A fast PC with all-day battery life and 5G network access sounds great, but it might not be easy to deliver.
The “Intel Inside” marketing campaign has put an Intel sticker on millions of personal computers since it launched in 1991. But your next laptop could have Intel outside if rival chip designer Arm gets its way.
Arm’s chip technology is used in nearly every iPhone and Android phone in existence, though other companies like Apple, Qualcommand TSMC actually design and manufacture the processors using that technology. Arm-based laptops today aren’t great — you’ll see reviews with complaints like “sluggish compared to Intel” and “just isn’t powerful enough” — but Arm hopes new designs coming in 2019 and 2020 will change that.
“The teams have delivered almost a 2.5X performance gain in a four-year window. That’s exceptional,” said Ian Smythe, an Arm senior marketing director. That gain, compared with the Cortex-A73 released in 2016, will come with processor designs code-named Deimos in 2019 and Hercules in 2020, he said.
If Arm succeeds, it could change how you think of a laptop as technology that matured in phones arrives in your PC, too. First, you could get all-day battery life, where plugging a power cord into the wall is just something you do at night. Second, you could enjoy the same mobile networks that keep your phone constant connected.
And Arm promises performance that’ll take on an Intel Core i5 processor. This year’s Arm Cortex-A76 design running at a 3GHz clock speed should be “on par” with an Intel Core i5 hopped up into its 3.5GHz turbo mode — and it’ll consume only 5 watts to Intel’s 15W for better battery life. Full performance comparisons will hinge on how the companies licensing Arm chip designs decide to configure attributes like processor cores.
Not so fast, Arm
It sounds great. But it’s not going to be easy for Arm and its allies, said David Kanter, analyst at Real World Technologies.
“I’m not terribly optimistic about the ARM-based guys getting into PCs,” Kanter said.
Consumers today were willing to sacrifice multiday battery power when moving from last decade’s mobile phones to modern Android and Apple models that last a day if you don’t push them too hard, he said. And they’re going to be leery of laptops that come with a new monthly data bill for network connectivity that looks more like a luxury than a necessity.
“There’s a lot of value to having a 3- to 4-inch screen attached to a mobile network. You can take with you on the go,” Kanter said. “How many people pull out their laptops or Chromebooks in a cab or on the subway? Not many.”
Arm, of course, is optimistic. Laptops that can connect to today’s 4G mobile network aren’t common, but it takes time for people to realize what’s possible, Smythe said. And the faster 5G networks that will start arriving in 2019 will be a big step up from 4G, he added.
“When you’re bringing innovation to a market that hasn’t had a lot for awhile, you have to change the perception,” he said.
Intel manufacturing troubles
It’s easy to see why Arm is interested in pushing for PCs. Intel has a giant target painted on its back, and Intel itself painted it there with manufacturing troubles.
Intel has struggled to advance to new manufacturing technology that squeezes electronics to smaller sizes. It’s lost its once-formidable lead to rival chip foundries, most notably TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation).
Because of the problems, Intel has delivered only modest speed improvements to its Core line of processors in recent years.
That could change next year with the introduction of Intel chips code-named Cannon Lake and Ice Lake. Those will be built using a manufacturing process with chip features measuring 10 nanometers — about a ten-thousandth the thickness of a human hair.
Deimos chips will be built with a manufacturing process with 7nm features, though, Arm’s Smythe said. Hercules will be built with 7nm and the generation after that, 5nm. One of the most likely manufacturing partners to actually build the chips is TSMC.
“Our 5nm [process] will start volume production in 2020,” said TSMC spokeswoman Elizabeth Sun earlier this year.
Pyrrhic victory in chip manufacturing race?
That manufacturing lead sounds a bit less impressive when you consider that TSMC’s 7nm process is comparable to Intel’s 10nm process, but it’s still notable that Arm believes the manufacturing process is an advantage. “The foundry process is moving,” Smythe said.
On the other hand, Hercules-based chips built with the 5nm process might not arrive as soon Arm fans might hope. That’s because Apple — which uses some Arm technology but designs its chips on its own — is a big, well-funded TSMC customer.
“TSMC will have 5nm in 2020, but I’m not convinced it’ll be available to anyone not named Apple,” Kanter said. “If your name is not Tim Cook, get in line.”