To ARM or not to ARM? It’s about the power
Once in a while I go back to my roots and write something a bit more technical; even if it doesn’t necessarily fit with many posts on boomseb. Why? Because technology is now at the heart of many of our decisions.
On this note, why the hell am I writing about Arm? What is that?
ARM - It’s All About Low Power
ARM is a family of processors. They’re somewhat particular, and the architecture is controlled (blessed) by the ARM holdings PLC. These processors are mostly known as Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) in which simple central processing units produce high-performance for users – with the core missions of using very low power.
That’s why we’ve seen these types of processors in mobile devices. Such as in iPhones, iPads, Samsung devices, Google Pixel and much more. Every smartphone and the vast majority of tablets today runs on an ARM-based processors. But in recent years, we’ve started to see these low power processors in desktop class products…
These now include the new Microsoft Surface X and soon to come MacBook laptops from Apple (this is me calling it, but it’s really a question of time as Apple has invested billions in this technology).
And of course, let’s not forget about the now-famous Raspberry Pi! These all run on ARM architectures.
But the question remains: why use ARM?
It’s all about low power consumption and thus, great efficiency. Most ARM processors and related core components require less than 5 watts of power!
Intel cores consume a lot more power. A high-end Intel can consume as much as 130 Watts of power whereas the mobile Intel processors (such as Atom and Celeron) consume anywhere between 6 Watts to 30 Watts.
For example, compared to Intel or AMD processors, most if not all ARM processors don’t even require heat sinks to cool them. Now that may not seem important, but when you’re building a smartphone, every millimeter becomes crucial. Can you imagine a smartphone with a heat sink sticking out?
As we require more and more power from our gadgets, power is becoming the #1 concern when building a new gadget.
How long will I be able to work with this device? Will this last me all day?
These are all very current questions that most users have when it comes to their mobile devices. Imagine a mobile with a battery that would only last 1 or 2 hours; now that wouldn’t be a selling point.
If you don’t know anything about ARM and you want to remember one thing, this is it: these processors use less power.
But outside of power, why are ARM processors only really coming to the stage of desktop systems?
The reason is really simple: the processors are efficient. Plain and simple. With fewer components and so less cost, you’re able to build a very competitive gadget using this tech.
Fewer Components = Lower Costs
Lower costs are a primary function of using ARM processors. Intel and AMD have their own fight, but they are most usually power hungry, big and not purposefully built for mobile devices.
As such, ARM has a real advantage in the long run. Or at least, as long as power remains a main concern for manufactures, developers and ultimately consumers.
Great, so why haven’t we seen them on desktops?
Most desktop solutions have been built on Intel architectures. This includes the Windows environment and in more recent years Mac platforms from Apple. We’ve also seen Linux desktops built using this tech and so that’s why ARM processors haven’t been at the forefront of desktops.
It’s really as simple as that.
Intel and AMD rule the desktop world, but things are slowly changing
As ARM has always been about low power consumption, the main concern has never been raw power. At least, nothing like Intel or AMD has been putting out for the last decades.
When you are living in a desktop world that’s all good, you have room to accommodate heat sinks, coolers and so on. So, it’s never really been a concern until recent years.
Power consumption in embedded designs can be one of the most important criteria. A system that is designed to be connected to a power source can typically ignore power consumption constraints but a mobile design (or one connected to an unreliable power source) may be wholly dependent on power management.
And these days, even desktops are getting smaller and smaller. Desktops are closer and closer to hybrids and tablets, and tablets and mobile phones are getting closer and closer to desktops. They now have bigger screens and can do close to, if not more than desktops.
The challenge then becomes the integration of mobility and power
One caveat ARM has is that it doesn’t use the same instruction set architecture (ISA) as Intel and AMD processors.
In a few words, when developers make apps in languages like C++ or Java, the processor can’t directly understand what it does. Before a program can run, it needs to be converted — or compiled — from a programmer’s code to machine language. That’s where the standardized collection of processor-specific instructions come into play. And these are called ISAs.
