The ARM devices space has seen rapid development in the past decade. Small portable computing devices have become more popular in recent years. This has led to an increase in demand for powerful devices with low power consumption suitable for portability.
For the uninitiated, ARM is a system architecture for computer processors based on the "Reduced Instruction SetComputing" or RISC architecture. The company ARM Ltd. develops and licenses the architecture to other companies who can use it to design their own Systems-on-chips(SoCs) and Systems-on-Modules (SoMs) that can incorporate various other components like memory, interfaces and radios along with the processor cores used for computing.
In simpler terms, ARM Ltd. develops the architecture that tells a processor how the instructions received are to be executed. These processors are commonly found in many everyday devices we use like smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, smart speakers etc. Companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek license the architecture to develop their own SoCs for use in various devices.
Bigger and more powerful devices like desktops and laptops commonly use processors based on the x86 architecture designed and used primarily by Intel and AMD. On the consumer front, the intel core and AMD Ryzen series of processors use the architecture for designing their processors.
The rise of ARM
Before the explosive growth of smartphones, ARM was not a very popular architecture in the industry. ARM devices became popular as smartphones became more popular and powerful. The performance and power efficiency of the ARM architecture is one of its main advantages that allows chips based on the platform to be used in small and low power devices that often don’t even require active cooling. The performance of ARM processors has also been consistently been increasing with many major players in the tech industry like Apple, Google, Qualcomm and others constantly working to improve their products to stand out in the highly competitive environment.
These processors have now come to a point that their performance is good enough to power bigger devices like laptops and desktops. Many companies have time and again released ARM powered devices for everyday computing with varying degrees of success. Some notable examples are the Microsoft Surface Pro X and most recently, arguably the most successful, the new Apple MacBook Air and Pro powered by the M1 processor.
A Rocky Start
Companies at various points of time, have experimented with products based on the arm architecture for everyday computing and have had varying degrees of success. The main problem faced by such devices is the software optimization. Operating systems like android were developed from the ground up for ARM but their main focus is smaller devices like smartphones and is hence not suitable for devices that have to get “real work” done. On the other hand, an OS like Windows is excellent for everyday use and performing heavy tasks but is primarily designed for x86. This results in poor performance on ARM-powered devices as they basically use emulation to run x86 programs which comes with a high performance penalty. This caused devices with even high-end chipsets to perform slow and sluggish and sometimes borderline unusable.
Arguably the most impressive products, based on the ARM platform, released for serious computing are the Apple M1powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. The introduction of these devices really surprised the industry with their impressive performance and power efficiency. These devices managed to outperform even some high-end x86 processors in certain tasks and were able to run x86 programs by emulation respectably well. All this while delivering amazing battery life from the same batteries used previously on older MacBook’s. This really goes on to show the untapped potential of ARM and how software optimization plays a huge role in delivering the performance.
Microsoft also recently released the surface Pro X that runs Windows on ARM OS. This saw a much-needed performance improvement from previous attempts. Applications designed and optimized for the platform ran well and even emulated apps saw a much-improved performance. This could now be seen as a viable purchase for someone looking to buy a long-lasting device for light computing.
The Future - What to Expect
With the release of Apple M1 Macs and the increased focus of large corporations on ARM, the future looks promising.
The industry is most excited to see how the upcoming ARM processors from Apple will perform on the Desktop Macs with no power and thermal restrictions of the laptop form factor. With Apple going all-in on the ARM platform, we are bound to see developers moving and developing their applications for the new platform. This will hopefully also lead to more development for ARM on the PC side as well which will help in greater adoption of ARM on the PC front.
Microsoft has long been developing a Windows version specifically for the ARM platform. Its latest attempt, The Windows10X, looks promising and the industry is excited to see how these devices perform when released to the general public.
ARM has proven to be very useful even for places that require large amounts of computing power like DataCenters. Amazon, one of the biggest players in the data centre space has been developing their in house chips for use in data centres. This has been done keeping in mind the power efficiency of these chips and would help hugely cut down costs.
More and more companies like Apple, Google, Samsung and even AMD have started developing their own in house chips based on the arm architecture.
Will x86 be replaced completely?
As of today, x86 processors are still the ideal choice for someone looking to do some serious work that requires heavy computing power. However, in the next few years, we will see more and more ARM-powered devices get released and it will be interesting to see ifthe two architectures will continue to co-exist or will ARM completely replacex86. If the performance of ARM becomes equal or exceeds that of x86, it may very well replace it completely, at least in the commercial space.
Do you think ARM will completely replace x86 in the future?