Home Latest Feeds Technology News x86 vs. Arm: a huge war is brewing in the world of CPUs – PCW

x86 vs. Arm: a huge war is brewing in the world of CPUs – PCW

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x86 vs.  Arm: a huge war is brewing in the world of CPUs – PCW

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Until now, it may have seemed that the two sides fit well together, but the rise of artificial intelligence may upset the usual balance.

The Interbrand list of the most valuable brands was recently published, and a technology company is in the first five places. There is no particular surprise in this: last year these giants got a new chance to cement their market position for years. This is a task with many components, and artificial intelligence is only one of the technological directions considered valuable.

However, it is perhaps the only one that can be used to address, influence and encourage the masses to buy. It is no coincidence that all manufacturers want to take advantage of the opportunity, and this could result in a “conflict” in the world of hardware that could fundamentally change the habits of classic PC users.

Two against all

In our article on the arrival of the AI-based PC era, we already touched on the importance and development directions of processors, but this component may play an even greater role in the change than we thought so far. Currently, CPUs based on the x86 instruction set dominate desktop and portable configurations, and Intel is believed to be ramping up CPU production more than ever not only to improve its own business performance, but also to feel the Arm pressure from smart devices. Let’s add at the beginning that Arm has tried to attack the “Wintel” world before, but so far all its attempts have been unsuccessful.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger says he's not afraid of Arm competitors, but he quickly announced three processor generations for the next year and a half
Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger says he’s not afraid of Arm competitors, but he quickly announced three processor generations for the next year and a half

Microsoft is skillfully trying to maneuver between the two worlds, although the entry attempts forced by Qualcomm have in many cases eroded the reputation of Windows. Around 2018, the first modern attempt came in the form of the Snapdragon 835. At that time, the architecture considered strong in mobiles was not yet able to produce the user experience under Windows 10 that we have become accustomed to over the years. The people of Redmond also had a hand in this, the Windows-on-Arm concept only ran modern or 32-bit x86 applications on Windows 10 S machines, and the result was half as good. The operating hours were not quite right either, but at least the integrated LTE mobile connection was free of charge.

At first glance, there is no difference between the two Surface Pro 9 editions, the Arm-based processor of the 5G version is already quite promising, and according to the news, an even more powerful variant may arrive soon
At first glance, there is no difference between the two Surface Pro 9 editions, the Arm-based processor of the 5G version is already quite promising, and according to the news, an even more powerful variant may arrive soon

It is no coincidence that from this point on, only one or two manufacturers continued the Arm line. Qualcomm’s engineering team had plenty of work to do, while Microsoft fixed the runtime layer only later, for Windows 11, now adding x64 support. The software foundations are therefore a given, and due to the expectations related to artificial intelligence, the door has been opened again for Arm SoCs. Qualcomm takes the new opportunity seriously, with the Snapdragon X Elite processor it started a completely new branch, and instead of Cortex-based cores, it attacks the developments of Intel and AMD with Oryon units of its own design. The 12 cores and the well-kneaded Adreno graphics unit can be a reason for confidence, but it is not the performance that will be decisive during the competitions, but the energy efficiency.

Long lasting AI

This year, almost all PC manufacturers are coming forward with AI-capable, i.e. AI Ready, computers, but the energy demand of tasks that require extra computing capacity is a critical point. The effectiveness of the integrated NPU units is still unclear, it is not clear whether Intel, AMD or Qualcomm designed better target hardware – based on mobile experiences, we would vote for the latter for the time being. It is also a fact that a lot depends on the operation of Windows 11, but the presentation of Microsoft’s software solution is still waiting here.

The Windows Dev Kit based on Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 will be available from the end of 2022, which not only helps the development of native applications, but also encourages developers to use the AI ​​acceleration unit
The Windows Dev Kit based on Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 will be available from the end of 2022, which not only helps the development of native applications, but also encourages developers to use the AI ​​acceleration unit

In other ecosystems, the picture is even more mixed, in fact, Apple has been focusing all its attention on its Arm-based chips of its own design for some time, and with the M3 generation, it offers a mature solution in all respects. After the premium machines, when entering the open source areas, the alternative that also exists is the direction of Arm, the popular Linux distributions support the processors of Qualcomm, Mediatek and other manufacturers at the kernel level, all of the Raspberry platforms that are gaining success in the DIY community strengthen this line. The intrusion of AI is only a matter of time, in fact, from the developer’s point of view, the Linux community is not far behind, it’s just that the commotion is less noisy.

The Grace chip is a development intended exclusively for data centers, but it is not inconceivable that within a few years we will also encounter Nvidia's Arm-based developments in the field of client machines
The Grace chip is a development intended exclusively for data centers, but it is not inconceivable that within a few years we will also encounter Nvidia’s Arm-based developments in the field of client machines

And if it’s AI, then you can’t miss the rise of Nvidia, which is only moderately evident at the end-user level, but in the world of supercomputers, the company is actively preparing. The latest iteration of Grace chips based on Arm Neoverse v2 cores almost reaches the performance level of the current Intel Xeon and AMD Epyc server processors, which is only a warning sign now, but in 2-3 years it could cause a serious headache for x86 CPU manufacturers. Based on the positive forecasts for the PC market, Nvidia may also decide to enter the battle for the favors of end users, but the profitability measured on individual chips is holding back the AI ​​giant for the time being. On the other hand, Nvidia sees great potential in individual orders, and it can certainly be painful for both Intel and AMD.

Can we bury x86?

There’s no need to bury it, but the alternatives built on the Arm architecture have a good chance of fighting on the PC front as well. Artificial intelligence is such a huge business that it can force anyone in the market to change strategy and destroy decades of cooperation in a matter of months. Intel develops, manufactures and reports every week with some kind of news, news about the future CPU generation. Meteor Lake, the first to contain an integrated NPU, will be replaced this year by Lunar Lake, followed by Panther Lake in 2025; new laptop families may arrive every year, dumping seems unstoppable.
AMD is more cautious than that, so you may need to shift gears. The first signs of this are already visible, the new CPUs intended for notebooks have already received an AI accelerator, and this year we can even see two generational changes. This could even take the wind out of Qualcomm’s sails if the timing, pricing and finished products are attractive.

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the CPU developments of the near future, the market forces are also malleable, but it is clear that a fiercer than ever battle for the favors of users has begun, which we can only be happy about. The end result is nothing but better, more powerful, more affordable PCs, on which the new Windows 11 24H2 (or according to some, Windows 12) will soon be able to show what AI PCs are capable of.

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