So, during the development process, programmers usually decide on a targeted ISA. Desktop and laptop processors today primarily use the x86 and x86_64 (or x64 for short) ISAs. And these are different from the ones used for ARM processors.
In its simplest form (let’s skip deep technical concerns for now), code compiled for x86 and x64 processors are incompatible with ARM processors.
But gradually, Windows and MacOS are changing
How will you ask? Simple.
Both Apple and Microsoft have been working hard to integrate now and in the future ARM architectures from the get-go.
For example, Windows 10’s 2018 Fall Creator’s update integrated support for the ARM ISA for Pro and S versions. Through it, unmodified versions of desktop app could run on ARM processors.
The latest version of Windows now handles different ISAs.
Apps made for ARM32 and ARM64 now run natively and communicate directly with the ARM chipset. For x86 apps, Windows would put them through an emulation layer that compiles x86 instructions into ARM64 instructions. The instructions are then optimized and cached so they don’t need to be recompiled the next time the app is launched. Furthermore, the compiled instructions can be shared by other apps to help speed up the initial launch*.
But that’s not it for Microsoft
Similar to Apple for the past decades, Microsoft has now built their own ARM solution named the Microsoft SQ1.
This new architecture can be found in the latest Surface Pro X device.
How ever you put it, Microsoft is behind key players such as Apple, especially when talking about ARM tech. But not all is lost, Redmond has been working hard to get back into the game and build something that actually has a future.
Designed with the help of Qualcomm, Microsoft describes the SQ1 as follows:
“Maximizing performance, productivity, connectivity, and battery life a new, ultra-thin design was the goal when collaborating with Qualcomm to develop the custom Microsoft SQ1 processor. The result: PC power in an ultra-thin, 2-in-1 laptop, and a new class of modern, lightweight, LTE-enabled designs that build on renowned Qualcomm DNA — with all-day battery life to fully support an always-on, always-connected mobile lifestyle.”
This looks great as they also announce the Surface Pro X battery life should be up to 13 hours based on typical Surface device usage… whatever that is.
It was also shared that the SQ1 includes had a dedicated fourth-generation AI Engine also used in the flagship Snapdragon 855 processor. Accelerating AI software boost software that uses brainlike processing for tasks like understanding human speech, recognizing who's in a photo or automatically editing video.
But a key question remains, will developers and consumers jump in?
Software support is the ultimate key to the success of the Surface Pro X. This has to be confirmed in the next few months, as most of these changes aren’t visible to most and considering the Surface Pro X being a few hundred dollars more expensive than the Intel version…
For Apple – ARM is nothing new
For Apple, prior to the introduction of the Apple "A" series of SoCs, Apple used several SoCs in early revisions of the iPhone and iPod touch. They were specified by Apple and manufactured by Samsung. They integrate a single ARM-based processing core (CPU), a graphics processing unit (GPU), and other electronics necessary to provide mobile computing functions within a single physical package.
Now Apple has been making and building their own ARM solution, the latest being the Apple A13 Bionic found in the latest high-end products such as the iPhone 11 Pro.
A challenge remains – but not for the long term
ARM-based systems are still limited in what operating systems can be installed due to the majority of operating systems being written for x86-based computers.
Some Linux distributions do exist for ARM—including the famous Raspberry Pi OS—but some users may find this limiting.
Since ARM is becoming increasingly popular, Microsoft released a slimmed-down version of their Windows 10 called Windows 10 IoT Core which can run on ARM processors*.
This may be the start of the end for Intel and AMD consumer products
On a final note, maybe you’ll never care about what processors you have or use, but still, I think it’s a minimal requirement as our lives have become more and more technological. Understanding undercurrents is key to successful careers and that’s why I wanted to share this.
Also, it’s important to note that if Intel and AMD don’t change their ways, this may be the end for them, at least, for the consumer market.
Based on this, would you like to invest your money in these companies or companies with an eye on the future?