“Always Connected” Windows PCs won’t just use ARM chips as Intel, AMD join the fray


Central to the promise of a new generation of Windows 10 on ARM PCs (the first two of which were announced yesterday) is the idea of being “Always Connected:” that your mobile PC, like your smartphone, is almost always online, using Wi-Fi where it’s available or LTE where it isn’t.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 ARM processors are a good match for this because they integrate Qualcomm’s X16 LTE modem. Paired with the right mobile network and antenna hardware, the modem is capable of downloading at gigabit speeds. But Intel and AMD have both been keen to highlight that you don’t need an ARM processor for this kind of connectivity—and you might not need one for the other claimed ARM advantages either.

AMD announced a collaboration with Qualcomm to produce machines using its new Ryzen Mobile processors along with Qualcomm LTE modems, offering the same LTE performance as you’d get with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.

And Intel systems with the X16 modem are already out there; Microsoft’s own Surface Pro with LTE uses that same Qualcomm part to offer up to 450Mb/s LTE performance. Intel also builds its own LTE modems—Apple, for example, started using a mix of Intel and Qualcomm modems with the iPhone 7—and these too could be used in an LTE-enabled x86 PC. Intel is also working on 5G modems, taking mobile connectivity beyond gigabit speeds.

Intel and Microsoft are also claiming another feature of these ARM PCs will be available for x86. The ARM systems are intended to support instant waking, just like a smartphone typically does. According to slides published at Microsoft’s WinHEC event for hardware companies, this should materialize through 2018 on regular PCs.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard these companies promise instant waking from low-power modes for PCs. With Windows 8, Microsoft introduced a feature called “Connected Standby,” which combined a low-power system state with a certain amount of network connectivity. This enables machines to respond, for example, to new Skype calls and continue to receive new emails while experiencing battery drain comparable to that from being suspended—much the same combination of features as smartphones depend on to get through the day. With Connected Standby, waking should be near-instant.

Connected Standby proved hit-and-miss; it needed the right hardware with the right drivers to work properly. In Windows 10, the same concept of an ultra-low-power mode that nonetheless could still respond to external events was renamed to “Modern Standby.” Modern Standby has a connected mode—equivalent to old Connected Standby—and a disconnected mode. In disconnected mode, the system can still be woken by, for example, a “Hey Cortana” voice command or a swipe of a fingerprint reader, but it doesn’t pass any network traffic.

Modern Standby, like Connected Standby before it, isn’t quite as reliable and consistent as one would like, again being picky about precise hardware and driver combinations. Microsoft and Intel have, however, been working to improve that situation by developing compliance tests and having “PlugFests.” These events allow hardware companies to come together to test different combinations of their devices to shake out any lingering incompatibilities.

If this work pays off then Intel-powered systems should be able to rival the instant-on experience offered by these new ARM machines.

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