ARM vs Intel Processors: What’s the Difference?

When you’re choosing a smartphone or tablet, you’ll notice that some models use Intel 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 range uses a more complex design that benefits from compatibility with the company’s (much more power-hungry) desktop and laptop CPUs.

In this article, we will review the various differences and applications of each type.

What Are ARM and Intel Processors?

Processors, short for Central Processing Unit, are a small chip that essentially act as the brain for computers and smartphones. The CPU is responsible for calculations, caching critical information for quick access, and more.

ARM processors are a type of architecture and therefore they do not have only one manufacturer. Both Apple and Android manufacturers use this technology in their mobile devices whereas Intel is generally used in computers.

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.

CISC vs. RISC

Intel processors (commonly referred to as X86 in correlation with Windows 32-bit programs) use Complex Instruction Set Computing while ARM uses Reduced Instruction Set Computing. While both perform commands rather quickly in 2021 thanks in great part to the multiple cores, the former uses a slightly more complex instruction set, which requires several cycles to perform tasks.

When it comes to CISC, the main idea is complex hardware and simple software. In this case, that means more basic assembly language functionality

ARM processors use only one cycle to execute a command, hence, it reduces functions. This makes ARM processors more ideal for power consumption conscious devices, i.e. mobile and embedded devices. The core concept behind RISC is simple hardware and complex software. Greater functionality at lower level programming languages, assembly in this case, can be a real game changer when it comes to reducing power consumption.

Mobile Devices vs. Desktops

Intel processors are commonly found in larger tech like desktop computers while ARM is often found in mobile devices. One contributing factor for this is that ARM processors rely heavily on software for performance features while Intel relies on hardware.

ARM (generally) works better in smaller tech that does not have access to a power source at all times, while Intel focuses more on performance, which makes it the better processor for larger tech. But, ARM is also making great strides in the tech industry and is expected to far surpass Intel by some experts in the near future on performance.

Processor Power Consumption

The ARM processors not only use less battery life thanks to their single-cycle computing set, but they also have a reduced operating temperature than the Intel processors. Intel processors are focused on performance, and for most PC or laptop users this isn’t a problem at all because the computer is constantly connected to power.

ARM processors on the other hand are perfect for mobile devices as they reduce the amount of power necessary to keep the system operational and perform the user’s requested tasks.

Processor Speed

ARM chips are usually slower than their Intel counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that they are designed to compute with low power consumption. While most users wouldn’t notice a difference in their respective devices, Intel processors are designed for faster computing

That being said, the use of more cores and caches in ARM processors have proven to be an effective means to maintain lower power consumption with increased speed. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic idea.

Android Processors

Intel was once a part of a few Android mobile devices but the ARM processors still reign in this market.

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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 an 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, the translation will become progressively less of an issue.

The Processor of Choice for 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- in the past, if you chose an ARM-based tablet you’d 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.

In 2019, things changed with the release of the Surface Pro X. Although the chassis of the tablet didn’t change much from previous versions, Microsoft didn’t give up on the ARM processor. The Surface Pro X is a tablet with an ARM processor that runs full Windows rather than a watered-down version.

The processor releases users from a Microsoft Store only app selection to more applications with only one limitation. To run applications on the Surface Pro X, users might need to find the 32-bit compatible app, because many of the 64-bit versions of the apps aren’t compatible as of yet. We’re excited to see that Microsoft isn’t giving up on the ARM processors as a part of its mobile product lineup, but there are still a few things that may hinder your ability to use it.

Depending on what you need your Windows-based tablet for, the ARM processor may work fine. But, if you’re a gamer, or if you want more from your tablet, it’s probably best to stay with Intel.

Which Processor is Better?

At this point, both ARM and Intel processors have their own benefits and drawbacks. Choosing which is better for you heavily depends on what you’d like to do with your tech devices and if they’re compatible with other hardware and software.

Intel processors are faster and more powerful than ARM processors. But, ARM processors are more mobile-friendly than Intel processors (in most cases).

The past few years have caused an upset for people who were diehard one or the other. What was once the standard, Intel-based Macs, are now being released with Apple’s own ARM processors. While we’ve seen some great things coming from Microsoft, only time will tell, but there are constant improvements to both processors meaning what’s great now may not be so great in a year.

With the M1 chip from Apple, the company claims that this ARM chip will produce twice the power for one-third of the battery consumption and boasts the best CPU performance per watt.

ARM and Intel Processors

There’s a lot to factor in when comparing ARM and Intel CPUs. Whether one is better than the other is still relative to the device and its intended use and power consumption.

Feel free to share your thoughts on ARM and Intel processors below.

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