Apple M1 Macs are kick-starting a new Arm-based PC era. Arm's CEO is optimistic
The UK-based chip designer, which dominates smartphones, now is trying to fix lackluster PC performance.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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For years, computer makers have tried to sell PCs built on
processors, a power-efficient family that powers
. Compared with models running on x86 chips from
, though, Arm-based PCs have suffered from performance and software compatibility shortcomings.
Now Apple's M1 processors, the Apple-designed member of the Arm family that powers new
, are changing views of Arm PCs. The M1 chips offer not just good battery life, like
Arm chips in some Windows
, but also good performance. At the same time, x86 PCs have improved only gradually.
So it's no surprise to hear some new optimism from Arm Chief Executive 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 during the
2021 technology conference. "Any time there's discontinuity that makes people question how we're doing this, that injects energy into innovation."
Part of that innovation comes from Arm itself, which is pouring new engineering resources into PC chip designs, he said. Another part could come from
, the leading graphics chipmaker that's trying to acquire Arm for $40 billion.
Arm indeed has a better chance thanks to Apple, Endpoint Technologies analyst Roger Kay said. "Arm has been talking about breaking into this market forever. I think they're on the cusp of really being able to do it. Apple's the avenue in," he said. Success for Arm would mean PCs powerful enough for mainstream buyers but efficient enough that you could leave your charger in a desk drawer for a day or two at a time with no worries.
Although Arm isn't a household name, the Cambridge, England-based company's technology powers a huge swath of the computing market. Most notably, Arm chips power just about every smartphone. They're also used in networking gear, internet-of- things
, Raspberry Pi computers for hardware hackers and the world's fastest supercomputer. About 20 billion Arm chips ship each year.
It's been difficult to crack into the PC ecosystem of component makers, software and PC makers, Segars acknowledged. He believes Arm's combination of performance and energy efficiency ultimately will let it claim significant market share.
has proved it's possible. "The M1 is a beast with a more aggressive core design," said Tirias Research analyst Kevin Krewell. "Apple's M1 has validated that the Arm architecture can be highly performant and go toe to toe with x86."
Apple has an ecosystem advantage other Arm PC makers 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
enthusiasm. Software makers can treat Arm-Windows versions of their products as optional, but in about two years, all Macs will be Arm-based.
Arm investing in new chip designs
Under its current ownership by investment firm Softbank, Arm has invested heavily in new engineering. Chipmakers can license Arm's full chip designs or just the instruction set that software uses to communicate with Arm chips, an approach that lets chipmakers design their own processors however they want.
Arm's design abilities mean there's less incentive for chipmakers 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 an awful lot of money to do better than Arm."
What's unclear is how big a problem Nvidia's attempt to acquire Arm will be for those chip licensees, which also include companies like Qualcomm, MediaTek,
, Marvell and
. Nvidia and Arm argue that their chip technology is complementary and well suited to next-generation computing demands. Arm has been trying to assure chip licensees that they'll be able to license Arm products as always, but the reality is that Arm will become part of a major competitor, too.
"That's a star-crossed acquisition. The industry is so averse to it," Kay said. It's likely to drive more interest into alternatives like RISC-V, a new chip instruction set that's available without Arm's licensing hurdles, he predicted.
Nvidia and Arm have given themselves 18 months to persuade regulators the acquisition is a good idea, meaning it could close in early 2022. The companies are making "great progress" convincing regulators, Segars said, but added, "All that regulatory analysis is not speedy."
Update, 9:13 a.m. PT: Clarifies that Segars was commenting on the general prospects of Arm PCs.
Watch this: New M1 Macs are a huge shift for Apple