Microsoft’s Copilot+ PCs Have Changed What It Means To Be An AI PC

By Anshel Sag - June 26, 2024
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introducing Copilot+ PCs ANSHEL SAG

While the computer industry continues to struggle with the definition of an AI PC, Microsoft came out at its recent Build conference to define what it believes an advanced AI PC should be—namely, a Copilot+ PC. While it remains clear that different companies use varying definitions of the AI PC, Microsoft’s appears to be both the narrowest and the broadest, depending on which angle you’re looking from.

While the AI-driven Copilot software, released last year, was clearly designed to run on any device, Microsoft has decided to delineate Copilot+ as an entirely new tier of AI-enabled PC. While our definition of an AI PC accepts any computer equipped with a hardware accelerator for AI workloads, Microsoft’s narrows that a bit with a specific focus on the NPUIn my previous piece about Copilot+, I focused on the software and operating system changes that it is bringing; in this article, I will focus on the hardware and OEM partners that are enabling it.

Microsoft Surface Leads The Way for Copilot+

Microsoft’s tip of the spear for Copilot+ has been its own Surface brand of PCs. At its pre-Build 2024 event at the company’s Redmond, Washington HQ, Microsoft announced two new Surface PCs; the Surface Pro (Gen 11) and Surface Laptop (Gen 7) are each designed to meet the company’s new direction in software and hardware, as I mentioned in my previous Copilot+ article. These two systems represent Microsoft’s own approach to hardware, reflecting where the company believes priorities should be for PC design. Additionally, Surface gives Microsoft an opportunity to control the Windows experience in ways that OEMs would never allow. The new Surface Laptop with Copilot+ also supports up to three 4K displays with the screen on, which is an amusing jab at Apple’s peculiar limitation on the M3 MacBook Air, which supports dual monitors only with the laptop closed.

Microsoft corporate vice president Brett Ostrum shows off a Surface Laptop and Surface Pro onstage ANSHEL SAG

Like the other Copilot+ PCs, the new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop models feature Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon X series of Arm-based processors, demonstrating Microsoft’s absolute commitment to Windows on Arm. I personally was not convinced that Microsoft would commit to this arrangement as much as it clearly has, considering that previous attempts to run Windows on Arm chips felt haphazard and ultimately didn’t yield much progress either technologically or in the marketplace. After all, Microsoft has been using Qualcomm’s chips in the Surface line since the Surface Pro X, a very sleek and all-black version of the Surface Pro 6 that launched in 2019. I personally loved that machine, especially considering that it brought with it a much thinner and lighter form factor as well as 4G connectivity. But I was in the minority on that one. I believe that since then Microsoft has slowly worked out many of the challenges of using Windows on Arm in partnership with Qualcomm, which partially explains why Qualcomm is the current exclusive partner for Microsoft for the Copilot+ PCs we have today.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Surface Laptop 13 will use the Snapdragon X Plus and X Elite, while the Surface Laptop 15 is available only with the Snapdragon X Elite. This configuration allows Microsoft to offer the Surface Laptop 13 and Surface Laptop 15 starting at $999 with 16GB of RAM (the minimum requirement for Copilot+ PCs) and 256GB of storage. Compared to Apple, which offers the M3 MacBook at $1,099 with 256GB of storage, this is objectively a better deal in terms of price and performance. Looking at the MacBook 15-inch against the Surface 15, both systems ship for $1,299, but Apple’s comes with a mere 8GB of RAM. Microsoft also offers the Surface Pro with optional OLED available today and 5G connectivity expected later this summer.

Microsoft corporate vice president Pavan Davuluri on stage at Microsoft HQ ANSHEL SAG

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Series Is The Early Leader In Copilot+ Processors

The Snapdragon X family is the key component in Copilot+ PCs that enables them to deliver the performance and efficiency to be competitive with MacBooks. Qualcomm and Microsoft have both talked extensively about their partnership to develop Copilot+ and the Snapdragon X series. One of the key attributes of the processors is that both the Snapdragon X Elite and the X Plus feature NPUs with 45 TOPS of AI acceleration performance. This is critical in one sense because Microsoft has set 40 TOPS as the minimum for a system to run AI applications effectively, and in another sense because at the moment Qualcomm is well ahead of any of the other laptop processor makers in terms of TOPS performance. True, there are GPUs from Nvidia capable of well beyond 45 TOPS, but running heavy AI workloads on those chips would be borderline impossible on battery power.

