AR: Is That A PC In Your Pocket?

AR: Is That A PC In Your Pocket?
January 13, 2017



  • * Microsoft finally managed to run a full version of Windows 10 on ARM-designed chips, Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon 835.
  • * Windows running on Snapdragon has the potential to become a powerful combination.
  • * We investigate the markets where this combination can make a real difference.


Could Windows/Snapdragon replace Wintel? We'll be looking where this might happen.


We argued recently how Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has finally cracked running Windows 10 (albeit the 32 bits version) on Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) Snapdragon chips, most notably the upcoming flagship 835 chip. Some of the consequences we discussed:


  • * This will enable Microsoft to build cheaper tablets, hybrids and laptops that are slimmer and have better battery performance whilst having the full functionality of Windows 10.


  • * It enables Microsoft to take on Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chromebooks.


  • * It constitutes a big missed opportunity for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), which had the chance years ago to embark on a unified operating system which would have enabled the company to leverage its dominant position in smartphones and tablets to assault the PC market.


  • * It enables Microsoft to position Windows as an operating system in future markets, like IoT, VR, AR.


  • * It positions Microsoft to have another go at getting a foothold in the smartphone business.




We start by concentrating on that latter opportunity. Having full Windows 10 on a smartphone opens up the possibility for users to have their desktops always with them, on the move.


Yes, we understand people aren't going to recalibrate complex spreadsheets on a 5-inch screen, but the fact that they can have them with them might be worth something.


Yes, there are also downsides to this. Phones are easier to lose and access to files isn't nearly as much of a problem as it used to be, with cloud storage galore.


For us having a portable PC always on them is enticing enough, and there might be more people like us. It frees people of the hassle of having to deal with different operating systems on different devices, especially in a time when people are doing much more of their computing on their smartphones anyway.


Perhaps more importantly, it frees them from the need of having different devices in the first place. ARM-based processors like Qualcomm's Snapdragon are now basically good enough to pull this off.


We know Apple's A10 Fusion chips are (from daringfireball):


The iPhone 7 scores better on both single- and multi-core than any most MacBook Airs ever made, and performs comparably to a 2013 MacBook Pro.


You will also note in that article that while the A10 is way faster in single core, on the multi-core benchmarks, ARM chips are really close behind. And here is where it gets interesting, as Qualcomm is nearly ready to come out with its new flagship processor, the Snapdragon 835.


What do we know about the 835? Well, first of all, it's based on a 10nm process built on Samsung's (OTC:SSNLF) 10nm FinFET process. This is impressive, as even Intel doesn't yet have chips on 10nm out (these are likely to arrive by the end of the year).


By itself that should enable the chip to be much more frugal with power compared to its predecessor, the 820 and 821 which are built on a 14nm process.


What are the advantages? From Wired:


Qualcomm has been able to add performance and reduce battery drain in a package that's 35 percent smaller than its predecessor, the 820. The exact speed gains aren't clear, and will vary depending on the devices the chips end up in, but Qualcomm does claim up to 25 percent better 3-D graphics rendering compared to its previous flagship. The company's a little more clear on battery life, although your mileage there will vary as well. Qualcomm says the 835 slurps 25 percent less power than the 820


What more do we know about the 835? Here is TrustedReviews:


The Snapdragon 835 is a system-on-a-chip, which means it contains more than just a processor. It will coming packing Qualcomm's own Adreno 450, which has yet to appear in any other Qualcomm chip. It's the successor to the Adreno 530, a 519.2GFLOPS (519.2 billion operations per second) GPU that was clickable to 650MHz. So we'd assume the Adreno 540 will be even better. Finally, the Snapdragon 835 is tipped to feature one of Qualcomm's newest modems - the Snapdragon X16. It was announced back in February, and supports Cat.16 LTE download speeds. Qualcomm describes this as "fibre-like", but what it really means is a theoretical maximum download speed of 1Gbps.


