When Apple announced that its new line of Macs would feature an in-house-designed processor, few could have imagined the level of acclaim that hardware would receive after its release.
On the face of it, while it’s still early in the transition phase, it looks like Apple has been a huge success. So far, the M1 MacBook avoids causing the same compatibility and performance issues as its ARM-based predecessor, while offering better battery life. This puts a lot of pressure on competitors.
Several manufacturers have already taken their own steps, with Intel’s Lakefield processors, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips, and Microsoft’s SQ1 and SQ2 in partnership with Qualcomm, taking the same steps as the first Apple-like ARM chips. one step. While AMD has yet to enter this space, its Ryzen 4000 laptop processors have had a stellar year and have the potential to come out on top in this race.
While hardware is an important part of the puzzle, non-Apple ARM devices are mostly Windows-based. Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Book S (the Snapdragon version) and Surface Pro X have already showcased Windows on ARM, while Apple has made its M1 MacBook shine by offering better hardware and software. Yes, the device offers an impressive design that an efficient ARM chip can achieve, but the wobbly compatibility and high price make it difficult to recommend. However, Windows-based updates and improvements may solve this dilemma.
From improving the software compatibility and performance of Windows on ARM to supplying Intel, Qualcomm and AMD with chips that support those features, Apple’s competitors have a lot to do. Let’s see where they are and what’s planned for the future.
Qualcomm’s mobile app outlook
We’ll start working with the manufacturer that represents the most widespread use of ARM right now – take a look at your phone, and there’s a good chance it uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip. Even iPhones continue to use Qualcomm modems.
Qualcomm is the company Microsoft is turning to in the new wave of ARM devices – the Surface Pro X. While the regular Surface Pro lineup has stagnated in design, the Surface Pro X is better looking, more portable, and has better battery life.
However, the Pro X is pricier while offering only decent productivity performance and a host of compatibility issues. Then 2020 brought a second iteration of the device, but not much changed. It’s powered by the new Microsoft SQ2 chip and has slightly improved performance, but it’s still largely hampered by Windows on ARM.
Around the release of the 2020 Surface Pro X, both Qualcomm and Microsoft talked about the steps they are taking to enhance the user experience and remove performance barriers. However, we have yet to see these measures really come into play. While the division’s progress seems plausible, and the performance of Snapdragon chips is only going to grow, it seems like another Microsoft project could be a catalyst for Windows ARM prospects.
Intel “abandoned” by Apple
Intel is still making processors that can deliver solid performance. However, it falls short of the more efficient goals that ARM can meet, and Apple is clearly working on it.
In addition to traditional laptop chips, Intel hopes to rival ARM chips with its own hybrid Lakefield processors. What are the main benefits? Lakefield runs natively on legacy Windows, avoiding the compatibility issues that currently hinder Windows on ARM.
But when Lakefield debuted on Intel’s version of the Samsung Galaxy Book S, we might have a slim and forward-looking design, but performance still falls short compared to Intel’s line of regular laptop chips. In contrast, Apple’s M1 chip has made improvements in performance, rather than presenting any compromises to achieve its design.
Still, Lakefield does bring the battery life advantage expected to lead to more efficient chips. According to website AnandTech, these plans take the form of new Alder Lake processors, with Intel focusing on key performance improvements this time around.
Everything depends on Windows
If ARM is truly going to be ubiquitous on Windows, a radical change is needed. Qualcomm’s partnership with Microsoft is clearly making some progress. For now, however, it feels like this advancement is only catching up to the speed that existing Intel and AMD mobile chips have traditionally offered, along with some of ARM’s efficiency advantages. Apple has shown that ARM chips have higher performance than that, but Apple benefits from creating an operating system that integrates ARM almost seamlessly.
For Microsoft, a lighter OS might be the answer – Windows 10X. Windows 10X was announced in October 2019 as the operating system to “enable dual-screen PCs in 2020.” As 2020 draws to a close, Windows 10X is nowhere to be found, however, that seems to be due to Microsoft looking at the big picture.
In May 2020, Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay acknowledged that Windows 10X will now debut on single-screen devices and will “harness the power of the cloud to help our customers work, learn and play in new ways”.
It’s not entirely clear whether the advantages of lighter Windows will lead to an improved experience with Windows on ARM, as Windows 10X is still designed with traditional Windows apps in mind and is closer to Windows than full-fledged Chrome OS.
An immediate beneficiary of a lightweight Windows 10X could be Intel’s hybrid chip offerings, such as Lakefield, which have moved toward the efficiency gains of Apple’s M1 philosophy while still supporting traditional Windows apps.
For Windows on ARM, Microsoft has continued to make progress in this area, with the likes of Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Edge adding Windows support for native ARM applications and expanding its ability to emulate applications over the past six months.
To date, the invested upstarts have established a good position, while competitors have released forward-looking and efficient products. So, who are some of the industry players that have yet to fully dive into this space?
The obvious dark horse is AMD. AMD has made a huge effort to bring its Ryzen 4000 mobile processors to laptops in 2020 and has produced some affordable and capable machines. AMD is really on track, and extending the above to ARM would make a lot of sense.
However, AMD has publicly stated that it will not rush to join ARM. Just a month ago, Joe Macri, AMD’s product chief technology officer, said: “We’ve been working on big.LITTLE[the architecture that ARM chips are based on]… for over 15 years, so it’s not a new concept. We’re not going to talk about it. Are we going to do it, but I’ll talk about some of its challenges and what it’s really trying to do.
“Is the goal power efficiency? Is the goal higher performance? The goal is just marketing, ‘I want more core count’, regardless of what it does to the other two variables? At AMD, we don’t just Do it to win on a bigger scale.”
AMD seemed skeptical about other manufacturers using ARM in recent years, but that was before Apple launched the M1.
The AMD ARM chip rumor mill went into overdrive late last month, with leaker MauriQHD believing the company was already competing with the M1, and hinting that CEO Lisa Su might have something to share at CES 2021 on January 12 next year.
While AMD is a dark horse that has yet to enter the ARM race, it would be unfair not to mention Google’s Chrome OS when discussing lightweight computing. Right now, Chromebook devices don’t tout the kind of performance boost Apple’s M1 chip offers. Devices like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet have so far combined Google’s cloud-first operating system with processors from upstart chipmaker MediaTek to create an impressive and affordable experience on ARM. It remains to be seen whether Google intends to continue improving the performance of high-end Chrome OS, but it does have a head start over Windows 10X.
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