Can ARM take on x86 notebooks?

ARM is preparing to move into the lucrative notebook market which is currently dominated by Intel x86 processors.

A number of analysts believe ARM’s initial foray into the hyper-competitive space will be successful, with Sterne Agee confirming RISC-based processors remain on track to capture 5% of the market in 2012 and 10% by 2013. 

Similarly, analysts at Nomura Equity Research believe Windows 8 notebook application processor shipments will hit 20 million in 2013 and increase to an impressive 290 million in 2015. Meaning, ARM chips are projected to claim 3% percent of the  market in 2013 – and subsequently jump to 17%, or 49 million units by 2015.

However, as tech guru Charlie Demerjian notes, ARM CPUs will need to offer similar performance to x86 chips for users to not turn their noses up at the experience.

“Physics is a bitch. To attain a certain level of performance, you need to flip a certain number of transistors. Higher performance means more flips, and that means more energy use,” Demerjian explained in a recent analysis on SemiAccurate that examined Intel’s PR approach to ARM’s notebook campaign.

“[Yes], some ISAs may be more efficient than others, but across a SoC as a whole, with memory, fixed function accelerators, and other things taken in to account, the difference is pretty small. If ARM is going to increase performance to the point where users are accepting of the performance levels, its power advantage will largely evaporate.”

Nevertheless, said Demerjian, ARM’s RISC processors will be forced to meet x86 performance demands, and are likely to encounter some the same problems Intel and AMD have already worked through.

“There are many more barriers than people expect for ARM to play in the traditional laptop form factor, and the road will be anything but easy. [Yet], if x86 can be successful in phones, ARM can be successful in laptops. Neither has any magic barriers to exclude the other, and both have learning curves that cross over at about the same point.

“Both ARM and x86 will climb their respective hills, and both are entirely capable of doing what the other does. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Whether or not either side will do what is necessary, for technical, financial, or sheer persistence reasons is another question entirely. Both can and will try. Both can be successful, and maybe both will, but the outcome remains to be seen,” he concluded.