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The “Always Connected PC” May Solve Laptops’ Battery-Life Problem

Qualcomm’s and Microsoft’s new PC design, the companies say, will give users an average of 20 hours of battery life.

The “Always Connected PC” May Solve Laptops’ Battery-Life Problem
HP Envy X2 [Photo: courtesy of HP]

Battery-life trouble is one of the most vexing challenges for laptop users (not to mention those of us who see our iPhones drop from 20% to 1% in 5 minutes). Qualcomm and Microsoft have announced a new PC design that runs Windows 10S and uses Qualcomm’s 835 mobile processor which they claim will give users an average of 20 hours of battery life. In standby mode the battery can last as long as a week before needing a charge.

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The news came at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit in Maui, where Qualcomm, Microsoft, and major hardware partners such as Asus, HP, Lenovo, Xaomi, and Sprint shared their vision for what is dubbed the “Always Connected PC”.

This refers to a new kind of PC that can run all day (with the improved battery life) and stay constantly connected to the internet with the Qualcomm LTE modem inside, no matter where the user may roam.

This new ultrathin laptop is based on the ARM processor architecture and runs Windows 10 in emulation mode. The Qualcomm 835 SnapDragon processor used in these laptops is fast enough to run Windows 10s or 10 Pro with very little latency.

Microsoft worked hard to deliver a full version of its OS that works well with Qualcomm’s 835 Snapdragon processor. The last time it tried this with Windows RT, it failed to make its operating system run well on the ARM processor used in hardware. Consequently, the Windows PCs never got any serious attention in the marketplace.

What I find most interesting in the announcement is that the “always connected” quality is similar to what we have with smartphones today. The only difference is in the size and shape of the device. Microsoft and Qualcomm, along with their partners, believe that these new Always Connected PCs will usher in a new era of portable computing where battery life is a second thought and always being connected is the norm.

ASUS CEO Jerry Shen announces ASUS NovaGo at SnapdragonTechnology Summit [Photo: courtesy of Qualcomm]
As a power user and avid mobile computer fan, I very much like the idea of having an ultrathin laptop with all-day battery life. I’d love to leave home in the morning without even having to think about carrying a power cord with me.

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Since the arrival of the first laptops in the late 1980s, consumers have been calling for thinner, lighter, powerful laptops that also have long battery life. PC makers have responded with a host of laptop designs over the years, including “Netbooks,” and, more recently, 2-in-1’s in which the keyboard is detachable and the screen can double as a tablet. But the big problem with any of the current laptops is that at best, they can give users only up to 12-15 hours of battery life. And if you’re into streaming movies and playing games, battery life on even the newest laptops is pared down to not much more than seven to eight hours at best.

Qualcomm and Microsoft believe they’ve finally addressed the battery problem in a meaningful way.

And knowing my laptop would always be connected no matter where I am could change the way I use the device. The PC also supports Wi-Fi, but Wi-Fi is not always available where LTE is available almost everywhere in the US and most of the world.

Qualcomm and Microsoft and their PC-maker partners, as well as the wireless carriers that provide the LTE, will have to work hard to get consumers to buy into their vision. They’ll have to make us believe that the Always Connected PC is a new form of personal computing.

One possible deal breaker is the question of whether or not the new machines will run all the apps that consumers are accustomed to. Microsoft execs told me the Always Connected PCs can be upgraded from Windows 10S to Windows 10 Pro for free, so that they can run all Microsoft apps.

Another key question is how much the carriers will charge for the LTE data connection, when data usage is expected to be much higher than on a smartphone. The cost and hassle factor of buying a new service plan could turn some consumers away. The carriers are still working out the cost issue, and we won’t see the numbers and terms until the first machines ship next year.

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Cristiano Amon, executive vice president of Qualcomm Technologies and president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, says the PC makers will sell the Always Connected PCs through traditional retail stores, online, and in wireless carrier stores.

The carriers tried this once before with Netbooks. They were arguably too early with the idea, and it flopped. But carriers have become good at selling smartphones with data plans, so this time might be different. Qualcomm and Microsoft officials believe that with proper training the carriers will become an important channel for always on Always Connected PCs.

Microsoft and Qualcomm did extensive research before they launched the Always Connected PC program, and say that they found high demand for it in the market. They and their partners plan to spend significant money promoting it in the new year.

ASUS NovaGO [Photo: courtesy of Asus]

The First “Always On” PCs

The first “Windows on Qualcomm” PCs will hit the market sometime in Q1 or Q2 of 2018.

At the event in Maui, Asus introduced its Nova GO, with 64 gig SSD and 4 Gig for RAM for $499.

HP ENVY x2 [Photo: courtesy of HP]
HP unveiled its Envy X2 but did not share how it would be priced.

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Lenovo is expected to debut its Always On PC at CES in early January.

Qualcomm and Microsoft executives assured me that many PC makers, carriers, and software developers that will back the new laptop program in the new year. Qualcomm execs even hinted that we could also see Always Connected PCs from smartphone makers in the near future.

Why Now?

Why are Qualcomm and Microsoft introducing a new type of mobile PC and a new carrier strategy now? Three reasons:

The first is that both companies have watched with great interest how people have become dependent on their smartphones. They’ve also seen that many users want to have a device with a bigger screen and a keyboard to do more than you can on a smartphone.

For Microsoft, these new Always Connected PCs could become their “Chromebook” killer, so to speak, as it runs all Windows apps and is priced similarly to Chromebooks.

The second reason is that Qualcomm’s 835 Snapdragon mobile processor has as much power as some of the CPUs that are in mainstream laptops today. That really enticed Microsoft to spend the last two years with Qualcomm to optimize Windows to work within the ARM architecture. Together they have created a viable portable PC design and platform with the kind of battery life and instant on capabilities you get with smartphones.

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The third reason is that carriers see this as a new way to expand their overall businesses. While demand for smartphones is still strong, the market for them is becoming increasingly saturated and carriers will need new ways to sustain growth. The Always Connected PC might be an especially promising new market as Gigabit LTE, and eventually 5G, roll out and bring far faster data speeds.

I’ve covered the PC industry for 35 years and have seen many inflection points that either helped grow the industry, or changed its direction. My early take is that the Always Connected PC has legs, and could even help revive a PC industry that’s been shrinking over the last 10 years. Microsoft and Qualcomm will have to keep pushing the concept, and keep hardware partners and carriers all pulling in the same direction. We should know sometime next year if it’s looking like consumers are coming along for the ride.

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