ARM could breath new life into laptops

Interest in ARM-based PCs could be fueled by Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS

A stagnant laptop market could be reinvigorated with the arrival of ARM processors, which will enable lighter machines with all-day battery life, industry observers said.

Most laptops today use x86 processors from Intel and AMD. But chips with ARM processors are smaller and more power-efficient than X86 microprocessors, which should help laptop makers build tablet-like laptops with touchscreens, analysts said. At the same time, however, ARM will face challenges trying to crack into a market where users prize performance.

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ARM is the first architecture with a good chance of breaking x86's stranglehold over PCs, analysts said. ARM processors will be used in nearly a quarter of all PCs shipped worldwide by 2015, according to research firm IHS iSuppli. IDC predicts a more modest 15 percent share by 2015.

ARM processors dominate in tablets and smartphones, but the arrival of Windows 8 on ARM will fuel interest for ARM for laptops, said Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst at IHS iSuppli. Windows 8 will be available both on X86 and ARM processors, whereas the most recent Windows versions have only been available for X86.

"New products will always attract attention. If ARM-based laptops can attract users from the [tablet], it might reinvigorate interest in the PC market," Wilkins said.

Gartner and IDC have both reported slow gains in PC sales for the second quarter, due partly to growing interest in tablets. Intel projected last week that PC shipments will grow at about 8 percent for the remainder of the year, below its earlier projection of about 11 percent.

ARM licenses processor designs to chip makers, and its latest Cortex-A15 processors are scheduled to appear in smartphones and tablets next year. Texas Instruments, Nvidia and Qualcomm have expressed interest in building ARM-based chips for laptops. No top PC maker has announced an ARM laptop yet.

The ability to run Windows 8 across multiple chip architectures will provide more laptop buying options based on price and performance, said Jeff Clarke, vice chairman of global operations at Dell, during an analyst conference in Austin, Texas. Clarke did not say if Dell was building an ARM laptop.

Intel is feeling the heat of ARM's emergence, and is now thinking more about battery life in laptops than ever before, Clarke said. The ability to build thin and light laptops with ARM and x86 chips is good for the industry, Clarke said.

"I was pretty adamant that the death of the PC is way over-hyped. It will continue to grow. We're going to make them more useful," Clarke said.

To counter the growing ARM threat, Intel has said it would release chips in 2013 that match ARM on power consumption. Intel also introduced a class of laptops it calls "ultrabooks," which it said would blend tablet and laptop features. Intel has also introduced new power-efficient and faster 3D transistors for 22-nanometer chips, which will be produced starting later this year.

To be sure, skeptics point out that ARM faces obstacles in trying to unseat the x86 architecture from laptops.

For example, there are questions about whether existing printers, scanners and cameras will be able to connect to ARM laptops, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst of Insight 64. Older peripherals may be difficult to hook up since those devices may not be available for the ARM architecture. Not every peripheral maker will write a new device driver for peripherals that are three years old.

External storage systems may be easier to connect to ARM laptops because of standards like the USB interconnect. But the development of proprietary standards such as Intel's Light Peak -- which is being adapted by Apple and Sony for their products -- could limit some storage devices to x86, Brookwood said.

Microsoft hasn't talked about compatibility issues across instruction sets in Windows 8, so it may be doing something very intelligent that it does not yet wish to discuss, Brookwood said. A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to comment on the x86 and ARM compatibility issues in Windows 8.

There are also performance issues related to ARM processors trying to emulate resource-heavy x86 programs such as business applications or games, analysts said.

ARM processors tend to be less powerful than x86 chips, and lack the headroom to handle tough processing work required by x86 applications, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst of Mercury Research. It may be possible to emulate x86 programs on ARM, but emulation too could take up resources.

"Migrating an x86 process for emulation on an ARM that is same or slower, you really need to have a significant multiple or excess performance," McCarron said. "What fits well in a low-power companion device does not necessarily fit into a high-performance system."

Duds like Transmeta, which introduced a low-power RISC chip for laptops with an x86 emulator, have already failed. But there have been exceptions such as Apple, which transitioned Mac computers to x86 smoothly, as Intel chips had extra processing headroom to run Rosetta PowerPC emulator software.

ARM has insisted it isn't focused on the PC market due to the cost and challenges of unseating x86 from its perch. There have, however, been attempts by PC makers to push ARM to break into the PC market. A few years ago, lightweight Linux laptops based on ARM processors, called smartbooks, emerged as competition to Intel-based netbooks, but failed.

"There have been a lot of attempts to get a non-x86 architecture into the industry as a primary product. To date they have failed," McCarron said. Other architectures that fell by the wayside include MIPS and Motorola's 68000.

There are other ARM limitations, such as limited memory ceilings and lack of 64-bit support, analysts said. ARM's upcoming Cortex-A15 supports 40-bit addressing, and the company did not respond to requests for comment on when it would bring 64-bit support to its processors.

However, performance is not the only concern for users who are deciding whether to adopt a product, iSuppli's Wilkins said. Intel's ultrabook strategy can be seen as a way to maintain x86 dominance, especially for users who want low-cost, tablet-like laptops with long battery life, Wilkins said.

"It is early days at this point, with Windows 8 not even released yet. We believe that ARM processor-based laptops with acceptable performance and very good power efficiency will generate interest," Wilkins said.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.