Apple is Revolutionising Low Power Computing and No Other Brand Has an Answer to It

Why haven’t Apple’s biggest rivals jumped aboard the ARMs race? Truth is they have, but just aren't getting the results. Here's why.

Racetrack showing logos of multiple chip designers

Apple is wasting no time transitioning the Mac lineup to it’s in-house silicon. The iMac and the iPad Pro are the most recent beneficiaries of the M1 chip. And there’s more to come this year. The company had shared a two-year transition timeline for the Mac lineup to Apple silicon, but with the technology now bleeding out to the iPad Pro as well, the stakes are suddenly much, much higher for the competition.

It’s almost like the company has a point to prove. Apple had stuck with Intel for high-end computing since 2006, and the iPads and the iPhones were coming dangerously close to matching the capabilities, after having surpassed power efficiency long back. It’s this vital combination of low-power intake and high performance that makes the Apple Silicon so formidable in the computing space. As much as Intel might be hating Apple’s progress now, it’s co-founder Robert Noyce would have surely appreciated the evolution. After all, this is the monolithic integrated circuit he had co-invented, taken to its absolute logical end.

Because of the ARM-architecture, the new Macs get what is essentially a system-on-chip or SoC which smartphones have been using for some time now. SoCs stack up all the different components like the CPU, GPU, RAM and storage into one monolithic structure sewn into place using a planar process. This is vastly different from x86-based machines which need a larger motherboard to house the individual components, which means there’s more areas to keep cool, and more space to keep free. The ARM chip with everything closely integrated requires one large heat sink and a couple of fans to deliver higher performance at a much, much lower TDP. It’s win-win any way you look at it.

So why aren’t Apple’s biggest rivals not doing something similar? To be honest, they are, but the results are nowhere close to what Johny Srouji and his team achieved at Apple. And the reasons for Apple’s success are precisely the reasons why others are faltering. Let me explain —

Why aren’t Windows PCs joining the ARMs race?

Two years before Apple unveiled the M1 chip, Qualcomm launched its most powerful chip yet. No, not the Snapdragon 855. I’m talking about the Snapdragon 8cx. It was at that time, the first 7nm PC chip. Qualcomm did everything, including comparing it to a U-series i5 processor, claiming faster performance and battery life, hoping it would interest a mainstream notebook user. It didn’t.

I was present when the chip was launched and it was nothing like the revolution that was brewing over at Cupertino. Fun fact – The Snapdragon 8cX demo unit I was trying out crashed after just a few Chrome tabs were opened. And the biggest issue wasn’t the performance in itself; it booted up instantly, the browser opened quickly enough. The issue was the software.

You see, the biggest reason why Apple was able to make everything work so flawlessly on the M1 chip was because of the tight integration of the hardware and software it maintains. Yes, it’s the same walled garden many of you complain about, but it’s also the single greatest weapon in Apple’s armoury.

The M1 chip brought the performance and efficiency chops to the table, but it was the carefully nurtured macOS ecosystem that was able to adapt to such a huge change. Imagine riding a Tesla on autonomous mode, on a road designed for autonomous. The Rosetta 2 emulator steadies the bumps of making old Mac software compatible, and it has been a smooth ride since Day 1.

The problem with Windows..

In contrast, the fragmented nature of PC hardware and dominance of x86-dependent Windows apps, are the obstacles in the road for ARM-based Windows laptops. Microsoft tried its hand at ARM-powered laptops with the SQ1 and the SQ2 chips on the Surface Pro X, Qualcomm’s chips found their way to a few Windows notebooks, but all they managed to do was to show the M1 chip in a much brighter light. If the chips can’t provide better performance than the existing status quo, entrenched users have no reason to shift. Apple managed to do exactly that.

Pricing remains another critical issue. It’s probably because of being a new arrival, that the ARM-powered Windows laptops are almost as expensive as some of the MacBooks, without coming anywhere close to the performance they’re offering. They’re presently being marketed around 5G connectivity, portability and “multi-day battery life”, capable of doing the everyday basics for a mainstream user. And while there’s a huge potential for these Windows laptops, particularly for online classes and businesses, where Chromebooks are cutting out an edge, the expensive pricetag is repelling.

ARM-based Windows laptops aren’t the ultrabooks they’re being hyped up to be, they’re quickly becoming the Netbooks of this generation. Just yesterday, the first such laptop launched in India at a price of Rs 1,34,999. That’s more expensive than the M1-powered iMac that launched the day before.

Once spurned, can Intel win over Apple again?

But progress is being made regardless. ARM’s biggest champion Qualcomm is reportedly working on a much more powerful Snapdragon 8cx platform, while NVIDIA, AMD and Intel have all announced plans to compete in this newly forged market for low power, high performance computing.

And out of all of them, Intel seems to be the closest at putting up some semblance of a fight against it’s old customer, but it might be too late to woo its old customer back.

Intel’s answer is two-fold. For low-performance, long battery-life scenario, the company has the Lakefield processors made using the Foveros 3D stacking technology which integrates elements like the CPU, GPU, RAM vertically as layers on top of one another, instead of spreading it out horizontally, which gives an SoC-like character, while retaining the x86-support, using Intel’s in-house design. And it did make notebooks lighter and last longer to an extent, Intel is yet to figure out how to scale up performance in that form factor. So it remains not much of a challenger to Apple, but primarily competition for other ARM-based chips for Windows laptops. It’s primary advantage is that it can run 32-bit and 64-bit Windows applications natively.

On the higher-end, the recently announced Rocket-Lake S processors will give way to Alder Lake processor some time in the second half of 2021. These will be the first to use something similar to the big.LITTLE architecture used in ARM chips to enable heterogeneous computing. It will combine high performance cores with high efficiency cores, much like what we see in smartphones these days. Intel has promised excellent scalability in power using the hybrid architecture, and one that could potentially match up to the M1’s performance. But there’s too little known about the Alder Lake chips to place an informed bet at present. It sounds doable on paper, but the ground reality will be clear once it hits the stands.

Till then, Apple isn’t going to hold back on upgrading all its large format computers with its in-house chips, rubbing in the salt, and eating up one market at a time.

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