Sorry Pat, but it's looking like Arm PCs are inevitable

History suggests Arm’s place in the PC market will be anything but 'insignificant'

Opinion Pat Gelsinger may not be worried about Arm-compatible PCs eating into Intel's profit margins, but, if recent history tells us anything, he probably should be.

On the x86 giant's Q3 earnings call on Thursday, Gelsinger assured investors that Arm PCs posed an "insignificant" threat. "We take all our competition seriously, but I think history is our guide here. We don't see these as potentially being all that significant overall," he said of competing Arm-compatible products.

We're not sure what version of history Gelsinger is referring to, but many of us here at The Register can recall a time when x86 was far from the only choice when it came to PC architectures. It really wasn't until 2006, when Apple ditched PowerPC for Intel, that x86, or more specifically x86_64, really laid claim over the PC market.

Who's to say history won't repeat itself this time, with Arm chipmakers putting pressure on Intel and AMD? There's an argument to be made that's already happening. Arm PCs aren't some nascent threat. Apple's M-series chips debuted almost three years ago and have repeatedly proven not only to be performance competitive with Intel and AMD processors, but usually quite a bit more efficient.

That last bit can't be understated, as performance is only one metric that has made Arm-compatible processors - like the M1 and M2 - so attractive. What good is performance if it kills your battery in the blink of an eye or puts a noticeable dent in your power bill?

For example, Apple's first-gen M1 MacBook Air — this vulture's daily driver at work — can still go toe to toe with Intel's latest-gen mobile chips in GeekBench 6, but routinely gets 12 hours of battery life and is passively cooled to boot.

Say what you will about Apple's prices, business practices, operating system, ethics, or walled garden, the Cupertino's silicon is solid. Solid enough that Gelsinger himself reportedly sounded the alarm at Intel not long after announcing his return to the company as CEO in 2021.

"We have to deliver better products to the PC ecosystem than any possible thing that a lifestyle company in Cupertino" can make, Gelsinger reportedly told employees in a rather unambiguous reference to Apple's then new M1 SoC. "We have to be that good, in the future."

The success of Apple Silicon certainly hasn't gone unnoticed. Qualcomm, which has been trying to break into the PC market for years now, unveiled its Snapdragon X Elite system on chip (SoC) on Tuesday. At least on paper, the chip promises to be the company's first PC kit capable of challenging Intel, AMD, and Apple.

Qualcomm claims the chip can deliver twice the multithreaded performance of Intel's 10-core i7-1355U or use a third the power for the same level of performance. And compared to Apple's M2, the chipmaker says the X Elite is about 50 percent faster.

We also learned this week that Nvidia has secretly been developing an Arm-compatible CPU for the PC market that could launch as soon as 2025. Considering Nvidia already designs Arm processors for mobile, edge, and datacenter applications, a PC part seems like the natural progression of things. According to that same report, AMD is also mulling an Arm-based processor of its own — though there's no guarantee it'll ever see the light of day.

If that weren't enough, on Monday, Apple is expected to reveal its third generation of M-series silicon promising a "scary fast" announcement in time for Halloween.

Even Microsoft seems convinced that Arm PCs are going to command a sizable chunk of the market. Earlier this month, the Windows slinger announced an "Arm Advisory Service for developers" and cited research from Counterpoint that predicted Arm-powered PCs would command a quarter of the market by 2027.

With Microsoft, one hurdle Arm chipmakers will have to contend with is Windows software compatibility. Legacy x86 apps have to be emulated to run on Arm and thus will incur a performance penalty until native versions are available. Apple faced the same challenge when it made the switch to its homegrown silicon so we know that, with the right combination of hardware and software, it can be done.

We get Gelsinger has to put on a brave face for investors, and no, Arm isn't going to take over the PC market overnight, but to call Arm an "insignificant" threat to Intel's PC business feels shortsighted.

Arm has proven to be a remarkably versatile architecture. Riken's Arm-based Fugaku supercomputer held the Number 1 spot on the TOP500 ranking of supercomputers for two years before its was ousted by the AMD-based Frontier system last year.

In the cloud, Ampere Computing's Arm-compatible Altra and AmpereOne CPUs continue to rack up contract wins. Meanwhile, it's estimated that one in five servers in AWS are said to be running on its Graviton processors.

The idea Arm won't see similar successes in the PC market is simply absurd. ®

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