In addition to its powerful yet efficient NPU, the Snapdragon X series also features Qualcomm’s high-performance Oryon Arm CPU cores, which it developed through its acquisition of Nuvia. These new CPU cores deliver competitive and efficient performance when compared to the latest chips from other Arm vendors, x86 vendors and even Apple. While Apple did just launch the M4 in the new iPad Pro with impressive performance results, it is quite clear that Apple moved up that launch as a pre-emptive strike against Qualcomm and Microsoft. In fact, Apple strongly counter-messaged the AI PC in its iPad Pro launch, which seems to indicate that Apple feels serious pressure coming from Microsoft and Qualcomm.

A Broad Launch With OEM Partners And Retailers

At Microsoft’s Copilot+ event in Redmond, the company also announced a plethora of Copilot+ PC partners, including all of the world’s leading PC OEMs. While Microsoft did mention Intel and AMD at the event, neither of them produce Arm-based chips; both feature the legacy x86 instruction set that Microsoft has built on for pretty much my entire life until now. (I’m 34.) With this prioritization of Arm, Microsoft has effectively given Qualcomm exclusivity as the sole supplier for Copilot+ PC processors until late this year. That’s also when Intel and AMD are expected to have x86 chips capable of delivering 40-plus TOPS of NPU performance. Expectations are that AMD will have something in July while Intel will have something in September, but Copilot+ software availability is still unclear.

Qualcomm created a very handy graphic (below) showing all the different Copilot+ PCs from its OEM partners, including which ones feature the Snapdragon X Elite and which ones have the Snapdragon X Plus.

A table of CoPilot+ PCs and which processor they use QUALCOMM

As you can see from the above image, Microsoft’s Surface PCs will be available with both of Qualcomm’s processors. While the table includes only those systems from OEMs announced at the Copilot+ PC launch, it still represents the biggest launch of systems in a single day in Qualcomm’s company history, according to its CMO Don McGuire. This is great momentum for Qualcomm as it continues to diversify itself beyond smartphones—while still leveraging smartphone technology. Qualcomm’s low-power pedigree in mobile devices is what enables the company to bring that experience to the PC. This launch includes more than 20 different systems with something like 15 different designs, yet this is merely phase one for Qualcomm and Microsoft, with a second volley of news and systems coming out of Computex.

Microsoft consumer CMO Yusuf Mehdi talks retail availability at the Copilot+ PC launch ANSHEL SAG

June 18 is the global launch date for Copilot+ PCs including Microsoft Surface. Unsurprisingly, Best Buy has already created a special splash page for Copilot+ PCs. Best Buy is the No. 1 retailer of electronics in the U.S., and Microsoft and its OEM partners have a history of coordinating closely with the retailer on major launches. Best Buy is also offering free TVs bundled with any Copilot+ pre-order, which I believe is a response to Samsung’s offer of a free TV with any of its Copilot+ PCs.

Different Approaches To Copilot+ From Dell, Samsung And Other OEMs

At Microsoft’s event in Redmond, I had a chance to play with all of the launch systems and experience how the different OEMs approached Copilot+. I was really impressed that Dell launched five different Copilot+ PCs with Qualcomm processors, especially when you consider how close Dell has been with Intel in the past. In fact, Dell didn’t ship any Qualcomm-based PCs until last year (the Inspiron 14), which makes its five-model launch all the more impressive. (Most other OEMs are starting out with one or two Copilot+ systems.)

Dell’s OLED XPS 13 looks incredibly good and will feature LG’s tandem OLED technology, which is also found in the new iPad Pro models launched a few weeks ago. I’m torn between that model and the Latitude 7455, which will come with 5G connectivity. Dell also showed off all these systems at the recent Dell Technologies World event in Vegas, where I got to see some great hands-on AI demos that showed the value of the NPU. One example was a demo from an accessibility app called Cephable, which used a slide deck to show how a person could use Cephable’s head-tracking software to control a presentation. (For more on DTW, including much more on how Dell is weaving AI into all of its product lines and its own operations, check out this writeup from Moor Insights & Strategy chief analyst and CEO Patrick Moorhead.)

