Microsoft is pushing Always Connected PCs, but should you get one yet?

The first generation of Always Connected PCs show an interesting future, but the experience isn’t quite up to par with what Microsoft promised.

Microsoft announced their Always Connected PCs (ACPCs) line of laptops at WinHEC 2016. Then, in December 2017, the company unveiled their partnership with Qualcomm Technologies to run ACPCs on Snapdragon ARM-based processors. It wasn’t until 2018 that ACPCs starting making their debuts, with one of the first announced models only reaching market in July.

Jack spoke about wanting a Windows 10 S laptop last August and Rachel took a closer look at the chipset in the first generation of ACPCs. Suffice to say, has shown interest in Always Connected PCs. With models becoming generally available, we decided to take a look at them and see what the first generation looks like and how close Microsoft and Qualcomm came to their initial promises. Most importantly, should you be an early adopter or hold off until 2019?

What exactly does ‘Always Connected’ even mean?

Now, one of the largest selling points of these computers is the cellular connection, but by itself that’s not groundbreaking (laptop models have been available already for nearly a decade with cell capability), so what’s different?

To fall under the Always Connected PC branding, the laptop needs to feature always on connectivity (remaining connected even when in standby mode), instant on functionality, all-day battery life (22 hours or so), fast connection speeds (up to a gigabit), eSIM, ARM architecture, and Windows 10 S (which can upgrade to 10 Pro for free). For the moment, ACPCs come equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (though a WinHEC 2017 presentation hints at x86 architecture versions), which helps provide the smartphone-like experience.

The current Always Connected PC models feature nano SIMs, but the ASUS NovaGo released in July has eSIM capabilities as well. Most models will feature both until cell carriers make the transition to eSIM.

What makes ACPCs so intriguing?

A light laptop that boasts 22 hours of battery life that remains connected wherever you go, even away from a consistent Wi-Fi signal sounds cool to me. Who wouldn’t enjoy a smartphone-like experience, while also having a much larger screen and physical keyboard and not needing to worry about needing to find an electrical outlet?

eSIM is another interesting feature. The idea of already having a SIM card built into the computer, allowing for an easy swap to a different carrier for cell coverage, especially when going abroad, is really cool to me (the more control I have, the better). Microsoft released a Mobile Plans app that allows for eSIM computers to simplify buying a monthly data plan from a carrier.

Though the first iteration of Always Connected PCs is more consumer focused, there are interesting use cases for the enterprise. The leading one is definitely the idea of ensuring a more secure internet connection for work. No need to worry about an unsecured, public Wi-Fi connection, if you can just connect via 4G/LTE from your preferred cell carrier. Another point in Always Connected PCs’s favor? With eSIM, it’ll be easier for IT to provision laptops and make changes if the company opts for a different data plan from another carrier after initial setup.

So, what’s the reality?

Well, it’s the first generation, so naturally there are a lot of missed promises; probably enough to prevent most people from being early adopters.

The most interesting aspect of ACPCs, is the always connected feature. The Qualcomm Snapdragon processor allows the laptop to act very much like a smartphone, remaining connected to the internet for email, notifications, and more while on standby mode. Unfortunately, this isn’t working quite yet, but that’s not the computer’s fault but rather is on the email servers.

Speaking of the Qualcomm processors, the Snapdragon 835 performance is underwhelming. Only Microsoft Store apps work, with 32-bit apps somewhat working (don’t plan on a good experience using Google Chrome—stick with Edge) and 64-bit apps not at all (in the future, there will be 64-bit support). There’s another potential hitch: the Snapdragon has to emulate x86, and Intel released a curiously worded statement that many took as a warning toward Qualcomm and Microsoft about the possibility of a lawsuit. Nothing has happened yet, though.

Another issue revolves around eSIM; there’s not much support for it yet, and the only devices that support it at the moment are the Google Pixel 2, Apple Watch Series 3, Microsoft Surface Pro, Samsung Gear S2, and the recently released ASUS NovaGo ACPCs.

On top of that, carriers have been dragging their feet. Enough so that the U.S. Justice Department received a complaint, made by Apple, that Verizon, AT&T, and GSMA allegedly colluded to make it easier to lock eSIM to specific carriers (much like current SIM tech).

Through the Microsoft Mobile Plans app (which only works on laptops with an eSIM), users will be able buy data plans from any provider (currently limited to AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon). This sounds useful and neat, but only the Surface Pro and NovaGo have eSIM support currently, and to access data, you still require a monthly plan.

Jack and others have expressed interest in the idea of hopefully being able to just buying a chunk of data from a carrier when they know they’ll be somewhere away from Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works right now. Users aren’t getting sucked into contracts, but still have to buy monthly data plans to enjoy a core feature of Always Connected PCs. Would be awesome, but can’t imagine carriers getting on board—maybe down the road!

Buy or hold off?

Clearly we should wait on thisthere are too many negatives or issues with the first generation to recommend it to anyone. Let the issues get ironed out first—hopefully they do. When reviews first dropped about underwhelming performance, Microsoft left Qualcomm swinging in the wind and distanced themselves from their supposed partner, while Qualcomm remain committed to improvement. That said, the next iteration of Always Connected PCs should get the Snapdragon 850 processor, which hopefully provides a boost to performance and Microsoft said the Windows 10 April update should improve performance to current models.

If cellular access is your top need, then you already have options out on the market. Intel sells a line of LTE laptops and the Microsoft Surface Pro already has an LTE version. Or just tether your current laptop to your smartphone to access cellular data. That’s been an option for years, even if speeds aren’t always ideal and carriers sometimes throttle tethering.

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