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Apple is beginning to undo decades of Intel, x86 dominance in PC market

What a difference a year makes?

It took Apple less than a year to seemingly start undoing decades of x86 and Intel dominance in the traditional PC chip market.

The Cupertino-based iMonster provided the boost needed for Arm-compatible chips to take noticeable desktop and laptop processor market share away from x86, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Arm's market share in PC chips was about eight per cent during Q3 this year, climbing steadily from seven per cent in Q2, and up from only two per cent in Q3 2020, before Arm-compatible M1 Macs went on sale.

Apple is gradually dropping Intel's processors from Macs in favor of its homegrown Arm-flavored processors. Arm's PC market share growth was mostly powered by strong Macs sales, McCarron confirmed.

"Apple transitioned much more quickly than anyone expected," McCarron said, adding the Arm share numbers also included shipments of Arm processors in Chromebooks.

Apple transitioned much more quickly than anyone expected

Arm's PC processor market share will continue to expand as consumers upgrade Intel-based Macs to ones with Apple's chips, McCarron said. That market share growth may level off once the Mac upgrade cycle slows down, but that remains to be seen, he added.

Sales of Chromebooks with Arm chips have slowed, and Windows PC users are not switching over to Arm-based laptops with chips from Qualcomm. The numbers reinforce Apple's strength as a silicon design powerhouse. The super-corp has also gone through its fair share of personal computer CPU architectures, notably from 6502 to 68000 to PowerPC to x86, and not only has experience with these transitions but has been designing its own Arm cores for years.

In another corner, Intel is being pecked away at by x86 rival AMD, which has been taking market share away since its Ryzen chips starting appearing in PCs, and Epyc microprocessors in servers, in 2017. Perhaps AMD undersold itself with its Buster Douglas analogy at the launch of its Zen family.

And in the background to this, there's the ongoing popularity of Arm-powered single-board computers, primarily the Raspberry Pi, potentially providing alternative systems to traditional PCs.

AMD had a 24.6 per cent x86 processor market share – servers, PCs, and games consoles included – in Q3 this year, growing from 22.5 per cent a year ago, according to Mercury. Intel's share declined to 75.4 per cent in Q3, compared to a 77.6 per cent share in the year-ago quarter.

Breaking down Mercury's numbers further, AMD's desktop share went from 20.1 per cent in Q3 2020 down to 17 per cent in Q3 2021, though laptops and other mobile PCs climbed from 20.2 per cent to 22.0 per cent. Servers jumped from 6.6 per cent to 10.2 percent.

With Ryzen and Epyc parts, AMD measures up to Intel with a full stack of offerings from entry-level personal computers to gaming boxen to servers. Before Ryzen, AMD was mainly competing on the low-end to mid-range with Intel chips such as the Pentium and Core i3.

"It's not so much they are lagging; AMD went from a modestly competitive to a more significant competitive," McCarron said.

Facebook, which wants to be known as Meta, recently announced it would use AMD chips in its data centers to power its latest and greatest microservers.

Intel's newest Alder Lake x86 family, introduced last month, could slow down market-share loss to AMD. Intel's general-purpose processors are also facing competition from accelerators like GPUs, FPGAs, and custom silicon optimized for particular workloads.

During Q3, the supply-chain crunch led chipmakers to prioritize their more profitable, high-margin processor, and the CPU product mix for PCs leaned toward higher-end systems.

"That pretty much drives processor suppliers to focus on high-end products, like a Core i9 or i7 versus a Celeron," McCarron said.

The focus on high-end processors and a corresponding decline in demand for Chromebooks hurt entry-level PC chips in Q3. Chromebooks were popular in the early days of the pandemic as people sought systems to use wherever they ended up working or studying, and that market demand was satisfied in Q2 this year, McCarron said.

During the Chromebook boom, Intel's Celeron and an AMD non-Zen product code-named Stoney Ridge – the A4-9120C chip – shipped in the millions. It's hard to determine when demand for Chromebooks will return, McCarron said. ®

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