ARM vs. Atom: The battle for the next digital frontier

Small, inexpensive, power-efficient new chips from Intel and ARM are enabling the new wave of mobile devices -- and setting the two companies on a collision course

Intel: A babe in the woods? If Intel has misjudged the market, however, its emphasis on Windows and x86 architecture could backfire.

Not so long ago, Upside magazine hailed a company called Transmeta as "the most important company in Silicon Valley." Its product sounded remarkably similar to Atom. Transmeta CPUs used advanced, proprietary technology to execute the x86 instruction set in a way that consumed much less power than traditional Intel desktop and laptop chips.

When the first Transmeta chips began appearing in consumer laptops, however, they were a disappointment. Transmeta-powered laptops weren't much smaller or lighter than standard ones, but their performance was perceptibly worse.

The netbook category didn't exist at that time, and battery technology was less advanced than it is today. To the gigahertz-obsessed buying public, the minutes that Transmeta's technology added to their battery life simply weren't worth sacrificing performance.

The situation is similar today, only now consumers demand both speed and power savings. Who cares if a chip uses x86 architecture, so long as it has enough juice to decode high-definition video and won't drain the battery before the movie ends?

Atom's performance is good, but Intel has yet to demonstrate a model with power characteristics comparable to those of the current generation of ARM chips.

Meanwhile, ARM recently demonstrated a version of its Cortex A9 processor running at 2GHz, proving that ARM chips can scale to handle high-performance applications. And a forthcoming ARM product promises to consume one-third as much power as current offerings.

Given numbers like those, Intel's talk about a universal x86 architecture could end up falling on deaf ears -- especially since there's no shortage of ARM programmers in the embedded market.

Let the chips fall where they may Ultimately, as is so often the case when large companies enter new markets, Intel's real best weapon is its deep pockets. Atom doesn't have to be an overnight success in the device market, as long as Intel can prop it up with sales from its lucrative PC and server lines.

But deep pockets won't matter if Intel can't make its Atom business profitable in the long term. While ARM has made its home in the embedded market for years, Intel has grown accustomed to businesses with higher margins. Intel may find it lacks the nerve for the battle to come.

According to sources, each Atom CPU retails for around a tenth of the price of one of Intel's Penryn chips for standard laptops. As ARM makes its chips ever faster and more versatile, Intel will be pressured to follow suit with Atom. But the more powerful Atom becomes, the more Atom sales will cannibalize sales of Intel's higher-margin traditional chips -- leading some analysts to wonder whether this is really a market where a company with Intel's business model can succeed.

But then, it's not as if Intel has a choice. The rise of netbooks, the decline of desktop PCs, the green IT movement, and the smartphone explosion all point to a sea change in computing. Intel can embrace the shift, but it can't stop it.

For ARM and its many partners, however, the world of Intel's future must seem like a very familiar place.

This story, "ARM vs. Atom: The battle for the next digital frontier," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in ARM and Atom, as well as netbooks and mobile technologies, at

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags pc componentsArmintel atomintel

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Neil McAllister

Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Kurt Hegetschweiler

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

It’s perfect for mobile workers. Just take it out — it’s small enough to sit anywhere — turn it on, load a sheet of paper, and start printing.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?