Apple to Dump Intel for ARM in Laptops: Report

Apple within the next three years will start using ARM-based chips in its laptops and desktops, according to a report. The story kicked off some debate online.

The latest chapter in what's becoming an ongoing Intel-vs.-ARM drama is speculation that Apple will opt for ARM processors over those from Intel for its laptops.

The Website SemiAccurate reported May 5 that, according to unnamed sources, Apple officials have decided to use ARM chips within the next two to three years for their laptops-and possibly desktops-and stop using Intel's x86 processors.

According to the Website, Apple officials are waiting for the ARM architecture to move beyond 32-bit, something that will come with ARM's upcoming Cortex-A15 processor design, which the company unveiled in September 2010. Processors using that design could start hitting the market in 2012 or a little later. Nvidia's "Project Denver" is based on ARM designs, and will offer a processor that integrates both the CPU and graphics capabilities on the same die. It will have a 64-bit instruction set and could launch in late 2012 or early 2013.

The SemiAccurate story said the idea of moving from Intel to ARM was a "done deal."

The story kicked off an online debate over the merits and drawbacks of the move. Moving to ARM chips would give Apple a consistent processor architecture across all its products. Currently, the company uses Intel chips in its desktops and laptops, but ARM-based processors for its mobile devices, such as iPads and iPhones.

Others argue that Apple would be unlikely to move to ARM after having opted out of the PowerPC chips from IBM in 2006 in favor of Intel. Another architecture move may not be an attractive option.

Some also have noted that the speculation comes days after Intel executives unveiled their new Tri-Gate transistor design, which will begin appearing in their 22-nanometer "Ivy Bridge" chips later this year or in early 2012. The new 3D transistor structure will enable Intel to significantly drive down chip size, power consumption and leakage while ramping up performance, all good enhancements for processors aimed at the mobile space, including tablets and smartphones.

Intel executives said the new processors will enable the company to compete aggressively with ARM in mobile devices, where ARM has a dominant position, while also protecting Intel against ARM's proposed encroachment into the server space.

"The fact that x86 products will have first access to 3D transistor gate technology will likely help offset the architecture handicap of x86 vs. ARM in optimizing low power," Doug Freedman, an analyst with Gleacher & Co., said in a research note about the Tri-Gate transistors. "We do not view this as game changing, but do see it as heating up the x86 versus ARM battle."

The idea of Apple looking to ditch Intel in favor of ARM also comes the same week that Piper Jaffray analyst Gus Richard, in a research note, said that Intel is "vying for Apple's foundry business. It makes strategic sense for both companies. The combination of Apple's growing demand and market share in smart phones and tablets gives Intel a position in these markets and drives the logic volume Intel needs to stay ahead in manufacturing."

In that scenario, Intel would be Apple's foundry for ARM-based chips for such devices as iPhones, iPads and iPods. Rob Enderle, principle analyst with The Enderle Group, said such a move would be critical for Intel's mobile-computing efforts.

"Rumor is that Apple is looking at such a move, and if they get Apple, the earth moves," Enderle wrote in an email to eWEEK concerning the Tri-Gate announcement. "But if they don't get a major brand and/or a very popular product, [the Tri-Gate technology] still won't be enough."