At Apple, epic Intel vs. ARM battle rages on

Apple likes to disrupt. And a lot of the disruption happens within Apple. Is the writing on the wall for ARM and Macs?

apple-a7-on-board-small.jpg
The 64-bit "desktop-class" (Apple's words) A7 processor. Apple

Will Apple move part of its Mac lineup to ARM processors at some point? Can Intel hold the line?

Those perennial questions will never go away as long as Apple continues to make its A series processors more powerful and products like the iPad continue to entice laptop users.

In case you missed it, this week there was more than the usual chatter about Macs and ARM -- the chip architecture Apple uses in its 64-bit A7 processor, which powers its iPhone and iPad. Intel has been inside Macs since 2006.

That industry gossip included the following:

--Samsung a "beneficiary" as Apple uses ARM chips more widely: Jefferies & Co.'s Hyunwoo Doh said Samsung could benefit as Apple "moves its PCs to chips based on ARM" technology, rather than Intel's x86 processors.

Tiernan Ray, at Barron's Tech Trader, added: "Doh, citing remarks by 'industry players,' thinks 'Apple will apply ARM's [processor technology] in its PCs, despite it having inferior performance versus Intel's CPU.'

--TSMC will benefit too: Taiwan-based United Daily News reported that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company may benefit, saying Apple will "reportedly replace Intel x86-based processors with ARM-based processors in its iMacs in order to reduce production costs and energy consumption" (via BrightWire News).

--MacBook? Rumors posted by the major Apple blogs cited a report (albeit sketchy) claiming that a MacBook could also go ARM.

Of course, all of the above can, for now, be tossed into the rumor hopper. But it shows that Intel is fighting for its life inside of Apple. Hardware and software momentum is now undeniably with the iOS/ARM platform.

Here's what Goldman Sachs' Bill Shope -- stating the obvious -- said on Friday (via Barron's): "With the emergence of the App Store and bite-sized, mobile-centric apps, iPhones began to capture the personal compute functionality once reserved for Macs and PCs."

And that includes Mac/PC-like apps, including a touch-based version of Microsoft Office.

The upshot: Intel is safe as long as Apple keeps all of its Macs on x86. (Note: my iPad doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of replacing my MacBook).

The operative word being "all." If Apple dips its toes into the iMac-on-ARM or MacBook-on-ARM waters, then all bets are off.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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