The ARM vs x86 Battle is on Display


While I’ve done my own share of mobile device battery testing, Steve Paine has easily done more. From smartphones to MIDs and UMPCs to netbooks, Steve has tested down to the milliwatt over the past few years. Today he observed that on the CPU side of the house, the power difference between ARM and x86 is drastically reduced over what it was. If you’ve been following the progress of Intel’s Atom platform, that’s no surprise. And it doesn’t take an engineering degree to know that larger backlit displays can consume more power that most other device components. So what’s the “sweet spot” for a device display to effectively cancel out the power efficiency of ARM over x86?  Here’s what Steve says:

“When you get to screen sizes of 4” and above, something happens that levels the playing field for Intel somewhat. Their CPU platforms (*1) don’t idle down very well but in a typical ‘internet-connected’ scenario on one of these ‘smart’ devices, that becomes almost insignificant as the screen backlight adds such a huge load to the platform that when combined with Wifi, 3G, BT, GPS and audio, the CPU is just 10% of the total load. Swapping Intel out for ARM would save you just 5-10% battery life in an ‘active’ scenario.”

Steve’s point is rather timely, considering all of the ARM-powered devices we peeped at the Consumer Electronics Show. Many of them offered displays well over 4″, with some in the netbook-like 10″ range. It makes you wonder if pairing a low-power Atom (s intc) chip with Moblin or other form of Linux might make for a better experience than an ARM device running Android or a custom Linux distro. Put another way: if you could get potentially more processing power but not pay a power premium, would you?

Of course, display technologies are bound to mature. In fact, our video demo of the Pixel Qi display on a Notion Ink prototype tells me that this whole situation of power hungry displays is due for a refresh in the near future. But until then, Steve may have a pretty good point. Thoughts?



Major problem for intel is all smartphone vendors
Dont want monopoly intel x86. They suffered a lot
in pc realm, their profit margins were reduced to bare minimum. They dont want windows + intel duopoly. Intel always used 3rd rate buisness tactics using their pc monopoly to siphon major portion of profits in pc hardware. Their recent spat with nvdia is bright example of that. ARM is safer bet. They dont have fabs. They just license IPs. Plus major semiconductor and smartphone vendors holds shares in ARM. So intel cannot buyout ARM. These things will matter more than technical mumbo jumbo.


In larger devices I see ARM as the first viable non x86 alternative. Android and Chrome can run on both processor types. Intel should be concerned about the rising popularity of both Android and Chrome. Intel also should be concerned about the trend of people using smartphones in place of laptops. Intel doesn’t have any marketshare in the smartphone procesor market.


Down the road I see battery life increase more and also with more power whether it will be a ARM or x86. Already the new Atom is giving more battery life, with a little increase in power. Right now if I need a powerful computer I take my Macbook. It actually gets good battery life for what power it has, around 5 hrs. If I need battery life the NB205 is what comes along.


It’s not that x86 has “more processing power” than arm. They are different architectures – their clock speeds are not directly comparable. It’s more that most software is written for x86. It boils down to whether you need to sacrifice compatibility for more battery life.

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