I don't expect to have an ARM-based PC any time soon

November 15, 2020

The ARM-related news of the time interval is of course that Apple has announced several ARM-based Mac laptops and that early (and preliminary) leaks are that they perform very well and are definitely competitive. This raises the great hope in many technical people's minds of ARM based laptops and desktops from more than Apple, ARM PCs that would run more than Apple's OS X macOS. This is especially a dream for many Unix people, who already run little or no commercial binary software and so in theory ARM support is only a recompile away; moving away from the x86 hegemony would please a lot of people.

(The practice of moving to ARM is somewhat different, especially for performance sensitive code. Focused use of x86 assembly is surprisingly common in various places.)

My own view is that while I wouldn't mind using a competitive ARM based PC (either laptop or desktop), I don't expect to actually have one any time soon. The rub is that 'competitive'. Right now, the only ARM chip maker that can compete with the performance of the x86 hegemony in the desktop/laptop space is Apple, and Apple's machines only run OS X macOS. While there are promising developments in the server space, many of them are also bespoke to the large cloud vendors, and also may not be particularly suitable for scaling down to desktops and laptops (in all sorts of dimensions, including how much money can be made on them).

Apple has demonstrated that it's possible to make ARM be competitive (on laptops, at least, although likely on desktops too), but they stand alone and I don't think it's likely for anyone else to join them. Apple has the benefit of a gigantic market for their own ARM designs that feeds a firehose of money into their R&D budget and also good assurance of large production runs even for laptop CPUs (never mind phone ones). Anyone else would be in the position of trying to take laptop and desktop CPU market share from Intel and AMD (who are already fighting each other), without the kind of money firehose and good market that Apple has.

(Apple also has the benefit of capturing all of the profit from its laptops. An ARM CPU maker would capture much less of the profit of machines with its CPUs in them; much of the overall profit would go to the system vendors or at least to the makers of other parts, like motherboards.)

The other problem is that merely being competitive isn't good enough, because there are real costs to switching to ARM (even for Unix people). It's likely that an ARM PC would need to be clearly better than the x86 equivalent before very many people became interested, and might face an extended period of doubt and proving itself. To be honest, that would be my attitude toward the first generation of ARM PCs; I would not buy immediately and let other people get those experiences.

(I think this will be easier on laptops than on desktops, because on laptops power efficiency can count for a lot. The longer battery lifetime is already one of Apple's selling points for their new ARM laptops)

PS: I would love to be wrong on this, as I'm not particularly fond of the x86 hegemony. But I'm also a pragmatist.

Comments on this page:

By Jonathan at 2020-11-15 07:15:23:

My big takeaway from the latest release of Apple laptops is that these new laptops aren't necessarily ARM laptops. They are locked down, don't run any operating system other than Big Sur, and have tons of Apple proprietary parts and functions that are not easily portable to any other ARM platform (for example, the security enclave within the M1, the various IO controllers, the neural engines, even the graphics chipset within).

When a person gets an Apple Silicon Mac, they are not getting an ARM computer. They are getting an Apple computer.

By Opk at 2020-11-15 08:09:33:

At least on x86 we've had a fairly standard BIOS that means you could take a single OS boot image and use it to install a variety of machines. While things have improved we still end up with dozens of install images for a whole variety of different ARM based systems. Just look at the armbian download page. UEFI hasn't upset things too badly on x86 - yet. Buy something that isn't well supported and you can get stuck running an ancient Linux build with a few old binary only drivers.

I got burnt in the early days of ARM on Linux before realising that trying to get hardware working is not actually my idea of fun. I'm not fond of one chip company having a monopoly or the x86 architecture itself but I really value being able to buy commodity hardware and easily put a choice of Unix-style operating systems on it.

By River at 2020-11-16 18:44:27:

If apple is able to drive development toward arm friendly apps, and app developers find that they can exist by publishing to mac/ios/android without having to spend on x86/windows development, it might come sooner than later.

I am anticipating the adobe suite update for arm and whether windows will no longer have feature parity vs macos.

It seemed that having the apple app store was more important to idevice sales than performance figures/functionality of android in US, as well as windows phone. Microsoft has been developing their new devices with arm in mind, likely to take advantage of the android app ecosystem to keep a hold of the market in a similar way. You could still be right as it would still be possible to emulate android for a while until arm catches up on performance/profit in the pc space?

By john at 2020-11-21 12:52:09:

Apple has not called their operating system "OS X" for YEARS.

I'm sure it would annoy you if people used incorrect Linux terminology so at least take the time to get stuff like this right.

By cks at 2020-11-21 21:11:53:

I've updated this entry and another recent one to use 'macOS' instead of 'OS X' (preserving my mistake as struck out text).

By James (trs80) at 2020-11-25 11:14:55:

I agree with you, particularly because Apple's ARM implementation is so far ahead of any other ARM licensee. They also have the advantage that they can tune their CPU implementation and OS together, eg ARM MacOS uses the iOS ABI and microbenchmarks common operations much better than x86. But they are a technological dead end IMHO since they're not general purpose computers (see my other comment) and only run Apple software.

Written on 15 November 2020.
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