ARM vs Intel: the next processor war begins

Architectures enter a new phase at CES

Microsoft on ARM

It was a good CES for Intel. Sandy Bridge is out and the performance is ace. Our reviewer Jeremy Laird calls the new Core i5 a "huge leap forwards".

But it was a great CES for ARM. The Cambridge-based company didn't even need to do anything. Microsoft came to them.

Microsoft's announcement- while not a complete surprise - means we'll see next-gen tablet devices and even more efficient netbooks running undefined Windows-based operating systems on ARM-based SoC silicon as well as that of Intel and AMD.

Windows soc

LOOK WHO'S THERE: Steve Ballmer makes the SoC announcement to the masses at CES 2011

I met with Bob Morris, director of mobile computing at ARM on Saturday to hear his reflections on the announcement. "All the logos are all the same size which I thought was pretty cool," he chuckles.

"This is a very interesting statement because now you've got a software company who has said we're going to do the best type of products for the best types of devices that do these types of things. This is a really interesting time."

ARM shares rose by seven per cent as a result of the announcement." What it is is not architecture any more, it's a business model. You've got so many people that have good designs and they compete."

Some technology pundits have begun to say statements such as "the beginning of the end for Intel" and "the year that a small UK chip designer began to eclipse the largest chipmaker in the world".

These views are way too extreme. But it can't be denied that ARM-based chips will pose a growing challenge for Intel. Mind you, Intel is always better when it's challenged, so we'll get better products as a result.

When AMD last seriously threatened on the PC processor front and Intel was hobbling along with the atrociously inefficient last-gasp variants of the NetBurst-based Pentium 4, it pulled things out of the bag with the first generation of the Core microarchitecture that Sandy Bridge is the latest phase of.

Making up for lost time

Intel says we will see Atom processors that can match ARM in the smartphone space. Indeed, one Intel insider at CES told us that "in a couple of years we'll have the best smartphone chip in terms of performance and power [efficiency]".

We don't doubt Intel's ability to do this. But what we do doubt is whether it will make any difference for the phone and tablet manufacturers.

When Intel launched Atom for smartphones last May, there were no design wins announced and we've seen little other action.

While we'll probably see a Nokia Intel-based handset running MeeGo at Mobile World Congress next month, other handset manufacturers just don't seem that interested in x86.

Too strong an ecosystem?

What's more, the ARM ecosystem has unique and almost unrepeatable strengths – its universality and amount of partners: Qualcomm, Samsung, Texas Instruments, Nvidia - and that's just the key ones that Microsoft has on board. There are stacks more. Even Apple is invested in this platform.

Apple is a unique case as it now has its own chip design firm – it bought PA Semi who designed the ARM-based Apple A4 chip. Barring a simply earth-shattering seismic shift, Apple won't be using Atom inside the iPhone 10 or iPad 5.

ARM's other benefit is that, while it designs the architecture, it uses a licensable model.

That means that manufacturers, such as Nvidia with the Tegra or Qualcomm with the Snapdragon, can make their own design adjustments before manufacture. Snapdragon, for example, features Qualcomm proprietary GPU technology.

They can also pick the best ARM processor to go in their products and that freedom of design and manufacture is something Intel won't offer.

Windows on arm

NATIVE APPS: Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky talked about native ARM apps and drivers at last week's CES press conference

"People say how will we compete against Intel?" said Morris. "Even if they come down and have the same types of power levels and things like that, how do they compete against all these different companies, because they're going to be one of many."

Where Intel may pick up business is in the netbook or convertible tablet categories, for more traditional, task-based computing but with extreme levels of battery life. It remains to be seen whether ARM-based chips could rise to the kind of tasks we now ask our PCs to do every day.

Another disadvantage for Windows on ARM is that Windows programs will need to be recompiled.

However, as we don't even know what kind of Windows will be on ARM devices (it could be a tablet orientated variant of the OS, for example) it's hardly worth panicking about at this stage.

The tablet and smartphone markets are still in their infancy, so there's still a lot of potential for Intel to thrive. The PC is still hugely important, of course, and Intel and AMD will remain strong there. But elsewhere, there's a lot to play for.

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