In PC comeback, ARM will battle Intel in Chromebooks and Windows 10

PC makers are already using ARM processors in Chromebook and are enthusiastic about ARM-based Windows 10 laptops

ARM tried to break into the PC market but had a disastrous outing starting with Linux-based smartbooks and then tablets with Windows RT.

But ARM is launching a comeback in PCs, and the third time could be a charm. ARM chips could emerge as a threat to Intel's x86 as super thin laptops get smartphone-like usability with cellular connectivity and long battery life.

The comeback for ARM is starting with Chromebooks, with more models hosting the chip architecture. Lenovo's new N23 Yoga Chromebook -- a 2-in-1 with an 11.6-screen -- has MediaTek's quad-core MT8173c chip, based on ARM.

At CES, Samsung announced Chromebook Plus, which uses an ARM-based Exynos chip. Acer last year shipped the Chromebook R13 with the MediaTek MT8173c chip. The ARM-based Chromebooks have flexible designs and can be used as laptops or tablets.

All Chromebooks due for release this year will be compatible with Android mobile apps in the Play Store. That's where ARM holds an advantage over x86 -- most Android apps are designed for ARM, which dominates in mobile devices.

Most Android smartphones and tablets have ARM chips, so it's common sense to put them in Chromebooks, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Later this year, ARM will appear in Windows 10 laptops powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835. The laptops are being called "cellular PCs," which will include smartphone-like capabilities of cellular connectivity and long battery life.

ARM has ruled the mobile market but has failed to make a dent in laptops and desktops, despite multiple attempts by PC makers to introduce products. The most notable failures are around the tablets with Microsoft's Windows RT OS, which found no adopters.

But as more data moves into the cloud, the time is ripe for ARM to make a comeback to Windows PCs and Chromebooks, McGregor said.

Application compatibility was a big reason Windows RT devices failed, McGregor said. At the time, ARM could not support most of the legacy Windows applications, but that won't be an issue anymore.

The ARM-based Windows 10 PCs coming later this year will have an emulator to run legacy Windows apps. Any application that runs on x86 chips will also run on ARM chips, said Cisco Cheng, a Snapdragon evangelist at Qualcomm.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chip will also bring new features to laptops. The chip has a superfast cellular modem that can download data at speeds of up to 1Gbps (bits per second). It also has quick charging features, Bluetooth 5, and 4K graphics. Laptops will be thin and offer long battery life.

But PC makers are cautious and don't want to commit to releasing an ARM-based Windows 10 PC quite yet. But PC makers are showing enthusiasm for the idea of superthin laptops with long battery life that can remain connected to mobile networks all day.

Dell is waiting to test the hardware before committing to releasing an ARM-based Windows 10 laptop, said Raza Haider, vice president for commercial client products at Dell.

But the idea of an ARM-based cellular PC is attractive, and Dell wants to offer all kinds of laptop options to its clients, Haider said.

HP declined to comment on whether it wants to release an ARM-based Windows 10 PC. However, the company already offers the Elite X3, a Windows 10 Mobile smartphone with an ARM chip that can double as a PC in a pinch. That could open the door for an ARM-based Windows 10 laptop in the future.

Lenovo declined to comment on its plans for an ARM-based Windows 10 PC. Lenovo has been shy about adopting ARM-based chips for its laptops and desktops, but the N23 Yoga is its first Chromebook with a non-x86 chip.

Microsoft today is mostly reliant on x86 for the Windows OS, and is turning to ARM because it wants to compete in the mobile world, Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, said in a research note.

It's in Microsoft's best interests to make Windows 10 compatible with ARM, and cellular PCs may be just the way to break the long-standing Wintel alliance, Gold said. It will also give Microsoft more flexibility to deploy the Windows OS.

For device makers, competition between ARM chips and x86 is a good scenario. It gives PC makers more choices to add to their product mix and gives them more leverage in negotiations with Intel.

In the end, the adoption of ARM boils down to the price of laptops. Lenovo's N23 Yoga Chromebook is aggressively priced starting at US$279, but the ARM-based Windows 10 cellular laptops may be much more expensive.

The Snapdragon 835 is an expensive, top-line chip that will appear in smartphones priced above $500, and there's no way laptops including the chip will cost less than that, Gold said.

Intel will still offer x86 PC chips for low-cost PCs and continue to dominate that market. Another threat for Intel is coming from AMD's Ryzen chips in the high-performance x86 PC market.

The failure of Windows RT on ARM-based tablets is also fresh on the minds of PC makers. If PC makers find a considerable amount of application compatibility issues on ARM-based Windows 10 PCs, that could affect the adoption. Microsoft has demonstrated applications on ARM-based Windows PCs, but extensive independent tests haven't yet been conducted.

ARM licenses chip designs but isn't aggressively chasing the PC market. It's the chip and device makers licensing ARM designs that want to put the chips in as many devices as possible. But the opportunity to strike a blow to x86 in Chromebooks and Windows PCs is real this time round, and PC makers will investigate it, McGregor said.

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