When you’re choosing a smartphone or tablet, you’ll notice that some models use Intel processors, while others are based on the competing ARM architecture. This latter camp includes the Samsung Exynos, Qualcomm Snapdragon, Nvidia Tegra, and Apple A7 platforms.
Both families of chips are designed for low-power operation, to give mobile devices the long battery life they need. Technically, however, they represent different philosophies: the ARM architecture is designed to be as simple as possible, to keep energy wastage to a minimum, whereas Intel’s range uses a more complex design that benefits from compatibility with the company’s (much more power-hungry) desktop and laptop CPUs.
It’s also worth noting that ARM has been powering portable devices for decades, while Intel is a relative newcomer to this area. For now, ARM is very much the dominant architecture: iPads and iPhones use ARM exclusively, as do Windows Phone devices, so if you’re interested in these platforms, the distinction between ARM and Intel isn’t currently something you need to worry about.
What Are ARM and Intel Processors?
Processors are a small chip that provides the input and output communications of a computer so to speak. ARM processors are a type of architecture and therefore they do not have only one manufacturer. Both Apple and Android manufacturers use this technology in their mobile devices whereas Intel is generally used in computers.
In this article, we will review the various differences and applications of each type.
CISC v. RISC
Intel processors (commonly referred to as X86 in correlation with Windows 32-bit programs) use Complex Instruction Set Computing while ARM uses Reduced Instruction Set Computing. While both perform commands rather quickly in 2020, the former uses slightly more complex instruction with several cycles.
The ARM processors use only one cycle to execute a command, hence, it reduces functions. While the Intel processors use a simpler command code, it must go through several cycles before the action is complete.
Mobile Devices v. Desktops
Intel processors are commonly found in larger tech like desktop computers while ARM is often found in mobile devices. One contributing factor for this is that ARM processors rely heavily on software for performance features while Intel relies on hardware.
ARM (generally) works better in smaller tech that does not have access to a power source at all times and Intel focuses more on performance making it the better processor for larger tech. But, ARM is also making great strides in the tech industry and is expected to far surpass Intel by some experts in the near future on performance.
The ARM processors not only use less battery life thanks to their single-cycle computing set, but they also have a reduced operating temperature than the Intel processors. Intel processors are focused on performance, and for most PC or laptop users this isn’t a problem at all because the computer is constantly connected to power.
ARM processors on the other hand are perfect for mobile devices as they reduce the amount of power necessary to keep the system operational and perform the user’s requested tasks.
ARM chips are usually slower than their Intel counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that they are designed to commute with low power consumption. While most users wouldn’t notice a difference in their respective devices, Intel processors are designed for faster computing.
Intel was once a part of a few Android mobile devices but the ARM processors still reign in this market.
Intel-based devices can run the full range of Android apps, even ones that were originally written for the ARM architecture. However, if an app contains an ARM-specific code, then it must be translated before it can be executed.
This takes time and energy to do, so battery life and overall performance may suffer. Whether this is a serious problem is up for debate: our reviews indicate that Intel does tend to trail behind ARM in battery life, but the gap isn’t huge, and overall performance is generally very good.
At any rate, Intel is working hard to encourage developers to produce Intel-native versions of their apps, so hopefully, the translation will become progressively less of an issue.
The difference between ARM and Intel is also worth paying attention to if you’re considering buying a Windows tablet. Here, it’s Intel that’s the dominant architecture: in the past, if you chose an ARM-based tablet you’d get a cut-down variant of Windows called Windows RT, which can run full-screen apps from the Windows Store but not regular desktop software.
In 2019, things changed with the release of the Surface Pro X. Although the chassis of the tablet didn’t change much from previous versions, Microsoft didn’t give up on the ARM processor. The Surface Pro X is a tablet with an ARM processor that runs full Windows rather than a watered-down version.
The app releases users from a Microsoft Store only app selection to more applications with only one limitation. To run applications on the Surface Pro X, users need to find the 32-bit compatible app, because the 64-bit versions aren’t compatible as of yet. We’re excited to see that Microsoft isn’t giving up on the ARM processors as a part of its mobile product lineup, but there are still a few things that may hinder your ability to use it.
Depending on what you need your Windows-based tablet for, the ARM processor may work fine. But, if you’re a gamer, or if you want more from your tablet, it’s probably best to stay with Intel.
Which is Better?
At this point, both ARM and Intel processors have their own benefits and drawbacks. Choosing which is better for you heavily depends on what you’d like to do with your tech devices and if they’re compatible with other hardware and software.
Intel is faster and more powerful than ARM processors. But, ARM processors are more mobile-friendly than Intel processors (in most cases).
The past two years have caused an upset for people who were diehard one or the other. Intel-based Macs will soon be released with Apple’s own ARM processors, while we’ve seen some great things coming from Microsoft. Only time will tell, but there are constant improvements to both processors meaning what’s great now may not be so great in a year. With the M1 chip from Apple hitting the market in 2021, the company claims that this ARM chip will produce twice the power for one-third of the battery consumption.