We tested a new AI laptop, and its best feature isn't the AI

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SAN FRANCISCO — Getting ready to buy a new computer? Get ready to hear a lot about AI.

Over the past few weeks, PC makers including Dell, HP, Samsung and Lenovo have released nearly a dozen new Windows laptops with AI processors and capabilities that Microsoft is calling “Copilot+ PCs” (after its Copilot AI chatbot), and you can expect to see a lot of these products both online and in retail stores this year.

Starting at $999, some of these new breed of PCs might seem like an attractive deal for you or anyone starting school this fall. But after testing Microsoft's Surface Laptop and Lenovo's Yoga Slim 7x, one thing is clear: The reason an AI PC is right for you might not have anything to do with AI at all.

Here's what you need to know before you get started:

What exactly is an AI PC?

Essentially, it's tech industry slang for a computer that has a processor with a specialized part called an NPU (Neural Processing Unit), which is tailored to run artificial intelligence functions directly on your PC.

Think about it this way: Imagine you go back to school and you desperately need help with calculus. You could try to do it yourself, but a smart move is to ask a friend who's good at math to help you crunch the numbers. In this case, your friend is an NPU, but instead of helping you with differential calculus, they do the math on the fly to generate weird images for you.

It might not look like it, but Microsoft's current Copilot+ PCs are quite different from the Windows computers you've used before. This is down to an interesting chip choice: These PCs use processors from Qualcomm rather than Intel or AMD, which means they run a little differently. This is mostly a good thing, but it does have some drawbacks, which we'll discuss in more detail later.

What can this AI do for me?

Here are the ones you can look forward to, listed in order from the one I use most often to the one I use least often.

Studio effects for webcam. Some Windows 11 PCs already have this feature, which can be used to blur your background during video calls, and Microsoft has tweaked it for Copilot+ PC, adding a tool that makes it appear like you're looking straight ahead, even when you glance to the side to read a note.

The example on the left is with Eye Contact off. The example on the right is with Eye Contact on. (Video: The Washington Post)

Creepy? Maybe, but I don't think anyone on the other end of the Zoom call has noticed yet.

Chatbot companion. Microsoft's Copilot chatbot is already part of Windows 11, but now you can get it by pressing a dedicated button. You just use your keyboard to talk. The problem is, it's not that different from talking to a website. And in some ways, Copilot is less capable than it used to be.

On Windows 11 PCs without these new chips, you can ask Copilot to manipulate some of your computer's settings, like switching on dark mode or setting timers. This is gone entirely on Copilot+ PCs, which is disappointing for anyone who was hoping parents could ask the AI ​​to tweak their computer. Many times.

Live captions and translations. Like Studio Effects, some Windows 11 PCs can already generate live captions for audio as it plays. The feature instantly translates audio from 44 languages ​​into English. At least, that's the aim. At its best, the translation is a bit choppy and the captions appear too late, making it hard to follow the audio. At its worst, they're incomprehensible.

AI art support. If your MS Paint skills are as lacking as mine are, you can use the Paint app's Contributor tool to help out: just describe what you want to see and guide the AI ​​using regular brushes and colors. This is a really cool feature and something you'll want your kids to get used to, but it's not essential.

You can also use the Image Creator feature and let the AI ​​do all the work for you, but to do this you need to be connected to the internet and have a Microsoft account, so you're better off just letting ChatGPT do it for you from the start.

Recall. The tool, which takes screenshots of everything you do on your PC and helps the AI ​​jog your memory, was meant to be the flagship feature of the Copilot+ computer.

Oops. It's not out yet. Microsoft was forced to turn it off after an outcry from security researchers who discovered that the feature was on by default and could be storing sensitive data insecurely.

Are these AI PCs really worth it?

That could happen, even if the AI-related features are disappointing.

Thanks to the chips in these Copilot+ PCs, you can expect very good battery life. Take the Surface Laptop ($999+) that I'm testing: After a full day of writing, video calling, gaming, and photo editing, I often found myself with 20 to 30 percent charge left by the time I closed the lid for the night.

Meanwhile, on a day spent mostly in the web browser, I was able to use the laptop for eight straight hours without the battery even reaching 50%.

This is great for a Windows laptop, and being able to do what you love without worrying about running out of battery is an indescribable feeling, especially considering that my test machine (a high-end Surface Laptop) was snappy and responsive in just about every action.

I say “almost” because some of the things I tried simply didn't work.

Blame it on a weird chip quirk: Every app you've ever used on a Windows computer was designed for one foundation, or “architecture,” and Qualcomm's chip uses another, which means that sometimes the app you want to use won't run.

In my case, it's mostly games – they find an unexpected processor and refuse to boot. Thankfully, these PCs are smart enough to “convert” older apps to run on the new chip's architecture, but the result can be buggy or consume excess power.

If you work primarily in a web browser, you probably don't need to worry too much, but if you rely on Windows apps and utilities (especially older ones that may not be updated any more), you might want to hold off on buying Copilot+ PC until you can be sure your software works properly.

Apple experienced similar app growing pains when it switched its computers to Apple Silicon chips in 2020, but has since bounced back. Microsoft and its partners are in a similar situation now. Even without better AI tools, so-called AI PCs are undoubtedly better at non-trivial processing, and they'll only get better over time.

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