How Does Intel’s Mobile Chipset Stack Up Against ARM?

If you own a smartphone, there’s a very great chance that it uses a chipset designed by ARM Holdings. Its architecture is uniquely tailored to handle the compact nature of mobile devices – while still providing a large amount of processing power. For years, this has been the standard, and everyone was happy with the results. Conventionally, ARM designed mobile processors while Intel was busy designing and building the latest desktop and laptop chips. However, the immense explosion of mobile devices on the market forced Intel to rethink its strategy and expand its horizons, creating its own mobile chipset. Will the veteran desktop hardware manufacturer actually be able to beat ARM at its own game?

In order to dive deeper into this problem, we must first ask ourselves what helped ARM solidify its place in the mobile world. Answer this question, and you’ll realize what Intel has to compete with in the first place.

First of all, ARM was always chiefly focused on making processors that require very little power to operate. The GHz/watt ratio of an ARM processor far surpasses anything you can buy from Intel for your desktop. Also, ARM’s business model is quite different from Intel’s. It makes no processors of its own, but designs them and retains the intellectual property rights for each one it makes. Companies like Qualcomm have purchased rights to use ARM’s intellectual property and later manufactured processors like the Snapdragon series. When people talk about processors having ARM architecture, they’re saying that these CPUs literally are derivatives of ARM’s designs.

Right now, ARM has it easy. Smartphone users aren’t doing things that require the immense amount of power that a desktop needs to draw. Many of the apps are simply scaled-down minimalistic versions of their PC counterparts. However, the market is quickly evolving to outgrow the need for simple applications.

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There’s a new demand appearing on the horizon for more intelligent high-performance processors that operate with a 64-bit register. Intel has been known to deliver exactly this sort of thing. Because of its experience in high-performance computing, coupled with recent pushes the company has made to drive down the amount of power consumption in their newer chips, Intel may have a chance to compete with ARM on this battlefield.

Until now, ARM has been designing 32-bit processors that performed just fine on mid-range and high-end devices. That’s going to be old news at some point, though. It will either need to step up its game or be left behind in favor of Intel’s new 14 nm Airmont-architecture processors. Compare that to ARM’s architecture, whose smallest transistors measure 28 nm.

If you’re confused about these numbers, let me explain them: Each transistor in a CPU helps it perform tasks and process data. A transistor is measured in nanometers, and the less one measures, the more of them you can pack into a CPU. In a given space, Intel will be able to pack twice as many transistors into its CPUs than ARM, meaning that it will be able to deliver twice the processing power and performance in a processor of the same size.

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Not necessarily. Even if Intel produces the miracle processor of the millenium, ARM will still have a place in the market for low- to mid-range devices. Also, the company is already making significant strides in getting a 64-bit processor out there. Its first one, the Cortex A53, isn’t a chip to boast about, but it does put ARM on the map as far as 64-bit chips are concerned. The processing power delivered by the A53 is more comparable with the Cortex A9 than any of its later and better-performing chips, so you’ll only feel a performance boost when using applications that require a 64-bit architecture.

This all translates to the fact that ARM might lose its grip to Intel, but it won’t be obliterated. Its focus on delivering low-cost computing will be a saving grace in the long run.

Is Intel going to be the next near-monopoly in high-end smartphone and tablet SoCs? Or is ARM going to find a way to wiggle out of the predicament it faces? Let us know your thoughts in a comment below!