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Ctrl+Alt+Del: Snapdragon X Elite could beat the MacBook to a huge gaming win

OPINION: “Gaming on a Mac,” it’s a phrase that’s become part of computing industry jargon as Apple’s aims in the department have ebbed and flowed. Now, Qualcomm seems extremely bullish about making gaming on Arm chips a thing ahead of Apple and its M-series chips.

Even before it announced the Snapdragon X Elite chip, Qualcomm had been hyping up the powerful PC chips it had in its locker. And, it’s worth our attention. Qualcomm has made a lot of claims relating to raw performance and efficiency numbers but, during the Game Developer Conference 2024, it highlighted the gaming capabilities of the Snapdragon X Elite chip. If it stands up, it could be an exciting step forward for gaming on thin-and-light laptops.

“Your game should already work”

Towards the end of 2023, I wrote about how the biggest hurdle for Snapdragon X Elite laptops is going to be Windows on Arm. Expectedly, Qualcomm is keen to allay those fears. The more practical side of those fears simply comes down to the compatibility and performance of Windows apps with Arm chips, whether that’s apps created natively or apps using a compatibility layer.

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However, the Snapdragon X Elite could turn this potential negative into a huge positive if the solution has been cracked to such an extent that video games are set to work seamlessly on the new chip. The proof will be in the pudding but things sound promising.

The reporting on Qualcomm’s excitement at GDC 2024 comes courtesy of Sean Hollister of The Verge, who snapped some key images from the brand’s presentation at the event. The all-important snap highlights the advantages and limitations of “x64 emulation”. “x64” (and, x86 for older apps) is the architecture of the majority of apps right now that you run on Windows devices sporting Intel and AMD chips.

Qualcomm GDC presention
Image Credit (Sean Hollister – The Verge)

The advantages will be music to the ears of those who have been eagerly awaiting the reveal of Snapdragon X Elite-sporting laptops but wanted to dabble in gaming or simply had doubts regarding how well Windows x64 apps will run on Arm. These are, and bear in mind these notes are aimed at app developers, “Faster Porting”, “Your game should already work”, “GPU performance unaffected by x64 emulation” and “After initial hit to translate a new blocks of code, caching system is extremely efficient”.

Those first three are the ones that may get the excitement levels going. First, faster porting is sure to encourage more app (and game) developers to be willing to take onboard any necessary work and improvements it can make to their products when it comes to running well on a Snapdragon X Elite chip. But, the second point suggests there’ll be little to do on that front, the phrase “Your game should already work” is a remarkable one and shows Qualcomm’s high level of confidence in the emulation here.

For consumers, for Qualcomm to tout that graphical performance shouldn’t take a hit because of the emulation from a non-Arm app to one that runs on Arm is wondrous. Performance is a key factor for a lot of gamers so keeping pace with Intel and AMD rivals will be important.

What’s the catch, Qualcomm?

It’s worth having a healthy level of scepticism surrounding the Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite before reviewers get their hands on the devices, as many of the benchmarks and demos showcased so far have been managed affairs.

The same goes for these claims. They sound great but must be tested. Admittedly, Qualcomm is clear on the limitations here too, stating the emulation won’t work with “kernel drivers” such as anti-cheat systems, which could be a hurdle for some modern games – liike Fortnite.

Snapdragon X Elite specs
Snapdragon X Elite specifications – Image Credit (Qualcomm)

Qualcomm also made clear at this GDC presentation that it isn’t claimed the Snapdragon X Elite can do everything amazingly well all at once, so it’s good to see some realism. Hollister put the question to Qualcomm senior director of product management Micah Knapp “if he’s seen Arm run a game faster and get better battery life than x86″, to which Knapp replied that he had not seen both on one device.

So, while there are reasons to be excited about the Snapdragon X Elite laptops, it sounds like you’ll still have some typical laptop-related choices to make when it comes to picking one up. There’ll be models made for gaming and models made for longer battery life, but not both. Meaning, if you were hoping to finally see a Windows MacBook Air-esque device that can take down gaming while still offering strong battery, that seems unlikely.

However, something close to a MacBook Pro or, simply, a step forward in thin and lightweight design for graphically performant laptops on the Windows side of things, might be on the cards.

Ctrl+Alt+Del is our weekly computing-focused opinion column where we delve deeper into the world of PCs, laptops, handhelds, peripherals and more. Get it straight into your email inbox every Saturday by signing up to the newsletter.

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