After smartphones, ARM processors are targeting PCs

Intel and AMD, the two major PC processor manufacturers today, are going to face new competition as of 2024: the arrival of a new ARM architecture, pushed by manufacturers like Qualcomm.

PC CPUs have evolved a lot in recent decades, but they all have one thing in common: they share the same x86 architecture, created by Intel in the 1970s, with the latest evolution dating back to 2003 with the introduction of the 64-bit processors that we use today. However, this hegemony is on the verge of being contested, as processor manufacturers are now looking into a new architecture named ARM, which has long been used in our phones and connected devices.

ARM, an old alternative to Intel

The ARM architecture was introduced in 1985 under the impetus of Acorn, an American computer manufacturer that was looking for a better processor than the various 16-bit models offered at the time by Motorola or Intel. Not finding a suitable solution on the market, two Acorn engineers, Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber, worked on their own architecture, which was then codenamed “Acorn RISC Machine,” or ARM.

The first processor using this architecture, simply named ARM1, was manufactured in partnership with VLSI Technologies and was released on April 26, 1985. It was not until 1990 that the architecture would be managed by a separate entity from Acorn, ARM Ltd., and the architecture changed its name to Advanced RISC Machines. Since then, it has undergone nine major versions and numerous evolutions to become a very popular architecture, particularly in the world of smartphones. Indeed, all manufacturers use it, from Samsung to Apple, and Qualcomm is now the main supplier of this type of processor.

The Apple M1 has brilliantly proven that an ARM CPU could surpass Intel models in a desktop computer. ©Apple

This particularity has made ARM an architecture specialized in certain areas, offering powerful processors for very low power consumption, ideal for battery-powered devices such as mobile phones, as well as gaming consoles or any type of connected device.

But the turning point for ARM in the world of computers came from Apple. In 2020, the manufacturer parted ways with its historic partner Intel and abandoned its processors in favor of chips created in-house by the brand, which use the ARM architecture. The first Mac models equipped with the M1 processor based on this architecture were released on November 17, 2020, highlighting once again its qualities by displaying very satisfactory performance for particularly low power consumption, even in the heaviest tasks.

Apple paved the way

Apple had shown that it was possible to create a powerful desktop computer with this architecture, and on the PC side, competing brands did not miss the news. Microsoft has been working for some time on a version of Windows 11 compatible with ARM, in order to prepare for the arrival of a new generation of processors.

And these could arrive as early as this year, as Qualcomm, already a leader in ARM processors for mobile phones, recently announced the release of its Snapdragon X Elite processor for the second half of 2024 on PC. For this occasion, the brand promises a chip that should surpass Apple’s M3 and thus supplant Intel’s good old x86 architecture.

Qualcomm is already announcing impressive performances for its Snapdragon X Elite. ©Qualcomm

However, Qualcomm is not the only manufacturer eagerly anticipating the arrival of ARM on PC, as AMD, one of the main PC processor manufacturers, is reportedly already working on models based on this architecture and hopes to present its first models as early as 2025.

On the other hand, Nvidia, best known for its graphics cards, could also jump into the fray. The company has a rather unique history with ARM, having already created low-power processors based on this architecture (notably the Tegra, which powers the Nintendo Switch), and even considered acquiring ARM before abandoning the idea in 2022 in the face of competition regulators’ protests.

Intel, the last defender of x86

Today, the ARM architecture is available under license for anyone who wants to use it as a basis to create a processor, which explains why Qualcomm, Apple, AMD, and Nvidia are closely interested in it for their own products. But there remains a major manufacturer who seems to resist this temptation: its long-time competitor, Intel.

The American company behind the x86 architecture that has dominated the PC for more than four decades has still not announced any plans regarding an ARM processor. In a statement at the end of 2023, Pat Gelsinger, CEO of Intel, explained that he is closely following the arrival of ARM on PC but is not worried about the hegemony of his own architecture.

Intel has just launched the Meteor Lake, processors that will have to face fiercer competition than expected in 2024. ©Intel

Nevertheless, the first Windows PCs equipped with an ARM processor could be available to the general public after the summer of 2024, and major players like AMD or Nvidia could offer their own products shortly after. If Intel presents a serene face for now, the arrival of an alternative on its turf is likely to transform the PC in the years to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *