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.

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.

What Are ARM and Intel Processors?

Processors are a small chip that provides the input and output communications of a computer so to speak. 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.

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

CISC v. 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 2020, the former uses slightly more complex instruction with several cycles.

The ARM processors use only one cycle to execute a command, hence, it reduces functions. While the Intel processors use a simpler command code, it must go through several cycles before the action is complete.

Mobile Devices v. 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 works better in smaller tech that does not have access to a power source at all times and Intel focuses more on performance making it the better processor for larger tech.

Power Consumption

The ARM processors not only use less battery 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.

Speed

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

Android

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.

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.

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