Switched On: An ARM's race with Intel

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On An ARM's race with Intel

As one would hope in dealing with two products that share the same name, Microsoft has maintained strong consistency between the Surface with Windows RT and Surface Pro. Allowing for a bit of girth variation, there's a similar industrial design as well as common features that have been nearly universally lauded (the snap-on keyboards) and lambasted (the underwhelming cameras). There's also an identical user interface as far as "modern" Windows apps are concerned.

This has created an interesting lab test to see what customers really want from a Windows tablet in 2013. The early and unsurprising results indicate that it's really backward compatibility -- even at a premium of half the battery life and nearly double the price. Lenovo, which offers its Yoga 11 convertible as a Windows RT tablet, will also bring out the device in a Windows 8 version. Indeed, if one is attracted to some of the advantages that Windows RT offers on its ARM-based variants, such as the Snap and Share features, multiple devices with integrated keyboards, broad driver support and desktop Office compatibility, its toughest competitor is Windows 8.

Customers, of course, don't really want devices that weigh more, cost more and have poor battery life. But the low prices and long battery life of the Surface RT devices are enabled by the Tegra 3 processor based on a design from ARM, the same architecture that is the basis for the smartphone chips designed by Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple and smaller players. And it doesn't support those old Windows apps that might enable some to use Surface as their only ultraportable instead of shifting between a notebook like the MacBook Air and a tablet like the iPad.

At CES this year, Intel devoted its keynote to talking about its march toward greater energy efficiency. It mostly focused on its early success in phones for two good reasons. Unlike with PCs, it has no incumbency in pocketable devices so there is far more to prove there, as well as great growth opportunities. Additionally, if it can compete in phones, one of the most challenging device categories in terms of power management, then tablets and laptops should be a cakewalk.

Can Intel achieve the kind of power efficiency that makes Windows RT superfluous?

And so, the race is on. Can Intel achieve the kind of power efficiency that makes Windows RT superfluous? For now, some of the company's major customers who use both architectures, such as Microsoft and Apple, seem unwilling to give up the performance and compatibility with app libraries that have been built up over a decade or more and so create devices based on both architectures.

That said, Microsoft is moving aggressively to turn current desktop apps into the future's equivalent of DOS apps; some of those Windows Store apps will run on ARM processors. And rumors of Apple's switch to ARM processors in the Mac line have swirled for years. The company has transitioned Mac processor architectures before, the last one (from PowerPC to Intel) in the name of better power efficiency. (In 2005, an Apple vice president named Tim Cook called a PowerPC G5-based laptop "the mother of all thermal challenges.") What's more, Apple now designs its own ARM chips; you don't see it entering the Intel x86 clone market or buying AMD.

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Just as with the familiar mouse-driven desktop, x86 processors will be with us for some time to come. But as Intel continues to ratchet up per-watt performance, so will ARM. One key variable in the race is whether the critical mass of important apps can reach ARM-based systems before Intel narrows the efficiency gap, or at least until it can achieve a satisfactory benchmark such as 10 to 12 hours in a Surface-like device.

But even then, ARM may still retain advantages thanks to its licensing business model. High-volume mobile device companies such as Samsung and Apple may favor ARM for the customizations it can create for their own purposes whereas those who buy chips from the likes of NVIDIA and Qualcomm will want to play off innovations and lower prices driven by ARM licensee competition.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.