ARM vs Intel processors: what’s the difference?

When you’re choosing a smartphone or tablet, you’ll notice that some models use Intel Atom processors, while others are based on the competing ARM architecture. This latter camp includes the Samsung Exynos, Qualcomm Snapdragon, Nvidia Tegra and Apple A7 platforms.

Both families of chips are designed for low-power operation, to give mobile devices the long battery life they need. Technically, however, they represent different philosophies: the ARM architecture is designed to be as simple as possible, to keep energy wastage to a minimum, whereas Intel’s Atom range uses a more complex design that benefits from compatibility with the company’s (much more power-hungry) desktop and laptop CPUs.

It’s also worth noting that ARM has been powering portable devices for decades, while Intel is a relative newcomer to this area. For now, ARM is very much the dominant architecture: iPads and iPhones use ARM exclusively, as do Windows Phone devices, so if you’re interested in these platforms, the distinction between ARM and Intel isn’t currently something you need to worry about.

Android

On Android, you have a choice. While most Android phones and tablets are still based on ARM, competing Intel-based devices, such as the Asus Transformer Pad TF10C, are starting to appear.

Asus Transformer Pad TF103C

Intel-based devices can run the full range of Android apps, even ones that were originally written for the ARM architecture. However, if an app contains ARM-specific code, then it must be translated before it can be executed.

This takes time and energy to do, so battery life and overall performance may suffer. Whether this is a serious problem is up for debate: our reviews indicate that Intel does tend to trail behind ARM in battery life, but the gap isn’t huge, and overall performance is generally very good.

At any rate, Intel is working hard to encourage developers to produce Intel-native versions of their apps, so hopefully translation will become progressively less of an issue.

Windows

The difference between ARM and Intel is also worth paying attention to if you’re considering buying a Windows tablet. Here, it’s Intel that’s the dominant architecture: if you choose an ARM-based tablet you’ll get a cut-down variant of Windows called Windows RT, which can run full-screen apps from the Windows Store but not regular desktop software.

It’s no wonder that almost every modern Windows tablet uses Intel, and that Windows RT has all but dropped off the radar. However, based on the rumours and statements recently emanating from Microsoft, we wouldn’t be surprised if ARM-based tablets bearing the Windows logo return in a year or two, with an updated OS that’s more closely related to Windows Phone.

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