What is an AI PC? Answers from Microsoft, Intel, and more explained

 Dell XPS 14 (9440) for 2024.
Dell XPS 14 (9440) for 2024.

If there's one buzzword that just about anyone can point to as taking over in 2024, it's AI. Just about every major tech firm is employing AI in its new products in some way or other, whether it actually makes sense or not.

Beyond that, businesses are scrambling to get AI working for them, and even individuals are looking for ways to improve productivity and get an edge on the competition by employing AI.

Of course, PC makers have a whole lot to gain, as their products are a primary gateway to the emerging world of AI. Everyone is looking to cash in on the new wave, and you're no doubt seeing the term "AI PC" thrown around quite frequently.

What is an AI PC? What is an NPU? Is it necessary to buy an AI PC if you're currently shopping for one of the best laptops? Let's answer some of these questions right here to give you a better understanding of what goes into an AI PC.

What is an AI PC?

Dell XPS 14 (9440) for 2024
Dell XPS 14 (9440) for 2024

Accurately answering this question isn't exactly easy. At least not yet. It really depends on who you ask, with companies attempting to define the term in their own light.

Intel is one of the leading companies pushing AI tech in PCs, with its latest Core Ultra processors (CPU) packing a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) designed and optimized specifically for AI tasks.

AMD and Qualcomm are also working hard on AI-enhanced CPUs. AMD's Ryzen 8040 series chips, announced in late 2023, feature an XDNA NPU that's all about AI. Qualcomm's Snapdragon X Elite CPU should give AMD and Intel some strong competition, though PCs with the chip aren't expected until later this year.

Intel Core Ultra processor with NPU
Intel Core Ultra processor with NPU

Generally speaking, an AI PC is a computer that has hardware inside — an NPU — specifically designed to boost the performance of AI and machine learning tasks without having to rely on cloud computing.

While the applications aren't yet widespread, we're no doubt going to see AI enhancements creep into a lot more areas. It doesn't even have to be that complicated. Something like Windows Studio Effects can already lean on an NPU rather than your PC's CPU and GPU to improve your camera feed, freeing up the latter components to keep your system running smoothly.

AI PCs according to Microsoft and Intel

Microsoft's requirements for an AI PC
Microsoft's requirements for an AI PC

Microsoft has laid out its core requirements of what makes an AI PC, which was shared at an AI PC Acceleration Program event hosted by Intel at the end of March 2024.

Here's what a computer must have in order to be considered an AI PC, at least according to Microsoft:

  • A new CPU, GPU, and NPU.

  • Onboard Copilot software.

  • A Copilot keyboard button.

Microsoft's key features differ a bit from what Intel claims is an AI PC, with the chipmaker notably dropping the Copilot and Copilot key requirements and instead focusing on having a CPU, GPU, and NPU with AI acceleration capabilities.

What is an NPU?

CPUs and GPUs have been around for a long time, and "NPU" is now often mentioned in the same breath.

As I briefly mentioned above, an NPU is a new PC component that is optimized specifically to better handle AI tasks. Not only is the NPU optimized for specific workloads, it can also take some of the stress off of your CPU and GPU, allowing your system to run smoother while AI tasks are completed.

An NPU isn't necessarily better than a CPU or a GPU; it's best to consider it as a new piece of hardware designed to work in tandem with the other pieces to improve overall system performance as AI-powered features become more prevalent in day-to-day computing.

Our own Rebecca Spear wrote an informative guide on how NPUs differ from GPUs, which does a great job of explaining in more detail how these components work together and what they do differently.

Do you need an AI PC?

ASUS ROG Zephyrus G16 on table hero.
ASUS ROG Zephyrus G16 on table hero.

Whether or not you really need an AI PC really comes down to how you work and how you plan to work in the future (at least through the lifespan of your PC). We've been getting by just fine without AI PCs for decades, and a majority of users are still going to get by just fine without an NPU or Copilot key on their laptops.

An NPU can already boost some tasks that rely on AI, but those tasks are still fairly limited. Unless you want to be at the forefront of AI, rushing out and buying an AI PC when your current laptop is still fresh really isn't something I'd recommend.

Of course, if you already plan on upgrading to a new laptop it won't really hurt to pick up a device classified as an AI PC. Just because an NPU's usefulness isn't particularly impressive in day-to-day computing right now doesn't mean it won't be necessary in even the near future.

AI advancements are moving at an incredible pace, and the usefulness of an NPU could become more apparent sooner than you think.

What does AI mean for the future of Windows?

Windows 2024
Windows 2024

As revealed in an exclusive late 2023 report by Senior Editor Zac Bowden, Microsoft's next major Windows release is going big on AI. The release, named "Hudson Valley," is still under construction and is expected in Fall 2024.

As stated by Bowden, "the big focus for Hudson Valley is on next-generation AI experiences that are being woven and integrated throughout the OS, much of which will likely require new NPU hardware to function."

The biggest feature is expected to be a new AI-powered Windows Shell that will run in the background "to enhance search, jumpstart projects or workflows, understand context, and much more." Think of it sort of as a Copilot that's always on and ready to help out in many different ways. If you want to take advantage of these improvements, you will most likely need an AI PC.

Intel AI Summit 2024 sign.
Intel AI Summit 2024 sign.

Furthermore, Intel revealed at its AI summit hosted late-March 2024 that Copilot will run locally on AI PCs in the near future. Why is that important? There are a number of reasons, ranging from cost reduction on Microsoft's side, to better security, always-enabled access, and improved personalization on the user's side.

It's very clear that the usefulness of an AI PC is only going to grow, and Microsoft looks to be a main player in making AI PCs make a lot of sense for users.