I’m spending some time in the new Audi Q8, and the car company equipped the crossover with its latest infotainment system. I love it, fingerprints, dust and all.
The grimy screens are part of the story. I could have cleaned up the screens for the photos, but I thought it was essential to show the screens after a couple of weeks of use.
There are two screens placed in the center stack of the Q8. The top one features controls for the radio, mapping system and vehicle settings. The bottom screen is for climate controls and additional controls like garage door opener and the vehicle’s cameras. Both have haptic feedback, so the buttons feel nearly real.
Both screens are tilted at the right angle, and the shifter is built in a way that provides a handy spot to rest your wrist, steadying it as you hit the screens.
Car companies are turning to touchscreens over physical buttons. It makes sense on some level, as screens are less expensive and scalable across vehicles. With screens, car companies do not need to design and manufacture knobs, buttons and sliders but instead create a software user interface.
Tesla took it to the next level with the debut of the Model S in 2012. The car company stuck a massive touchscreen in the center stack. It’s huge. I’m not a fan. I find the large screen uncomfortable and impractical to use while driving. Other car companies must agree, as few have included similar touchscreens in their vehicles. Instead of a single touchscreen, most car makers are using a combination of a touchscreen with physical knobs and buttons. For the most part, this is an excellent compromise, as the knobs and buttons are used for functions that will always be needed, like climate control.
Audi is using a similar thought in its latest infotainment system. The bottom screen is always on and always displays the climate control. There’s a button that reveals shortcuts, too, so if the top screen is turned off, the driver can still change the radio to a preset. The top screen houses buttons for the radio, mapping and lesser-used settings.
The user interface uses a dark theme. The black levels are fantastic, even in direct sunlight, and this color scheme makes it easy to use during the day or night.
The touchscreens have downsides but none that are not present on other touchscreens. Glare is often an issue, and these screens are fingerprint magnets. I also found the screen to run hot to the touch after a few minutes in the sun.
Apple CarPlay remains a source of frustration. The Q8 has the latest CarPlay option, which allows an iPhone to run CarPlay wirelessly. It only works sometimes. And sometimes, when it does work, various apps like Spotify do not work in their typical fashion. Thankfully, Apple just announced a big update for CarPlay that will hopefully improve the connectivity and stability.
The infotainment system is now a critical component. Automakers must build a system that’s competent and feels natural to the driver and yet able to evolve as features are added to vehicles through over-the-air updates. Automakers must build a system that works today and continues to work years from now.
Audi’s latest infotainment system is impressive. It does everything right: it’s not a distraction, it’s easy to use and features fantastic haptic feedback.
Nvidia has added two entry-level GPUs—the GeForce RTX 3050 Ti and RTX 3050—to the RTX 30 laptop line. Nvidia says the chips will be available “this summer” in laptops starting at $799.
Like every other product in the RTX 30 line, these cards are based on the Ampere architecture and are capable of ray tracing and Nvidia’s proprietary “Deep Learning Super Sampling” (DLSS) upscaling tech. As you can probably guess from their names, the cards slot in below the existing RTX 3060 GPU, with cuts across the board. You can dive into Nvidia’s comparison table below, but the short version is that these cheaper GPUs have less memory (4GB) and fewer CUDA, Tensor, and ray-tracing cores.
DLSS lets your GPU render a game at a lower resolution and then uses AI to upscale everything to a higher resolution, helping you hit a higher frame rate than you could at your native resolution. It sounds like AI hocus-pocus, but it actually works—you just need the right Nvidia card and a game that supports it. On a lower-powered laptop, anything that helps boost gaming performance without sacrificing graphical fidelity is welcome.
Intel’s Tiger Lake-H processors were also announced today, and we should see a lot of devices launching with both chips. That’s if there is sufficient supply of the chips to go around. Nvidia is already facing serious video card shortages, and Intel is being hit by the global chip shortage, too. Maybe partner laptops are getting a higher allocation of chips?
Intel today announced 10 new 11th-generation CPUs for high-performance laptops like those made for gamers or content creators. Built on the 10nm SuperFin process, the new chips are in the Core i9, Core i7, Core i5, and Xeon families, and they carry the label “Tiger Lake-H.”
New consumer laptop CPUs include the Core i9-11980HK, Core i9-11900H, Core i7-11800H—all of which have eight cores—plus the Core i5-11400H and Core i5-11260H, which each have six cores.
Naturally, Intel today put the spotlight on the fastest Core i9-11980HK chip. The company claims this CPU is able to beat its predecessor by several percentage points in games like Hitman 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege, depending on the game—anywhere from 5 percent to 21 percent, according to Intel’s own testing.
Intel also claims that the Core i9-11980HK beats AMD’s Ryzen 9 5900HX by anywhere from 11 to 26 percent. Obviously, reviewers will have to put these claims to the test in the coming weeks.
Other features in the new Tiger Lake-H chips include support for Thunderbolt 4 and Wi-Fi 6E.
As is the custom with new Intel CPU launches, numerous OEMs refreshed their laptop lineups with the new chips, including Dell, HP, Lenovo, MSI, Acer, Asus, and others. You can just about bet that if an OEM offered a portable gaming laptop for which these chips are suitable—like the Dell XPS 15, for example—a new version of that laptop was announced today.
Today was a big day for laptop hardware. By no coincidence at all, Nvidia also announced the new GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU, which is offered as a configuration option in some of the same laptops that now feature the new Tiger Lake-H CPUs.
In case you’re curious about more information for Intel’s new laptop chips, Intel has more details on its website. The new chips obviously won’t be sold to consumers on their own, but you’ll likely see them in numerous laptops on the market throughout the next year.
