PCs.

  • In many ways, Qualcomm's latest chips are worse news for Intel than for Apple, both because the once-dominant chipmaker has the most to lose and because its products suffer even more than Apple's in some comparisons.

One test that Qualcomm and Microsoft had running on a loop in a demo room on Monday compared battery life among a Qualcomm-powered Copilot+ PC, an M3 MacBook Air and an Intel-powered Surface Laptop 5.

  • While the Copilot+ edged out the MacBook Air, it far outlasted the Intel-based Surface laptop.

Intel, for its part, touted its upcoming laptop chip, codenamed Lunar Lake.

  • Lunar Lake meets the specifications to power Copilot+ PCs and will begin showing up on computers in the third quarter of this year.
  • Intel says 80 laptop designs from 20 different PC makers are in the works using Lunar Lake.
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