Technophobe: Processors, battery life and app compatibility

Megan Youngren/Sun Star Columnist
December 4, 2012

The processor in your laptop or desktop is not the kind inside your phone or tablet, but that’s going to change. The lower power use processors in phones and tablets will be used in laptops, and the higher performance processors from current laptops and desktops will be shrunk down to be put in phones. In the phone market, app compatibility won’t be much of a problem. On your laptop, running a different kind of processor means that older apps won’t work.

Intel makes the traditionally desktop/laptop x86 processor, and a company named ARM’s self-titled ARM, or Advanced RISC Machine processors are found in low-power use phone and tablet devices. Intel has a stranglehold on the x86 market – it designs and sells hardware, and this has allowed it to gain a massive advantage in the ‘die shrink’ race, the measure of how small the circuitry is on the processor.  But how tiny you can make your circuits doesn’t matter if they use more power doing the same work.

ARM designs simpler processors, and sells those designs to other companies to make. Some companies pay more to be able to customize those designs – which is what Apple and Samsung do, amongst others. ARM processors can use almost no power when not under load, which the x86 processors struggle to do. Intel can make its processors ever smaller, but to compete it must lower idle power use, which is not easy to do.

ARM processors on laptops, tablets, and tablet/laptop hybrids running Windows can’t run older software. While more and more apps will be ported to the new architecture, things you’ve already purchased, or old apps that won’t be ported but you still need won’t be usable. You can tell which laptop/tablet is using ARM because it’ll be running Windows RT, not Windows 8. You’d be forgiven for calling it Windows 8 regardless, as most do.

There’s a rumor that Apple is considering a move to ARM in its laptops, which makes sense. If ARM processors keep their advantage in battery life over Intel’s x86, and traditional ARM tablets like the iPad run full apps like Office just fine (as they’ve been ported by now,) it becomes embarrassing for the laptop to have less battery life running the same software.

As it did with its last two processor architecture switches, there’ll be an Intel compatibility layer. Because that requires much more power than ARMs have now, Apple won’t switch for another 2-3 years, if it ever does. Intel won’t go down without a fight, and their race to make phone processors will lead to even longer battery life on laptops. Hooray for competition.

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2 Responses

  1. Phil Foster says:

    Would an intel chip on the ipad run all it’s old apps and also Mac apps?

  2. Megan Youngren says:

    If Apple ever decided to put an Intel chip in an iPad, sure. iOS and Mac OS X are essentially the same underneath. And when a developer is testing an app to run on the iPad on their Mac, it is actually running directly on the Intel chip.

    But it’s up to Apple to make an Intel iPad, and that is quite unlikely.

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