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Intel, ARM set for next stage of laptop battle

Intel presents plans at IDF, while ARM chips are featured by vendors at Microsoft BUILD

Intel and challenger ARM are set for a PC showdown this week as competition heats up to redefine the laptop and reverse the sagging fortunes of the PC market.

Intel this week at its Intel Developer Forum developer show will provide further details on the rollout of ultrabooks, which have been described as thin and light PCs with tablet-like features. The chip maker is also expected to talk up Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS at the show, which will be held in San Francisco Tuesday through Thursday.

Meanwhile, Nvidia and Texas Instruments will be present at Microsoft's BUILD conference -- held in Anaheim, California, Tuesday through Friday -- to drum up support for Windows 8 on their chips, which carry ARM processors. Nvidia and TI have said they would put the ARM-based chips in laptops in an attempt to take PC market share away from Intel.

Intel is pushing ultrabooks to rejuvenate interest in PCs, whose shipments have slowed due in part to growing interest in tablets. ARM-based chip makers believe the power-efficient processors can be extended to laptops running Windows 8. Microsoft has extended Windows 8 support beyond x86 to ARM processors, and an Nvidia spokesman said that the upcoming OS will work on tablets and PCs with its upcoming quad-core Kal El chip, which is due to reach devices later this year.

"ARM in PCs faces a similar challenge to x86 in handsets. It's technically feasible but it will be a long and challenging road," said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat.

Intel has faster chips and a long history with PCs that give it an early edge, but ARM chips, allowing longer battery life, could pose a challenge in Windows 8, analysts said. ARM, which licenses chip designs, has been hesitant to enter the PC market, with its thin margins and lack of returns, but Nvidia, TI and Qualcomm are chasing the market nonetheless.

However, while ARM may rule in tablets, it faces many challenges in PCs.

ARM is worrisome to the x86 camp, but not life-threatening, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. The battle could rage in the low-end laptop space, but ARM falls short in higher-end laptops that offer greater performance and larger screen size.

"[ARM] is fine for doing iOS-style versions of applications, but not the bread and butter of the PC market, large screen real estate, lots of apps at once, video games in high resolution with good game play, monster spreadsheets, not to mention servers and high-performance computing," Kay said.

ARM processors also currently lack 64-bit support and could have trouble supporting legacy hardware such as printers or cameras, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. There are stable x86 Windows drivers for old hardware, and device makers may not write new ARM drivers for older products.

"I'm still skeptical on Windows 8 on ARM in desktop and clamshell products," Brookwood said.

Despite hurting PC shipments, ARM processors and tablets are not effective in creating content. With its revamped user interface, Windows 8 could make both PCs and tablets into creation and consumption devices, which could hurt ARM.

If future designs hold true to Intel's vision, ultrabooks could provide a happy medium between PCs and tablets, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. PCs have been consistently redefined over the past few decades with desktops and then laptops, and ultrabooks could be the next iteration.

Intel plans to make ultrabooks a prominent theme at IDF and will present a three-stage rollout plan for the laptops. Intel has set ultrabooks to run on Core processors, be under 20 millimeters (0.8 inches) thick and use solid-state drive storage. Over the next two years, Intel aims to roll out more advanced ultrabook designs with features such as touchscreens that can flip and slide, all-day batteries and instant boot capabilities. Intel has invested US$300 million in companies that develop new technologies for ultrabooks.

Some vendors like Lenovo, Asus and Toshiba have already announced ultrabooks with the thin, sleek look of Apple's MacBook Air. Beyond ultrabooks, Intel is also pushing specialized x86 tablet chips in an attempt to dismantle ARM's tablet dominance, and at IDF will talk about its upcoming Medfield chip for tablets, though it was originally envisioned as a smartphone chip.


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