ARM takes aim at Intel with its laptop-class processor ambitions

CPU DESIGNER ARM has lofty ambitions to push deep into the laptop market, breaking away from simply providing instructions sets and architecture to the mobile processor world.

Ian Smythe, a senior director at ARM, told INQ about how the firm’s latest Cortex-A76 processor looks to be competitive with the Intel CPUs found in current ultraportable laptops.

With a 3GHz top speed, the Cortex-A76 is competitive with Intel’s i5-7300U mobile laptop chip which runs at 3.5GHz when turbo-boosted. Only unlike the seventh-generation Intel chip, which can be found in the Surface Pro, the Cortex-A75 had a thermal design power (TDP) of a mere 5W.

This makes it more power-efficient on paper than the Intel chip with its TDP of 15W, which ARM is comparing it against – Smythe noted there were no suitable eighth-gen Intel chips to compare the Cortex-A76 to.

As such, ARM reckons it’s got a CPU design that the likes of Qualcomm and other chip partners could use to build SoCs that can power Windows 10 laptops. We suspect such laptops will form part of Microsoft’s ‘Always-Connected PC’ initiative which looks to be entering its second-generation to deliver portable laptops with long-lasting battery lives and cellular connectivity.

Previous Always-Connected laptops were met with a lacklustre reception thanks to the lack of performance extracted out of the modified Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset the initial machines used.

They weren’t helped by poor app compatibility with the pseudo emulation Microsoft had to do to get Windows 10 running on chips that use ARM-based processors and the company’s reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architecture, rather than the x86 architecture used in Intel and AMD chips.

Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 850 SoC has been designed from the silicon up to work with Always Connected PCs rather than act as a flagship chip for smartphones. While that chipset looks to have some fairly decent if not outstanding performance, according to the latest benchmark leaks, it uses ARM’s Cortex-A75 as the foundations for the Kryo 385 processor.

The Cortex-A75 facilitated perfectly decent performance in high-end smartphones, but it’s built on a 10-nanometre fabrication process rather than the 7nm process of its successor. As such, future Qualcomm chips that are built using the Cortex-A76 designs promise a hike in both performance and energy-efficiency.

The jumps in performance ARM has been extracting out of its processor designs means it’s now confident that it can produce “laptop-class” CPUs.

And Smythe noted that ARM will be “more confident” and “more aggressive” in getting its CPU designs into laptops.

While the company won’t comment on what OEMs will use its processors in future laptops, Smythe said the likes of HP and Asus are already making machines with ARM silicon, hinting that such companies are likely to work on Windows 10 laptops or hybrid devices that run on ARM-based processors.

He even noted there’s potential for Chromebooks to make use of ARM-based processors, which could see them move away from low-powered Intel laptop chips.

That’s quite a lofty ambition and would upset the apple cart for Intel, which has dominated in the laptop processor market, though AMD’s latest Ryzen mobile chips seem to be getting adopted by laptop makers.

But ARM’s latest processor has hit the 7nm mark while Intel remains stuck on 14nm, though it has been optimising its chip designs to get the most out of the fabrication process, which arguably gives it an advantage in the balance of performance and energy-efficiency.

And ARM reckons when 5G comes around it’ll have an advantage as 5G capable chipsets can be found in SoCs that make use of ARM-based processors.

So delivering the always-connected ambitions of Always-Connected PCs looks to be something Qualcomm, ARM’s major chip partner, can deliver with more aplomb than laptops using Intel chipsets. But given the rollout of 5G is still tentative at best, that’s more speculation on our part than a hard roadmap for ARM.

Come 2020, ARM looks to drive its processor designs down to the 5nm level with its ‘Hercules’ CPU architecture. If it manages to do that while still extracting laptop-level performance from its processors without cooking them, it could really throw the gauntlet down to Intel and AMD in the laptop world.

There’s no word on when we can expect to see laptops and other machines running the processors based on the Cortex-A76. Given the Snapdragon 850 has yet to make it out into the wild, we doubt Qualcomm will knock out an SoC using ARM’s latest processor until 2019.

But if ARM’s metrics are to be believed and its roadmap proves to be sound, there’s certainly potential here for ARM to move more into processor designs that work well for Windows 10 laptops and Chromebooks rather than just the latest and greatest smartphones.

All this is good news for us, the tech-watching great unwashed, as it should drive more innovation in the laptop CPU world, which it looks like AMD is already pushing Intel to do – one example can be seen with the Intel-AMD silicon love-in which saw the formers CPUs get mixed with the latter graphics tech.

However, for Intel, ARM ambitions might give the chipmaker a headache in the laptop processor market, something it doesn’t really need at the moment as AMD is arguably giving it a bit of a runaround in the desktop processor arena. µ

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