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Here’s an enticing prospect: a device that adds smartphone-like wireless connectivity to long battery life, a brilliant 4K touch screen, and everything else you’ll find in today’s best ultraportable laptops and tablets.
Despite intriguing efforts from Microsoft and its partners over the past few months, such a powerful, always-connected laptop doesn’t really exist yet. But it could in the next few years, at least based on the plans for new processor designs that ARM unveiled on Thursday.
The British chip maker supplies the underlying architecture for the processors that power a vast array of electronics, from Rokus and smart fridges to thermostats. In fact, one of the highest-profile tech categories that remain mostly ARM-free is the personal computer, where chips have long been dominated by Intel’s processor architecture, known as x86.
ARM says its new chips, codenamed Deimos and Hercules, will be ready to challenge x86 by offering better computing performance while simultaneously decreasing power consumption and adding 5G connectivity. This combination, ARM Vice President Nandan Nayampally wrote in a blog post, will let ARM “break through the dominance of x86 and gain substantial market share in Windows laptops and Chromebooks over the next five years.”
But the Deimos and Hercules platforms are exactly that—platforms, or blueprints for a complete processor. They’re not the same as the Intel Core i7 that powers the Apple MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 13 you might have recently bought.
For Nayampally’s prediction to come true, the chips that other companies build on ARM’s platforms, such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon CPUs, will have to be greatly improved. Right now, you can count the number of mainstream Windows laptops that use an ARM processor on one hand. While they may have excellent battery life and mobile connectivity, they’re mediocre at basic tasks like web browsing and word processing.
The problem is mostly outside of ARM’s control. Software developers have to update their apps to be able to give instructions to the company’s computing platform, instead of the x86-based Intel or AMD chips with which they’re more familiar. Microsoft is encouraging developers to do it, but it is a Herculean task. Even the Windows operating system itself doesn’t run seamlessly on current ARM laptops like the Asus NovaGo.
Compounding the problem is that ARM doesn’t have a stellar track record of rallying other companies to take full advantage of its processor designs. The company’s current chips have robust security features and energy efficiency measures, but developers frequently ignore them. In 2016, after a high-profile security breach that affected millions of ARM-based baby monitors and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices, the company implored developers to be more careful.
“The security is nonexistent,” ARM CEO Simon Segars said of one particularly egregious product design at the time. “I mean, scarily bad. You can see the Wi-Fi password going by in clear text. Lots of people are building products like that.”
Besides the challenge of corralling software developers, hardware companies, and other tech factions, ARM must also needs to convince consumers.
Do they really need an always-on laptop in addition to their other electronic devices? That’s a tough sell even today, when smartphone apps can do many of the things that people once used a computer for, from checking email to checking in for a flight. Smartphones will only become more powerful by the time the first Deimos and Hercules-powered devices go on sale.
Can Apple Do It Better?
One potential savior for ARM’s proposed path to dominance is Apple. The Mac maker is rumored to be designing its own chips in-house to replace the Intel CPUs that power its current computers.
If this is the case, and Apple’s chips are a true substitute for Intel’s, it may bolster ARM as a pretender to x86’s throne. Revolutionary features like unibody construction and long battery life, first introduced on Macs, often later trickle down to the Windows ecosystem.
Apple’s current crop of in-house chips, such as the A9X that powers the iPad Pro, are based on ARM’s platform. But powering a fanless mobile device like an iPad or iPhone is far different from powering a laptop, which uses energy-consuming fans to dissipate the heat generated by its more powerful SSD, GPU, and CPU. It’s likely that Apple would design such a chip by building off of existing or future ARM technology, rather than creating a CPU architecture from scratch.
Ultimately, the fate of a single electronic device to rule them all depends on more than just efficient, powerful components. It has to look good and be easy to use for quick tasks, two qualities that hurt laptops at the dawn of the smartphone era. The Hercules and Deimos chips can only go so far toward making this future a reality.