Samsung is planning big things for the next release of its Exynos system on a chip. The company has already promised that the “next generation” of its Exynos SoC will feature a GPU from AMD, which inked a partnership with Samsung in June 2019. A new report from The Korea Economic Daily provides more details.
The report says that “the South Korean tech giant will unveil a premium Exynos chip that can be used in laptops as well as smartphones in the second half of this year” and that “the new Exynos chip for laptops will use the graphics processing unit (GPU) jointly developed with US semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices Inc.”
There’s a bit to unpack here. First, a launch this year would be an acceleration of the normal Samsung schedule. The last Exynos flagship was announced in January 2021, so you would normally pencil in the new Exynos for early next year. Second, the report goes out of its way to specify that the laptop chip will have an AMD GPU, so… not the smartphone chip?
It was always questionable that Samsung was planning to beef up its Exynos smartphone chips, since the company splits its flagship smartphone lineup between Exynos and Qualcomm, depending on the region. Exynos chips are always inferior to Qualcomm chips, but Samsung considers the two products close enough to call the Exynos- and Qualcomm-based phones the same product. If Samsung knocked it out of the park with an AMD GPU, where would that leave the Qualcomm phones? Would Samsung ditch Qualcomm? That’s hard to believe, and it sounds like the easy answer is for the company to just not dramatically change the Exynos smartphone chips.
For laptops, Samsung has to chase down its favorite rival, Apple, which is jumping into ARM laptops with its M1 chip. If Samsung wants its products to have any hope of being competitive with Apple laptops, it would have to launch its own ARM laptop SoC. Getting AMD onboard for this move makes the most sense (it already makes Windows GPUs), and while that would be a good first step, it still doesn’t seem like it would lead to a complete, competitive product.
What about the CPU?
Even if we suppose everything goes right with Samsung’s AMD partnership and the company gets a top-tier SoC GPU, the kind of chip Samsung seems to be producing is not what you would draw up for use in a great laptop. The three big components in an SoC are the CPU, GPU, and modem. It seems like everyone is investing in SoC design, and some companies are better positioned to produce a competitive chip than others.
Of course, everybody is chasing Apple’s M1 SoC, but Apple’s expertise lines up well with what you would want from a laptop. Apple has a world-beating CPU team thanks to years of iPhone work based on the company’s acquisition of PA Semi. Apple started making its own GPUs with the iPhone X in 2017, and the M1 GPU is pretty good. Apple doesn’t have a modem solution on the market yet (its phones use Qualcomm modems), but it bought Intel’s 5G smartphone business in 2019, and it’s working on in-house modem chips. This is a great situation for a laptop chip. You want a strong, efficient CPU and a decent GPU—and you don’t really need a modem.
An AMD GPU is a start for Samsung, but the company does not have a great ARM CPU solution. ARM licenses the ARM CPU instruction set and ARM CPU designs, a bit like if Intel both licensed the x86 architecture and sold Pentium blueprints. Apple goes the more advanced route of licensing the ARM instruction set and designing its own CPUs, while Samsung licenses ARM’s CPU designs. ARM is a generalist and needs to support many different form factors and companies with its CPU designs, so it will never make a chip design that can compete with Apple’s focused designs. By all accounts, Samsung’s Exynos chip will have an inferior CPU. It will also be pretty hard to make a gaming pitch with the AMD GPU since there aren’t any Windows-on-ARM laptop games.
Qualcomm is trying to get into the ARM laptop game, too. Qualcomm’s biggest strength is its modems, which aren’t really relevant in the laptop space. Qualcomm has been in a similar position to Samsung; the company had a decent GPU division thanks to acquiring ATI’s old mobile GPU division, but it was always behind Apple because it used ARM’s CPU designs. Qualcomm’s current laptop chip is the Snapdragon 8cx gen 2, but that chip is not even a best-effort design from the company. The 8cx gen 2 doesn’t just use an ARM CPU design; it uses one that is two generations old: a Cortex A76-based design instead of the Cortex X1 design that a modern phone would use. It’s also a generation behind when it comes to the manufacturing process—7 nm instead of the 5 nm the Snapdragon 888 uses.
Qualcomm seems like it will get serious about laptop chips soon, as it bought CPU design firm Nuvia in January 2021. Nuvia has never made a product, but it was founded by defectors from Apple’s CPU division, including the chief CPU architect. Qualcomm says that with Nuvia, it will be able to ship internally designed CPUs by 2H 2022.
And then there’s Google, which wants to ship its own phone SoC, called “Whitechapel,” in the Pixel 6. Google does not have CPU, GPU, or modem expertise, so we don’t expect much from the company other than a longer OS support window.
And what about Windows?
With no great ARM laptop CPUs out there for non-Apple companies, there isn’t a huge incentive to break up the Wintel (or maybe Winx64?) monopoly. Getting a non-Apple ARM laptop most likely means running Windows for ARM, with whatever questionable app support that system has. Microsoft has been working on x86 and x64 emulation on ARM for a bit. The project entered its “first preview” in December in the Windows dev channel, but it doesn’t sound like it will be a great option for many apps. Microsoft has already said that games are “outside the target” of the company’s first attempt at x64 emulation.
Native apps are also a possibility, though developers don’t seem as interested in Windows ARM support as they do in macOS ARM support. Google was quickly ready with an ARM-native build of Chrome for macOS, but there still isn’t a build of Chrome for ARM for Windows. Adobe took a few months, but Photoshop for M1 Macs hit in March, while the Windows-on-ARM build of Photoshop is still in beta. You can, of course, run Microsoft Office. You’ll probably be stuck with OneDrive for cloud folders, since Dropbox and Google Drive don’t support Windows on ARM.