What is an Arm processor? Everything you need to know

Arm-based processors have been a big talking point in the laptop world in 2020, with Apple announcing plans to develop its own for the Mac, and Nvidia rumoured to have entered talks to acquire the Arm Limited company.

But what actually is Arm? And how does it differ to what you find in more traditional laptops? We’ve created this guide to help answer your questions and explain why you should be excited by this technology.

What is Arm?

Arm is a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architecture developed by 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 having an ‘Arm’ processor, as Arm Limited license 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 Qualcomm’s Snapdragon CPU range that powers the 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.

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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 consumption 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. That said, Apple has also announced plans to shift all of its Mac computers over to the Arm architecture, including its performance-focused desktops. Some supercomputers have also embraced the technology, proving Arm architecture can be used for heavy computing workloads.

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 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 is hard at work with Windows 10 updates to better support the Arm architecture.

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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 saw 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.

It’s looking increasingly likely that Arm processors will eventually become the chip of choice for ultrabooks that prioritise battery and portability over performance. That’s not to say Arm-based processors will forever be less powerful than those using x86 architecture though. In fact, the Arm-based Fugaku supercomputer recently topped the official TOP500 rankings to become the most powerful system in the world. 

Apple’s confirmation that it’s making the switch over to its own custom-made Arm processors also suggests the company is confident that the architecture will meet the required performance for high-end devices such as the iMac Pro and MacBook Pro. And if Apple can do it, why not others? 

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. 

Ryan Jones

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Computing Editor

Formerly the Staff Writer at Stuff Magazine, Ryan’s been writing about tech since he graduated from Cardiff University. At Trusted Reviews he is focussed on everything computer-related, giving him a v…

Ryan Jones

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