The recent launch of MacBook systems using Apple’s custom M1 processor represents a watershed moment in the development of PCs. By demonstrating exceptional performance and battery life using Arm technology, these systems represent the first significant threat to the Intel-AMD duopoly. Over time, the emergence of this new technology could dramatically change the way PCs are designed and used.
Initial testing of the new MacBooks confirms that the M1 offers big performance advantages over traditional Intel-based laptops and nearly twice the battery life. By designing its first PC processor, Apple has raced ahead, but vendors of Windows PCs don’t want to be left behind for long. Dell, HP, and other PC makers want Intel to provide better processors that can compete with the M1; if it doesn’t deliver, they will seek alternative processor suppliers. These efforts add complexity to evaluating new PCs, but they will ultimately result in better laptops.
A call to arms
A key technology behind Apple’s new chip is the Arm instruction set. Bringing Arm to its MacBooks allows Apple to leverage its decade-long investment in designing custom iPhone processors. These processors must be very power efficient to perform well using a small smartphone battery; bringing this efficiency to laptops enables the big gains in performance and battery life. Intel’s PC processors simply aren’t as efficient; when placed in a thin-and-light laptop, they must throttle back to avoid overheating. As a result, when compared with an Intel-based MacBook released earlier this year, the power-efficient M1 processor delivers 40% better performance on a popular CPU benchmark and 70% longer battery life for web browsing.
The move to Arm taps into a broader trend. Microsoft has ported Windows to Arm, enabling companies such as Acer, HP, and Lenovo to release “hybrid PCs” (small PC-tablet mashups) based on Arm-compatible processors from Qualcomm. Arm is also starting to appear in the data center;…