ARM processors have become increasingly popular in recent years, powering many of the world’s smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. But how do they really compare to x86 processors from companies like Intel and AMD when it comes to performance and power efficiency?
Key Differences Between ARM and x86 Architectures
ARM and x86 have very different architectural approaches:
- ARM is a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architecture known for its simplicity and power efficiency.
- x86 is a CISC (complex instruction set computing) architecture which offers more complex instructions capable of accomplishing more work per clock cycle.
- ARM licenses its chip designs to many companies who customize and manufacture them. x86 is closely guarded by Intel and AMD.
- ARM chips typically have smaller die sizes, use less power, and cost less to manufacture than x86 chips.
- Most ARM chips max out below desktop/laptop levels of performance, while x86 covers everything from low power to super high performance.
These inherent differences lead to advantages and disadvantages for each architecture.
Advantages of ARM
Here are some of ARM’s biggest advantages:
- Energy efficiency – ARM chips use very little power relative to performance. This allows them to work in thermally constrained mobile devices.
- Customization – Companies licensing ARM IP can customize chips for specific use cases optimizing performance, die area, and power.
- Cost – RISC architecture, smaller chips, and licensing model make ARM chips cheaper to manufacture than x86.
- Ecosystem diversity – ARM’s licensing model has led to a huge range of ARM-based chips suited for various applications.
These advantages have made ARM the dominant force in mobile computing and embedded applications.
Advantages of x86
x86 processors also have considerable strengths:
- Single-thread performance – CISC architecture and advanced microarchitectures allow x86 chips to excel at complex single-threaded workloads.
- Legacy software support – Backwards compatibility gives x86 chips access to a massive legacy codebase and software ecosystem.
- Scale – Intel and AMD’s focus on high performance has pushed x86 chips into the multi-GHz range with huge caches and advanced features.
- Workstation and gaming dominance – x86 rules supreme in performance-driven desktop PCs, workstations, and gaming rigs.
x86 remains the go-to choice when maximum per-core performance matters most.
Comparing Peak Performance
We can get a better idea of how ARM and x86 performance compare by looking at some peak benchmarks. Apple’s highest-end M1 chips give us an example of ARM’s current performance potential:
- The M1 Pro has a peak single-thread CPU score around 1700 on Geekbench 5.
- The M1 Max scores around 12,500 on Geekbench’s CUDA benchmark for GPU performance.
- Both M1 Pro and Max peak at around 30W power consumption under load.
By comparison, a high-end Intel Core i9-12900K desktop CPU scores over 2000 on Geekbench 5 single thread and AMD’s Radeon RX 6950 XT graphics card hits over 115,000 in the Geekbench CUDA test while consuming over 300W of power.
Current x86 chips can clearly far surpass Apple’s M1 series in both CPU and GPU power at the cost of much higher power consumption.
Performance Per Watt
While x86 excels at peak performance, ARM architecture’s power efficiency gives it an edge in performance per watt – an important metric for battery powered mobile devices.
Benchmarks estimating performance per watt for the M1 Max show it significantly outpaces equivalent x86 mobile chips like the Core i7-1185G7. But high-end desktop and server x86 chips can still exceed the M1’s performance per watt by scaling power consumption up to 100W or more.
ARM is competitive in mobile power envelopes but still lags far behind the peak performance per watt x86 can achieve by scaling TDP much higher.
The massive x86 software ecosystem is still ARM’s biggest weakness. While Apple’s Rosetta translation layer enables M1 Macs to run most x86 Mac software without issue, Windows support remains extremely limited on ARM.
Outside of niche use cases like smartphones and tablets, a lack of mature professional software makes pure ARM Windows devices less viable for many productivity focused users today. Native ARM software support on Windows remains an ongoing process.
Outlook for the Future
ARM is likely to continue making inroads into the low power segments currently dominated by x86, with Apple leading the charge on laptops. Microsoft, Qualcomm, and others will also probably keep pushing ARM further into the PC space.
But for the foreseeable future, x86 will remain king for demanding workstation and infrastructure needs – the high end of computing where maximum performance matters more than power efficiency.
ARM’s advantages in customization, cost, and power scaling mean it will thrive powering the expanding world of smart devices and edge computing. But top-tier performance still belongs to x86.
Rather than a bitter rivalry, ARM and x86 will likely settle into complementary positions – ARM for mainstream mobile devices, and x86 powering performance-demanding infrastructure and professional applications.
So in summary, while ARM processors are exceptionally power efficient, x86 processors continue to hold the peak performance crown and remain the undisputed choice for top-tier computing needs.