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Ctrl+Alt+Del: Laptops are evolving thanks to artificial intelligence

OPINION: Historically, the laptop industry has been obsessed with boosting performance. Not only would huge generational jumps in performance speed up workloads but open up new possibilities such as playing games or editing video on the go.

These days, those performance gains are starting to plateau. New generations of AMD and Intel chips still continuously raise the performance ceiling, but not to the extent that the performance difference is immediately noticeable to the average user.

With generational performance uplifts now struggling to incentivise people to upgrade to the latest and greatest laptops, manufacturers are looking for new ways to revolutionise the laptop. And if Computex 2023 – one of the world’s largest computing trade shows – is anything to go by, it looks like the laptop industry is banking on artificial intelligence. 

Qualcomm keynote at Computex 2023
Qualcomm keynote at Computex 2023

All of the major technology companies, including Nvidia and Qualcomm, made artificial intelligence the central focus of their keynote. That’s hardly surprising, following the recent releases of ChatGPT and Google Bard

Qualcomm’s conference was specifically interesting from a laptop perspective. While I’m very used to laptop chip makers bragging about advances in clock speeds and power efficiency, Qualcomm never even broached such topics, instead concentrating almost exclusively on generative AI. 

“The PC experience is being further transformed by artificial intelligence and generative AI, taking creativity, multimedia and productivity to entirely new levels and enabling an exciting array of applications,” said Alex Katouzian, Qualcomm’s Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Mobile, Compute and XR.

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Qualcomm has faced a rocky start with its Snapdragon chips on Windows devices. Compatibility issues have impacted the performance of many Windows apps, or even prevented them from functioning altogether. Chips from AMD and Intel are also significantly more powerful, limiting Snapdragon to the lower end of the market. 

The Surface Pro 9 in tablet mode
Microsoft Surface Pro 9

But artificial intelligence is one area where Qualcomm’s laptops have undeniably excelled, and that’s thanks to the Hexagon processor inside its chips. The Surface Pro 9, powered by a custom chip designed by Qualcomm, has made numerous AI features possible such as background noise cancellation, automatic framing and gaze correction when on a video call. 

During Computex 2023, Qualcomm demonstrated that the number of AI-powered features and software will only increase. The most impressive example was the use of an app called Luminar Neo, which uses artificial intelligence to edit and enhance photos. When sharpening an out-of-focus image of a race car, it took just 8 seconds to complete the process when using a laptop with a Snapdragon 8Cx Gen 3 chip with Qualcomm’s prized Hexagon processor. 

The CEO of Skylum, the creator of the Luminar Neo app, claimed that it takes over two minutes for this same process to be completed on your average CPU, making Qualcomm’s processor a claimed 14.4x faster thanks to its advances in artificial intelligence performance. 

Lunimar demo at Computex 2023
Luminar Nero demo

Qualcomm isn’t the only chip making going big on artificial intelligence. Back in May, AMD announced its new Ryzen 7040 Series of laptop processors, which features dedicated hardware for accelerating AI and machine-learning workloads. 

At Computex 2023, I was able to go hands-on with the Acer Swift Edge 16, one of the very first laptops to feature a processor from the Ryzen 7040 Series. Acer confirmed that this laptop will be capable of similar AI webcam features as the Surface Pro 9, including automatic framing, gaze correction, and advanced background blur. I can’t comment on how these features compare to a Snapdragon-powered laptop just yet, but it shows that AMD is keen to make use of AI features too. 

MSI also showed me some AI-powered software that it’s working on, which will be exclusive to future MSI laptops. The first is called ‘Smart Auto’, which uses AI to intelligently detect what kind of application you’re currently using on your laptop, and then will automatically alter various performance settings and features accordingly.

For example, when gaming Smart Auto will boost the performance of the laptop and turn on your favoured RGB lighting settings for your keyboard. Meanwhile, watching Netflix will turn off the keyboard backlight to minimise distraction and reduce the performance settings to maximise battery life.

You’ll be able to choose your own preferred settings for each kind of use case, but the convenience of having this all automatically adjusted in the background when switching between workloads is incredibly appealing. 

The second AI feature that MSI demoed was called AI Artist. By typing in a description of a desired image, the app’s artificial intelligence will generate a unique image within seconds. I’ve seen this kind of application before, but what’s remarkable here is that the app doesn’t require an internet connection – this is all being done via MSI’s own software, as well as the AI engine that’s baked into the Nvidia RTX 4000 Series GPUs (at least an RTX 4060 chip is required as a result).

MSI AI Engine
Image Credit (Trusted Reviews)

During the demonstration, MSI’s software was able to create an image of Albert Einstein sitting in an office, as well as a painting of a cat wearing a suit. I’m still a little worried about copyright implications of AI, since the likes of MSI are likely using third-party content to train its artificial intelligence, but the technology is nevertheless impressive. MSI says it’s aiming to launch this AI-powered software later this year. 

It’s clear that this is just the beginning for on-device AI for laptops. Now that all of the major laptop chip makers are concentrating efforts into developing and improving AI engines on their processors, we’ll likely see a boom in AI-powered software. This isn’t just a short-lived trend, as AI is destined to revolutionise the laptop market, and alter the way we think about performance.

Ctrl+Alt+Del is our weekly computing-focused opinion column where we delve deeper into the world of computers, laptops, components, peripherals and more. Find it on Trusted Reviews every Saturday afternoon.

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