Apple M1 Macs are ushering in a new era of ARM-based PCs. Arm’s CEO is optimistic

Arm’s Cortex-X1 chip design can be customized for better performance, an approach that should be useful as Arm seeks to upgrade its processor family in PCs.

Arm; illustration by Stephen Shankland / CNET

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For years, computer manufacturers have been trying to sell PCs based on Arm processors, an energy-efficient family that powers smartphones. However, compared to models running on x86 chips from Intel and AMD, ARM-based PCs suffered from shortcomings in performance and software compatibility.

Now Apple’s M1 processors, the Apple-designed Arm family member that powers the new MacBooks, are changing the vision of Arm PCs. The M1 chips offer not only good battery life, like Qualcomm’s Arm chips in some Windows laptops, but also good performance. At the same time, x86 PCs have only gradually improved.

So it’s no surprise to hear some new optimism from Arm CEO Simon Segars.

“What we’re starting to see now is real innovation going on in a market where there hasn’t been a huge amount of innovation,” Segars said in an interview at the CES 2021 technology conference. that there is discontinuity that causes people to wonder how we are doing it, which injects energy into innovation. “

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Part of this innovation comes from Arm itself, which is pouring new engineering resources into PC chip design, he said. Another part could come from Nvidia, the leading graphics chip maker that is looking to acquire Arm for $ 40 billion.

Arm really has a better chance thanks to Apple, Endpoint Technologies analyst Roger Kay She said. “Arm has always talked about breaking into this market. I think they are on the verge of really being able to do that. Apple is the way to go, “he said. Success for Arm would mean PCs powerful enough for mainstream buyers but efficient enough to leave the charger in a desk drawer for a day or two at a time without worry.

Although Arm is not a household name, the technology of the Cambridge, England-based company powers a huge chunk of the computer market. Notably, Arm chips power almost all smartphones. They are also used in networking equipment, Internet of Things gadgets, Raspberry Pi computers for hardware hackers, and the world’s fastest supercomputer. Approximately 20 billion Arm chips are shipped annually.

Intel, AMD and Apple’s M1 “beast”

To be successful, Arm fans will have to contend with the new chips from Intel and AMD that emerged at CES. AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series of laptop chips will offer up to 17.5 hours of general use on battery power, CEO Lis Su said Tuesday. Intel demonstrated its next-generation Alder Lake processor coming later this year. It takes an approach long used in Arm chips, a combination of fast processing cores and slower, more energy-efficient cores.

It has been difficult to break into the PC ecosystem of component manufacturers, software and PC manufacturers, Segars acknowledged. He believes that Arm’s combination of performance and energy efficiency will ultimately allow it to claim a significant market share.

Arm CEO Simon Segars argued in September 2020 that Nvidia’s acquisition of his company is a good idea.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland / CNET

Apple has shown that it is possible. “The M1 is a beast with a more aggressive core design,” he said Tirias Research analyst Kevin Krewell. “Apple’s M1 confirmed that the Arm architecture can be highly performing and tiptoe with x86.”

Apple has an ecosystem advantage that other PC Arm manufacturers lack: control over the MacOS operating system, including the ability to optimize performance and ensure everything works. For Windows PC software, supporting Arm chips is typically a second priority at best, even with Microsoft’s enthusiasm. Software manufacturers may treat Arm-Windows versions of their products as optional, but in about two years all Macs will be ARM-based.

Arming by investing in new chip projects

Under his current ownership by the Softbank investment firm, Arm has invested heavily in the new engineering. Chip manufacturers can license the complete Arm chip designs or just the instruction set that the software uses to communicate with the Arm chips, an approach that allows chip makers to design their processors however they like.

Arm’s design capabilities mean there are fewer incentives for chip makers to create their own designs. “There are more people licensing our CPU implementation technology than there were a few years ago,” Segars said. “You have to spend a lot of money to do better than Arm.”

In fact, Samsung has switched to Arm’s Cortex-X1 design for its new eight-core Exynos 2100 mobile processor announced Tuesday at CES. Not everyone is heading in that direction, though. Fujitsu has designed its own supercomputing chips, and on Wednesday Qualcomm announced it has acquired startup Nuvia to breathe new life into its Arm chip designs. If Nuvia technology delivers on its promise, this could greatly increase the Arm PC market as well, as Qualcomm is the leading chip maker behind Arm-based Windows laptops.

What is unclear is how big of a problem Nvidia’s attempt to acquire Arm will be for those chip licensees, which also include companies like Qualcomm, MediaTek, Huawei, Marvell and Amazon. Nvidia and Arm say their chip technology is complementary and well suited to next-generation computing needs. Arm has tried to assure chip licensees that they will be able to license Arm products as usual, but the reality is that Arm will also become part of a major competitor.

“This is an unfortunate acquisition. The industry is so against it, “Kay said. It is likely to attract more interest in alternatives such as RISC-V, a new instruction set per chip which is available without the barriers to Arm’s license, he predicted.

Nvidia and Arm gave themselves 18 months To convince regulators the acquisition is a good idea, which means it could close in early 2022. The companies are making “big progress” by convincing regulators, Segars said, but added, “All this analysis. legislation is not rapid “.

Update, 9:13 am PT: Clarifies Segars was commenting on the general outlook of the PC Arm.

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