Samsung also seems like a very close partner with Qualcomm. For example, its Book4 family includes 14- and 16-inch Copilot+ PC variants, the latter of which will be the only system using Qualcomm’s fastest SKU of the Snapdragon X Elite. I believe that Samsung will likely have the best smartphone integration with its Copilot+ PCs, which should play nicely with its Galaxy AI capabilities on the phone.

Turning to other OEMs, HP is offering new ground-up designs with the Omnibook and EliteBook Ultra Copilot+ PCs with Snapdragon X Elite processors. I’m excited to see how the EliteBook Ultra stacks up to my previous EliteBook Dragonfly G4 system, which was one of the lightest and longest-lasting PCs I’ve ever used. Meanwhile, ASUS’s Vivobook S15 was a very nice-looking laptop, and the ASUS team let me see the motherboard from it to get a better idea of its internal design. Acer’s design of the Swift 14 AI felt fairly run-of-the-mill, while Lenovo’s Yoga 7X is a brand-new ground-up design and the ThinkPad is a redesign. We are likely to see much more optimized designs in later waves of product launches. One startling implication is that there’s a chance we will see even thinner and lighter systems than we already have, which is really saying something.

Where Does 5G Fit Into Copilot+?

Of all the systems launching with the Snapdragon X Elite, only two of them are launching with 5G. What gives? As a huge supporter of connected 5G PCs, I believe there is a clear lack of understanding in the market of the value of always-on connected PCs. Microsoft has done a lot of work over the last few years to knock down the barriers to entry for this, and Qualcomm of course has as much depth in delivering 5G as any company in the world. Yet while I believe we could see more 5G-enabled systems in the later phases of the Copilot+ PC launch, right now it seems like Microsoft and its partners believe that 5G adds too much complexity to an already complex launch.

5G connectivity also adds additional cost for the OEMs, which is hard to get consumers to absorb. In the long run, however, I believe that 5G connectivity could improve the value of AI at the edge; even though on-device AI is the name of the game for Copilot+, there are still plenty of AI applications that need to authenticate to the cloud or use the cloud to run some portion of certain workloads.

I think that OEMs and carriers may ultimately look back on the Copilot+ PC launch as a missed opportunity to introduce always-on 5G, especially considering the improved battery life coming from the Snapdragon X Elite. But perhaps this will be something Qualcomm pushes for Copilot+ PCs next year when there’s more competition in the market.

What’s Next For Copilot+?

While Microsoft and Qualcomm brought quite a list of partners and systems to the event in Redmond, Computex 2024 is the obvious next phase of this launch before on-shelf availability on June 18. This launch will continue to roll out by phases, with new features and capabilities for Copilot+ PCs and more OEM systems as we reach the end of the year and the end of Qualcomm’s exclusivity agreement with Microsoft.

I also expect that we will continue to hear from Intel about the upcoming Lunar Lake processor it announced at Computex and how it will compete with Apple and Qualcomm. Meanwhile, AMD has its Strix Point processor slated to arrive in July, which I assume will ultimately appear alongside the many Intel-based products launching at CES 2025 with Lunar Lake. We might even get some new Arm entrants at CES, which will bring more diversity to the Windows ecosystem than I believe it has ever had—and with genuine differentiation.

Regardless of the specifics of processor launches, the Copilot+ PC will change the PC ecosystem forever. I believe that the industry’s definition of what makes an AI PC will shift more towards Microsoft’s definition as companies align themselves with the software giant. That said, I believe that we will still see many more AI PC launches throughout this year that might not fit Microsoft’s strict definition for a Copilot+ PC, or might not yet be supported because of Microsoft’s Arm-first approach. Things may feel more settled by early 2025 in the realm of AI PCs, but for now it’s a wild ride.

Anshel Sag
VP & Principal Analyst | Website

Anshel Sag is Moor Insights & Strategy’s in-house millennial with over 15 years of experience in the IT industry. Anshel has had extensive experience working with consumers and enterprises while interfacing with both B2B and B2C relationships, gaining empathy and understanding of what users really want. Some of his earliest experience goes back as far as his childhood when he started PC gaming at the ripe of old age of 5 while building his first PC at 11 and learning his first programming languages at 13.