One of the most remarkable acquisitions of recent years was that of Nuvia by Qualcomm. Nuvia was a Silicon Valley start-up founded in recent years by the principal silicon and design engineers and architects behind silicon from both Apple and Google. Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon made it crystal clear when Nuvia was acquired that they are pursuing the high-performance ultraportable laptop market, with both Intel and Apple in their sights.
Nuvia came out of stealth in November 2019, with the three main founders spending nearly a year building the company. Gerard Williams III, John Bruno and Manu Gulati have jointly led the silicon design of more than 20 chips, combined more than 100 patents and held leadership positions at Google, Apple, Arm, Broadcom and AMD. Nuvia has raised a lot of capital, $300 million+ over two funding rounds and angel investors, and the company has hired a lot of impressive staff.
Nuvia’s goal was to build a general purpose Arm-based server chip that would rock the industry. Imagine something similar to what Graviton 2 and Ampere Altra are today, but with a modified microarchitecture that is comparable (or better) to Apple’s current designs. When Nuvia was still on its own in boot mode, some announced the team and prospect and called for the demise of x86 with Nuvia’s approach. However, Qualcomm invaded and acquired the company in March 2021, repurposing Nuvia’s efforts for a laptop processor.
It’s no secret that Qualcomm has been behind the laptop and notebook market for quite some time now. Multiple generations of ‘Windows on Snapdragon’ have entered the market through Qualcomm’s partners, initially with smartphone-grade silicon before being slightly more customized in recent years with the 8cx, 8cx Gen 2 and 7c/7 options. It took several years for Qualcomm to have the silicon and Windows ecosystem somewhere that makes sense for commercial and consumer use, and with the recent news that Windows 11 is now enabling full x86-64 emulation support on these devices, the functional difference is between a Qualcomm laptop and an x86 laptop should be close to zero. Qualcomm would argue that their proposal is better, with 2 days of use on a single charge, weeks of charging and mobile wireless connectivity with 4G/5G. I tested one of the previous generation S855 Lenovo Yoga devices and the battery life is insane – but I needed better functional support (I turned out to have an abnormal edge case workflow…) and more performance. While Qualcomm has been working on the former since my last test, and Nuvia is poised to bring the latter.
Image by @anshelsag on Twitter, used with permission
On Qualcomm’s Investor Day this week, the Qualcomm/Nuvia relationship was mentioned in an update. I had hoped that by the end of this year (and Qualcomm’s Tech Summit in just a few weeks) we’d see something in terms of details or performance, but Qualcomm states that the original schedule is still on track. As announced at the time of the acquisition, the goal is to deliver partner-owned test silicon by the second half of 2022.
The goal here is to have laptop silicon that can compete with Apple’s M series, but with Windows. This means blowing past Intel and AMD offerings and that comes with the benefits of better battery life, sustained performance and mobile connectivity. From the revelations so far, it may come as no surprise that the Nuvia CPUs are paired with an Adreno GPU and a Hexagon DSP, though it will be interesting to see if the Nuvia CPU is a single large core paired with regular Arm-efficient cores, or anything on the CPU side will be new from the Nuvia team.
I have no doubt that at Qualcomm’s Tech Summit in December 2022, we will gain a deeper understanding of the microarchitecture of the new core. Either that or Qualcomm could surprise us with a Hot Chips presentation in August. As for going beyond laptop chips, while Qualcomm is happy to report that Nuvia’s designs will be “expanded to [other areas] opportunistically,” it’s clear they’re locking their sights on the laptop market before even thinking about what else might be in the line of sight.