Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Arm-based processors are a game-changer for the laptop market, with Apple leading the way and other manufacturers like Qualcomm, Mediatek, Nvidia, and AMD now joining in.
  • Laptops with Arm processors offer longer battery life and slimmer designs due to lower power consumption and cooler operation.
  • While performance has been a concern in the past, Arm processors for computers are becoming more powerful and compatible with native apps, including productivity and gaming applications, providing a seamless experience for users.

In 2020, Apple shook up the computer CPU market with the Arm-based Apple Silicon. Now, other manufacturers are making similar chips. One of them might power your next laptop, and while there’s a chance you won’t even notice, it’s a huge change for the laptop market.

What Is an Arm Processor?

Arm processors are the ones based on designs by the homonymous British company. Arm itself doesn’t make CPUs; it licenses its technology to companies like Qualcomm, Mediatek, and Apple, that use it to manufacture their own hardware.

Arm-based CPUs have been used in smartphones for almost two decades. Laptops and desktops, on the other hand, commonly use the x86/x64 design, which delivers higher performance but requires significantly more power.

Your computer’s CPU is almost surely one of those, made by Intel or AMD. But both companies haven’t launched anything “revolutionary” in a while, and competitors saw this as an opportunity.

Arm Processors Are Finally Ready for the PC Market

In 2011, Microsoft announced the Windows RT, designed to run on Arm-based computers. It had lots of limitations and never really caught on, but it was the first step toward the current evolution of laptop processors.

Since then, both the Arm-based processors and Windows support for it have evolved. ChromeOS, which has been becoming increasingly popular, has supported Arm processors since day one. However, performance was never a selling point for these devices. This certainly contributed to some people viewing Arm processors as inadequate for serious mobile computing.

Apple was the first computer manufacturer to make a huge move on Arm-based processors. Apple Silicon Macs were promised to be more powerful than their Intel counterparts—for the most part, that has been true.

Qualcomm has been making computer processors for a few years now. However, the best computers with Snapdragon CPUs are roughly equivalent to entry-level x86/x64 laptops. With the recently announced Snapdragon Elite X, Qualcomm promises enough performance to fight AMD, Apple, and Intel.

Mediatek, another smartphone processor manufacturer, also makes CPUs for computers. But, contrary to Qualcomm, its Kompanio chips focus on entry-level laptops, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 3.

The first Windows RT tablet had an NVidia’s Tegra CPU, as did many Android phones/tablets at that time. The Nintendo Switch uses one to this day, and the company still makes Arm processors for corporate customers.

And even more companies want their piece of cake, too. The same day Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon Elite X, Reuters reported that NVidia and AMD are also working on Arm processors for computers. Both companies are well-positioned for this move and can leverage decades of experience to get Arm PC processors to market.

AMD primarily designs computer CPUs, and for years has been Intel’s only competitor serious competitor. It’s a natural progression for the two steadfast competitors to be entering the Arm PC processor market together to jockey for a piece of this emerging Arm-based laptop market.

How Are Laptops With Arm Processors Different?

All of this, of course, begs the question. What will a Windows-based laptop with an Arm processor look like? We can look at existing laptops and extrapolate from there.

Laptops using Arm processors differ from other portables mainly in battery life and the ability to run mobile apps. Performance used to be a significant factor, but things have changed. Let’s talk about each aspect.

Because Arm-based CPUs use less power, they allow devices to last longer on battery. Apple says its M2-powered 16″ MacBook Pro plays 22 hours of video on a single charge, and that’s not a hyperbolic claim. Apple’s Arm-based laptops have excellent all-day battery life.

A welcome side effect of the lower power requirement is that Arm processors produce less heat. This allows for slimmer laptops, and enables fanless designs.

Performance-wise, Arm processors for computers have mostly been a “good enough” situation. However, Apple Silicon Macs blow Intel ones out of the water for almost every task. On Windows, things fare better for x86/x64 CPUs, presently, because there aren’t many apps optimized for Arm chips.

However, more and more apps now run natively on Arm CPUs. As an example, almost the whole Adobe Creative Cloud supports Apple Silicon Macs. Windows users are limited to Photoshop and Lightroom (but the GIMP image editor has an Arm version).

Gaming is a similar affair. While gaming has never been a strength of or selling point for Macs, Apple Silicon models natively run iPhone/iPad titles—with a considerable performance boost.

Windows, surprisingly, is behind on that. If you scroll through the PC Gaming Wiki list of Windows games with native Arm support there isn’t a single AAA title to be seen. With the new wave of Arm-based Windows computers, that might change.

Finally, laptops with Arm-processors open the door to a particularly neat trick: running mobile apps natively on your laptop. As we highlighted above, Apple Silicon Macs run software made for iPhones and iPads (and not just games).

Although computers with Windows 11 can run Android apps, and the Play Store can be installed on ChromeOS, both methods suffer from limitations imposed by x86/x64 architecture. Simply put, apps made for Arm processors don’t perform well on Intel or AMD CPUs. That’s the case for Android: you’ll get a far better performance if the computer uses a chip similar to the one seen in phones and tablets. Arm-based PC processors sidestep that particular limitation and allow mobile apps to run natively and smoothly.

We have a template for how efficient and powerful Arm processors can be with the Mac. It’s only a matter of time before Arm processors bring similar performance gains to the PC world. Your laptop might not have an Arm processor now, but your next one very well may and you’ll enjoy longer battery life, a slimmer design, and the ability to run mobile apps natively, among other improvements.

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By John P.

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