For many years, x86 processors from companies like Intel and AMD have dominated the computing industry, powering the vast majority of laptops, desktops, and servers. More recently though, Arm-based processors have emerged as a growing challenger, appearing in smartphones, tablets, and even newer laptops like the Apple MacBook Pro. This has led to the question: will Arm eventually outperform and overtake x86 in the future?
While it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty, there are several key factors that suggest Arm does have a chance of matching or exceeding x86 performance down the road:
One of Arm’s big advantages historically has been power efficiency. Arm CPU cores are designed from the ground up to be power efficient in order to maximize battery life in mobile devices. While x86 chips have improved in this area, Arm still holds an edge that could prove important, especially for laptops. As users demand thinner, lighter, always-connected devices, Arm’s efficiency lead makes it very appealing.
Unlike Intel and AMD, Arm is a licensable architecture. This means other companies can license Arm cores and customize them to optimize performance and features. For example, Apple’s M1 chip uses licensed Arm cores that Apple has customized significantly. This ability to tune Arm chips gives them an advantage in specialized applications like smartphones and tablets. And now laptops with Apple’s M1 demonstrate the potential in PCs too.
Arm and its licensees have been quick to adopt new manufacturing processes like 5nm and 3nm. x86 has trailed slightly, with Intel only now moving its chips to 10nm. Smaller process nodes confer power and performance benefits. Arm’s manufacturing process lead today could translate into a performance lead in the future as they push ahead to advance nodes.
Server Market Push
While Arm is already ubiquitous in mobile, Arm-based chips are now targeting the data center too. Amazon’s Graviton server CPU uses Arm, and Nvidia is acquiring Arm with plans to scale it up. Google, Microsoft, and others are also experimenting with Arm server chips. Arm in the server space creates an economy of scale that can accelerate Arm’s evolution.
Historically Arm lagged x86 in software support, but that is changing. Windows and Linux now run on Arm. Google is supporting Arm-based Chromebooks. And Apple’s switch to Arm for Macs brings its formidable software ecosystem. With software support now keeping pace, Arm has cleared a major hurdle in competing with x86.
Investments in R&D
Arm and its licensees are pouring investments into R&D at an impressive rate. Total Arm-based R&D spending is now on par with Intel’s budget. These investments aim squarely at high performance computing applications, clearly with an eye on challenging x86. This flood of R&D spending gives Arm’s roadmap momentum.
However, while Arm has many encouraging factors going for it, there are still challenges to matching or exceeding peak x86 performance:
Legacy Optimization of x86
Intel and AMD’s x86 chips represent decades of refinement targeted squarely at performance. Intel in particular has relentlessly optimized each generation to squeeze more performance out of x86. This legacy gives x86 an edge that will be difficult for Arm to overcome quickly.
General Purpose Design
Arm CPUs are more targeted, while x86 must excel across a wider range of workloads. Intel and AMD’s focus on broad general purpose computing gives x86 an advantage in overall performance ceilings.
Intel and AMD have tremendous resources thanks to their market dominance in PCs and servers. Arm licensees lack this same scale advantage currently. Intel and AMD can simply outspend on R&D to maintain the performance lead if pushed.
Unlike Arm, Intel and AMD own the full stack for chip design, manufacturing, and optimization. This vertical integration allows Intel and AMD to co-optimize architecture and process for maximum performance.
The Road Ahead
Given the pros and cons, Arm still faces an uphill battle in outpacing peak x86 performance. But Arm’s efficiency and customization advantages give it a real shot in many application spaces. And Arm’s rapid pace of innovation means its performance limits are still unknown. While x86 performance leadership for general computing looks secure in the near term, the long term outlook remains cloudy as Arm continues its ascent.
In summary, Arm has favorable winds at its back, but outstanding questions remain. With so many variables at play on both sides, whether Arm can outrun x86 and truly surpass its performance is still an open question. But Arm’s momentum and disruptive potential makes this race one of the most pivotal stories to watch unfold in the computing world over the next decade.