When it comes to choosing a processor, the two biggest names are ARM and Intel. ARM processors power most mobile devices, while Intel dominates the desktop and laptop markets. This article examines the key differences between these two processor architectures.
Overview and History
ARM stands for Advanced RISC Machines. ARM processors use RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture, which relies on simpler, faster instructions that can be executed within a single clock cycle. This gives ARM an advantage in power efficiency. Intel processors are CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) chips that support a large library of complex instructions. This provides more flexibility for programmers, at the cost of requiring multiple clock cycles to execute many instructions. ARM was originally developed in the 1980s as a joint venture between Acorn, Apple, and VLSI. It was designed for efficiency to boost performance on Acorn’s early personal computers. Intel’s x86 architecture dates back to the 1970s and was designed for full-fledged PCs and servers.
Market Share and Applications
As of 2022, ARM processors account for over 90% of all mobile device chips shipped. They power nearly all smartphones and tablets, including devices from Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm, MediaTek, and others. This is thanks to ARM’s power efficiency and suitability for battery-powered gadgets. Intel retains roughly 80% market share in laptops and over 60% in desktop PCs and servers. Intel’s x86 platform is the standard for most Windows and macOS computers, as well as data centers and cloud infrastructure. ARM chips are also starting to appear in some laptops, such as Apple’s M1-series processors and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors on certain Windows machines. However, Intel remains dominant for now. In general, ARM excels in mobile and power-constrained devices, while Intel rules areas where peak performance is critical.
The RISC architecture used by ARM processors means each instruction can typically execute in a single clock cycle. This allows for tremendous efficiency in terms of power usage and heat generated. ARM chips often don’t need power-hungry components like large instruction decoders. Intel x86 is a CISC architecture with variable length instructions. Many instructions require multiple cycles to complete, using microcode internally. Intel processors compensate via technologies like pipelining, out-of-order execution, branch prediction, and superscalar execution. This boosts performance but also increases power draw and heat output. Intel and ARM take divergent approaches, each optimized for their target applications. ARM prioritizes power efficiency which is critical in mobile. Intel focuses on maximize performance, which is preferable when running desktop software and servers.
Power efficiency is where ARM processors shine. Even top-tier ARM mobile chips like the A15 use only a few watts of power, enabling slim smartphones and tablets with all-day battery life. Intel’s x86 mobile processors often use 15W or more, requiring bigger batteries and cooling fans in laptops. This huge efficiency advantage comes from ARM’s RISC architecture and smaller transistor sizes. For example, the Apple M1 chip uses a 5nm process while Intel is still on 10nm. Smaller transistors mean lower voltage and power consumption. Intel has made progress, with some x86 chips approaching ARM-like efficiency levels. But ARM maintains a commanding lead that Intel will struggle to overcome, given ARM’s architectural advantages.
For peak performance, Intel reigns supreme. Top-tier Intel desktop and laptop chips currently have no rival in the ARM space, although the gap is narrowing. The fastest x86 processors feature high clock speeds, sophisticated cores, and advanced architectures tuned for desktop-class workloads. High-end ARM chips designed for servers and laptops like Graviton2 and M1 are extremely fast and efficient, beating out many x86 chips. But they still can’t match the raw power of Intel’s elite offerings like Core i9. However, ARM excels at delivering excellent performance within tight power budgets. So for use cases like mobile gaming, ARM can match or even exceed Intel’s performance. ARM’s focus on efficiency over raw speed is simply better suited to mobile.
Intel has the advantage when it comes to ecosystem support. The x86 platform is mature, with decades of software compatibility and broad industry adoption across operating systems like Windows, Linux and macOS. ARM support is still catching up. Windows and Linux run well on x86 chips from Intel and AMD. iOS and macOS have been optimized exclusively for ARM. Microsoft is working on better ARM support in Windows, but emulation is still required for many legacy x86 programs. However, the ARM ecosystem is evolving rapidly. Apple’s M1 success is spurring greater ARM adoption. As more apps become ARM-native, the ecosystem disadvantage will diminish. But Intel will likely maintain an edge here for years to come.
Manufacturing and Licensing
Intel both designs and manufactures its own x86 processors. This gives Intel end-to-end control over technology development. But it also limits Intel to its own foundry capabilities. Intel has faced delays moving to smaller manufacturing nodes. ARM is licensed as IP to many semiconductor partners who design their own custom ARM-based chips. Manufacturing is outsourced to third parties like TSMC and Samsung. This creates competition and specialization benefits, but less centralized control. The ARM licensing model has allowed companies like Apple, Qualcomm and Samsung to design highly optimized ARM chips tailored for their products. It spurs innovation, flexibility and choice in the ARM ecosystem.
Intel and ARM take different approaches to security. Intel chips feature proprietary extensions like VT-x and SGX for virtualization, isolation and encryption. ARM relies more on open standards like TrustZone. Both have advanced security features for business and defense use cases. ARM’s securityfoundation is rooted in the hardware architecture. Mandatory memory protection and other low-level attributes allow the construction of a secure environment. Intel places heavier emphasis on software-based security controlled by the OS and hypervisor. This provides more flexibility but is considered by some to have a higher risk surface. Overall ARM is favored for security in mobile and embedded devices leveraging TrustZone. Intel offers advanced proprietary options for the desktop. But both architectures can provide robust security.
Cost and Customization
ARM processors tend to be cheaper compared to Intel chips with equivalent performance and capabilities. This stems from ARM’s lower power requirements and smaller die sizes. It’s also easier to produce customized ARM SoC designs integrated with various functional blocks as needed. Intel manufactures its own general purpose x86 CPUs. While Intel offers different models and options, the customization and integration potential is lower than ARM SoCs. Intel does have its Intel Foundry Services for producing specialized x86 chips. For integrating a processor into unique embedded systems, IoT devices, robotics, or other custom hardware, ARM’s flexibility and cost advantages shine. Intel excels at providing a range of off-the-shelf performance tiers.
ARM is poised to keep expanding into areas once dominated by Intel, like laptops, servers and even perhaps desktops. Apple’s successful transition to ARM for Macs is just the beginning. However, Intel remains fully entrenched as the leading choice for performance-demanding computing. Intel is fighting back through efficiency improvements and GPU integration. Intel’s foundry business also aims to recapture market share lost to third-party ARM chip designers. Ecosystem support and software compatibility remain Intel strengths for now. The rivalry between these processors is driving rapid innovation on both sides. For the foreseeable future, ARM and Intel will continue as complementary options, each excelling in their target applications.