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What is an Arm processor? Everything you need to know

The term ‘Arm processor’ is starting to pop up a lot more often, but what does this actually mean and how does it differ to the CPUs developed by the likes of AMD and Intel?

We’ve created this guide to help answer your questions and explain why you should be excited by this technology. And if your questions still haven’t been answered, feel free to send over your queries on Twitter

What is an Arm processor?

Arm is a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architecture developed by the company Arm Limited. This processor architecture is nothing new. It was first used in personal computers as far back as the 1980s.

However, you’re unlikely to see a device labelled as featuring an ‘Arm’ processor like you do with AMD and Intel powered machines. That’s because Arm Limited licenses the architecture to third-party companies so they can develop their own custom-made processors. 

Modern examples of Arm-based processors include Nvidia’s Tegra chip found inside the Nintendo Switch, and the new Apple Silicon processors for Macs and MacBooks. One of Arm Limited’s biggest client is Qualcomm, using the architecture to develop Snapdragon processors that power the vast majority of modern smartphones and tablets. In fact, if you have a small portable computing device, there’s a good chance it’s running on Arm architecture.

Nintendo Switch Lite in blue

Why is this? Well, the efficient nature of the RISC architecture allows for fewer transistors than the Intel-based x86 processors typically found in laptops and desktop computers, helping Arm-based chips excel at power efficiency and heat dissipation. With the likes of smartphones prioritising battery life and low thermals ahead of performance power, the Arm technology makes a lot of sense here.

Following recent performance improvements and greater software support from Microsoft, Arm processors have also started to pop up in laptops, albeit mostly in ultrabooks that prioritise battery and portability above all else.

In fact, Qualcomm has started launching its own Arm-based laptop chips, with the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 being the most recent. These chips are usually found in affordable, mid-range devices such as Chromebooks, with the Intel x86 architecture still dominating the market for high-performance portables.

That said, Apple has now released its own Arm-based processor technology, Apple Silicon, and it’s so far demonstrated a superior performance power than similar Intel x86 chips. In fact, the Apple M1-powered MacBook Air is now the most powerful ultrabook you can buy at its price point. 

Apple has also launched multiple high-performance chips based on Arm architecture, such as the M1 Pro, M1 Max and M1 Ultra. This proves that Arm processors can indeed deliver a very high level of performance, to such an extent that they can compete with Intel x86 processors from AMD and Intel.

This shows that Arm processors have a very bright future, and could become even more common in laptops and desktop computers.

Is Arm better than Intel x86? 

Not necessarily. Both types of processor architecture have their own strengths and weaknesses. The excellent power consumption and heat dissipation makes Arm a great fit for small, portable devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Meanwhile, Intel’s x86 CISC (complex instruction set computer) architecture has been traditionally better suited for performance-focused tasks as it can carry out more complex instructions per clock. This made them a natural fit for laptops and desktop PCs, which generally see heavier workloads than the likes of smartphones and tablets. 

Laptop manufacturers have previously snubbed Arm-based chips as they require huge amounts of RAM and suffer compatibility issues with Windows operating systems, but that’s all looks to be changing. Now RAM is a lot more affordable, and Microsoft has launched Windows 11 which supposedly offers improved support.

We’re now at a stage where manufacturers are selling laptops equipped with Arm-based chips, including Samsung’s Galaxy Book S and Lenovo’s Yoga C630 13. These laptops flaunt above-average battery life, new ultra-portable designs and support for LTE connectivity, and while the CPU performances weren’t quite as good as Intel x86 counterparts, they were still easily powerful enough for basic tasks such as web browsing, video streaming and word processing.

Samsung Galaxy Book S
Samsung Galaxy Book S

But any doubts that Arm can compete with Intel x86 in terms of performance power are slowly being quashed thanks to Apple. Its M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max and M1 Ultra processors offer the very best speeds in their respective CPU categories, even when it comes to workstation desktop computers like the Mac Studio.

Such bragging rights, at least in the consumer market, are currently exclusive to Apple. If you want a high-powered Windows laptop or PC, you’re still better off avoiding Arm and sticking with an Intel x86 processor from AMD or Intel.

So while it’s too complicated to say Arm is outright better than Intel x86, there’s no doubt that the former is improving at an accelerated pace and will likely see a far greater presence in the laptop and desktop computer industry in the next few years, while continuing to dominate the smartphone space. 

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