First up, this will enable full Windows 10 functionality on a phone. That phone is going to be the upcoming Microsoft Surface phone. What do we know about that one? Here is TrustedReviews:


Usually, that would mean we'd expect to see three different screen sizes, but leaks thus far suggest all variants will use a 5.7-inch display. Instead, the differences will reportedly come in the form of storage and memory upgrades, as follows:


  • * Version 1: 3GB RAM / 32GB storage
  • * Version 2: 6GB RAM / 128GB storage
  • * Version 3: 8GB RAM / 500GB storage


While these reports are unconfirmed (as long as the phones are not out), sufficient to say that should this materialize, these phones basically are also PCs. If Apple's A10 Fusion beats most CPUs in Macbook Air's, the Snapdragon 835 will not be far behind.


In fact, it's more likely it will be in front. Add the memory and storage, especially in the top-end specification and what you have is a pint-sized desktop PC. Plug it in to a monitor and keyboard, and you're ready to work.


Secondly, offering similar configurations in tablets and hybrids and you have something cheaper, thinner, lighter and with more extensive battery life compared to what is available today in terms of Windows 10 tablets, hybrids and ultrabooks, although not quite as powerful as one's powered by Intel's i7 CPUs.


But (in combination with Microsoft's eSim technology) they will have LTE connection built in and they will be able to perform all but the most demanding PC tasks.


Who lost the mobile market?


While somewhat theoretical, it's nevertheless an interesting question which part of the Wintel PC duopoly is more responsible for the lack of success of either of them in the mobile market.


One could argue that Intel's processors were simply not good enough and hence they lost out to ARM, and hobbled Microsoft in the process.


One could also argue that Windows wasn't good enough, therefore didn't attract enough developers for mobile apps, hobbling Intel.


There is some additional evidence from the tablet/hybrid market for blaming Intel, as this is where Windows should have had at least something of an advantage due to its vast library of legacy apps.


However, tablets running on Atom processors underwhelmed on performance and those on iCore processors underwhelmed on size (thickness in particular), price and energy needs.


These limitations now seem to be remedied, some tablets running on iCore processors can even do away with fan cooling. If energy efficiency isn't a crucial constraint, Intel is still able to make amazing things, like a credit card sized full-PC:


The device, which follows on from the not-quite-as-small Intel Compute Stick, has all of the components that you'd expect to find in a PC including an integrated system-on-chip (SoC), RAM, storage and wireless connectivity. It's just a shade thicker than a credit card, measuring in at around 3.7in x 2.2in, and is Intel's thinnest PC to date at just 0.2in, or 5mm thick.


It's intended for modularly updating smart devices, not as a stand-alone PC, but it's pretty cool nevertheless.




But smartphones are not the only potential target for Snapdragon/Windows 10. This is where it gets really interesting. Qualcomm's Keith Kressin, SVP of Product Management, also mentioned something else with regards to the Snapdragon 835 (from TrustedReviews):


But it's not just going to be in smartphones. You're going to see it in standalone VR and AR devices.


Indeed, at CES 2017, Qualcomm announced the first Snapdragon 835 devices: the ODG R-8 and R-9 AR/VR smartglasses.

Wired is summing up the advantages for AR/VR that the Snapdragon brings to the table:


In addition to the 3-D graphics rendering improvements, the 835 supports 60 times more colors than its predecessor, object and scene-based 3D audio, and motion tracking that includes six degrees of freedom, the same number that you'll find in an Oculus Rift head-mounted display. In practice, all of that translates to what you see on the screen lining up more seamlessly with your head movement, which helps minimize those queasy feelings.


And what can these new devices do? The simplest one is the R8:


With the R-8, you can watch movies, read books, and play games not with your phone but with a faceputer, in high-definition and a field of view that's greater than 40 degrees. It will cost "less than $1,000"


As a side note, it should be much cheaper to offer a similar product but one which basically just offers the screen function. Connect that to your mobile phone and you'll have your PC right there. But AR can be so much more, from Forbes about secretive AR device maker Magic Leap:


Magic Leap's innovation isn't just a high-tech display--it's a disruption machine. This technology could affect every business that uses screens or computers and many that don't. It could kill the $120 billion market for flat-panel displays and shake the $1 trillion global consumer-electronics business to its core. The applications are profound. Throw out your PC, your laptop and your mobile phone, because the computing power you need will be in your glasses, and they can make a display appear anywhere, at any size you like.


No wonder it has raked in a record $1.4B VC financing. It is a similar product as Microsoft's hololens, although not necessarily driven by all the same technology.


Enter Windows 10, from Wearable:


Microsoft wants developers to create new apps, games and experiences for the HoloLens using its Holographic platform. We imagine the Windows 10 tie-in isn't just to get Windows back in front of our faces (literally) but also to make it easier for developers to get on board.... Microsoft has also announced that HoloLens will be compatible with all universal Windows 10 apps including OneDrive, Maps, Remote Desktop, Groove Music and Microsoft Office apps.


Add to that the X-box games as well. And TechCrunch:


Positioning Windows 10 as the only place where one can truly expect to take advantage of the full gamut of reality-mixing is a prescient move as well; the VR platform wars are sure to be confusing and divisive, but Microsoft intends to make sure they take place on Windows.


And it is collecting a considerable amount of partners, from TechCrunch:


Today we invited our OEM, ODM, and hardware partners to build PCs, displays, accessories and mixed reality devices with the Windows Holographic platform. We are excited to be working with Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, HTC, Acer, ASUS, CyberPowerPC, Dell, Falcon Northwest, HP, iBuyPower, Lenovo, MSI and many others…


Yes, that's Intel as well, an Intel Atom chip. But if this can run on the Snapdragon 835, that is almost certainly going to give a considerable advantage. We also know from one of the main hololens supplier, Himax (NASDAQ:HIMX) that Microsoft has delayed the consumer model, waiting for the next iteration of hardware to catch up. Could that be the Snapdragon 835?


We think that is not unlikely, given the heat and space constraints of the hololens, not to mention the rather mediocre battery life of 2-3 hours.


Of course, as we've just seen, the hololens isn't the only AR device in town, nor is it the only operating system for the AR/VR space. Magic Leap, which is also developing a hololens like device, is proposing its own operating system.


Given its funding from Google, this is likely to be based on Android. Recently, its AR bubble has been deflated a bit by some revelations that suggest it used some tricks to make people believe it was further ahead than it actually is and also has some problems with crucial hardware. From The Verge:


The crux of the problem appears to be Magic Leap's gamble on a so-called fiber scanning display, which shines a laser through a fiber optic cable that moves rapidly back and forth to draw images out of light. The company thought the fiber scanning display could be Magic Leap's breakthrough tech, allowing it to shrink down the extremely expensive hardware used on a previous prototype - a refrigerator-sized device known internally as the "Beast." According to The Information, Magic Leap still has not been able to get the fiber scanning display to work. It has since demoted it to a long-term research project.


There are conflicting reports (like here) which argue that Magic Leap uses LCOS displays (from Himax, like the hololens). Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive, but in any way this is what you get with a secretive company.




And of course there is also Windows for virtual reality ("VR"), running on the Windows Holographic VR platform that will arrive in the Windows 10 Creators Update next year. What are the minimum specifications for the PC it's tethered to? Here is engadget:


the VR platform will need at the minimum 4GB of RAM, a DirectX 12 graphics card, USB 3.0 support and four CPU cores. If you've got a dual-core CPU with hyper threading (which appears as four different cores in Windows), you'll probably be safe as well.


That's really much less in the way of specifications compared to the high-end VR headsets from Oculus Rift and HTCs Vive. Headsets are also cheaper compared to the latter. They supposedly start at just $299 and Lenovo, and now also others like Dell, HP and Acer.


The major break-through is supposedly the 'inside-out' six-degree of freedom tracking, that is, the device is able to follow you in space, not just your head-turns at a much cheaper price point and less cumbersome compared to the Oculus Rift. From The Verge:


But in order to enable 6DOF, systems like the Rift require an external tracking system that makes the whole setup more complicated and less portable. This is where inside-out tracking comes in. Instead of having an external camera read the position of LEDs on your head (which is how the Rift works), sensors built directly into the headset will detect how the wearer is moving and adjust their in-VR position to match. As Microsoft executive VP Terry Myerson puts it, this means people would have "zero need" for a dedicated VR room - they'd just put the headset on and start moving around.


While different (and a tenth of its price in the cheapest version) from the hololens, Microsoft is leveraging a lot of technology from the hololens already for the VR platform.


But here is an interesting possibility. The hololens cost $3000 (at least it's last iteration for developers), but it doesn't need to be tethered to a PC. The high-end VR sets (the Rift and Vive) are not quite as expensive, but need to be tethered to expensive gaming PCs.


There are cheaper VR headsets that can be used untethered (like the Gear VR) but they offer less of a VR experience, for instance, they don't have the six degrees of freedom.


Microsoft based VR headsets are a sort of compromise. They are cheaper than the high-end sets but still offer inside-out six degree of freedom. However, they still need to be tethered to a PC (although not an expensive gaming rig). Some like Dell and HP are working on backpacks with small PCs to overcome this limitation.


Now, what about Windows 10 running on that Snapdragon 835? The 835 has eight cores and remember some of the specifications of the upcoming Surface phones? We're pretty sure that specification-wise they qualify to run Windows Holographic VR platform.


What we're not 100% sure of is whether Windows 10 with the Windows 10 Creators update will work on it, but it seems to us that if it doesn't, there is a pretty good incentive for Microsoft to make it work.


This could untether the Windows 10-based VR headsets from PCs, either build the Snapdragon into the headset itself, or run it from your Surface phone (or something similar).


That could give Microsoft a pretty good position in the VR market and establish Windows 10 as an important VR platform.


And last but certainly not least, there is Intel's Project Alloy. It's noteworthy that it runs completely untethered and allows free roaming (six degree of freedom) as an array of mini cameras scan any room and the VR system turns real objects into virtual elements of a VR game (it is 'merged reality').


It is an open source system, from Intel PR:


Intel is collaborating with Microsoft to optimize Windows-based content and experiences on Intel-based VR devices such as Alloy. Intel will open the Alloy hardware and provide open APIs for the ecosystem, allowing developers and partners to create their own branded products from the Alloy design, in 2017.


And what runs Project Alloy? Here is The Verge:


The reference design has two processors, Intel's RealSense 3D cameras, and a detachable, rechargeable battery. The first headset that ships will be based on Microsoft's Windows Holographic desktop software.


The Alloy demo runs on an Intel core processor, 7th generation, according to TechCrunch. So it is possible to run 'Wintel' on cool new tech, and project Alloy is living proof, so Snapdragon/Windows might not have it all to themselves just yet.


As a side note, to clear up some possible confusion, here is what merged reality means exactly, from The Verge:


merged reality means you can see real-world stuff in front of you, even while you're wearing a full headset. The RealSense cameras on the headset capture images of the things in front of you and project them back into your virtual environment in milliseconds. If Microsoft's HoloLens headset creates a layer of augmented reality on top of the real world, and Oculus Rift blocks you out entirely from the real world, Project Alloy falls into a bizarre place somewhere in between.




Windows' best time looked behind it, until recently. By enabling Windows 10 to run on the upcoming Snapdragon 835 chip, Microsoft has suddenly positioned it to become relevant again in markets that seemed already lost (smartphones) and in markets that are about to experience serious growth, like AR and VR.


This can give Microsoft a serious boost, in existing markets like mobile, tablets and hybrids. More especially Microsoft is well positioned to become a leading platform in upcoming markets like VR and AR by hitching on the back of the most relevant processors like the Snapdragon 835 and subsequent improvements.


This is also going to affect the fortunes of other companies. Intel could suffer seriously, although it is not out of the picture yet, as its project Alloy and its credit card PC testify.


Qualcomm will be a winner insofar Windows runs on its Snapdragon chips, but not on other ARM-based processors.


In our previous article we argued that Apple missed a big opportunity here. If it had unified its mobile/tablet and Mac operating systems it could have been in the position Microsoft is now facing.


Insofar Snapdragon/Windows 10 is successful, especially in the mobile, tablet and hybrid markets, the tailwind Apple could have enjoyed will change into headwinds.


Given the fanatical core of its fanbase and its elegant solutions, this won't be enough to blow it off, but it dims its prospects nevertheless.


There are rumors suggesting the company is also planning to enter the AR/VR space. Well, it better hurry up. Platforms have a habit of establishing strong first-mover advantages.

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