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Intel faces strong pressure from both AMD and ARM, both of which would like to put their rival CPU products in Apple's MacBooks. Apple, the fourth largest PC seller in the U.S. currently uses Intel chips exclusively in its notebook line.  (Source: Apple)
Company faces growing pressure from ARM and x86 rival AMD

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) is a gleaming target for semiconductor firms.  It makes the world's best selling tablet -- the iPad -- and controls a major chunk of the smartphone market with the iPhone.  

And while Apple's personal computers -- iMacs and MacBooks -- still trail industry giants Dell Inc. (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard Company (HPQ) in sales, in Q1 2011 they posted 9.6 percent growth, while competitors overall saw a 10.7 percent sales decline.  Apple currently sits in fourth place in PC sales in the U.S.

I. Intel Feels Pressure to Try to Cling to MacBook Position

The world's biggest chipmaker, Intel Corp. (INTC), delivered comments at the Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York on Wednesday indicating that making sure Apple continued to use its CPUs in their MacBooks was a critical objective.

Intel is under pressure from two sides.  On the x86 architecture side, it faces a surging Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) whose power savvy Fusion GPU+CPU chips are seeing strong pickup among other PC makers.  Apple recently switched many of its MacBooks from using NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) graphics cards to using AMD cards, so the pair already have a growing relationship.

To make matters worse, it also faces pressure from ARM.  ARM Holdings plc (ARMH) is preparing to next year launch a new design which will feature up to 16 cores, clocked at up to 2.5 GHz.

The chief advantage of ARM cores is that they're more efficient than rival x86 designs.  For that reason, tablets and smartphones have almost exclusively used ARM where battery life is of utmost importance.

Intel has a couple advantages.  First, its current CPU architectures are conducive for higher clock speeds than ARM, making them a better fit for high performance laptops like the MacBook Pro line.  Secondly, Intel enjoys a healthy lead in manufacturing processes, which helps mitigate some of ARM's architectural power efficiency advantages and AMD's GPU design advantages.

II. Could ARM Give Intel the Boot?

Intel senior vice president Tom Kilroy addressed the media commenting, "We work very closely with them [Apple] and we're constantly looking down the road at what we can be doing relative to future products. I'd go as far as to say Apple helps shape our roadmap. Apple -- they push us hard."

But he refused to confirm that Intel, who makes around 80 percent of the world's CPUs, has received any assurance from Apple of long term MacBook exclusivity.

Intel scored a win earlier this month when Google Inc. (GOOG) announced that the first Chrome OS notebooks from Taiwan's Acer Inc. (2353) and South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. (005930) would feature Intel Atom chips.

However, Intel faces pressure on that front too.  Many commenters, including some here at DailyTech complained that the $350-$500 price range for the early "ChromeBooks" was too expensive -- they were hoping for $200 designs.  While part of the problem is the large screens used, another obstacle is the Atom chip, which remains pricier than lower clocked, but power-savvy ARM alternatives.  Google may opt to release ARM ChromeBooks in the near future, and when it does, they may be cheaper than the Intel models.

The world's largest OS maker Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has already committed to support ARM with its next version of Windows, a sign that the tide may be turning against Intel.  Intel has blasted the decision saying that the Microsoft and ARM will be delivering customers a substandard experience.

In the face of uncertain times with Microsoft and Google, Intel clearly wants to hang on to its Apple foothold.  However, with Apple saying that its upcoming version of OS X, OS X "Lion" (10.7) will be more "iOS-like", it is questionable whether it will be able to dissuade Apple from launching ARM powered models.  

Apple hasn't seemed overly concerned in the past about adopting slight slower hardware to pursue its goals of attractive battery life and ultra-portable design.  And Apple is relentless in ever trying to expand its profit margin.  Thus the cheaper, more power efficient ARM designs may give Intel significant grief over the next year in Apple offerings, much as they are doing with Windows PCs.

That's concerning as Intel has had virtually no success, thus far, in trying to counter-attack ARM's holding in the tablet and smartphone sector.

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This won't happen easily or soon
By theagentsmith on 5/19/2011 1:16:03 PM , Rating: 2
There are already ARM powered netbooks, or smartbooks, like the Toshiba AC100, but they were a sales failure like Linux powered netbooks, because people expected to run usual productivity software. It comes with Android 2.2 which isn't tailored to this kind of UI. Even the Motorola Atrix when plugged into its netbook dock it boots up a sort of desktop Linux distro. Maybe this could change with Honeycomb and devices like the EeePad Transformer, but for now it's a huge question mark.
On Apple side, they can make a MacBook with ARM CPU and iOS, but then it wouldn't be a MacBook anymore. It would be more like an iPad with a keyboard and a bigger screen. The old iBook name seems more appropriate. I think they won't do this, because ARM lacks the horsepower to run full fledged desktop MacOS X. Plus they would need to move to another microarchitecture, which isn't trivial even if they managed to transition two different CPU microarchitectures.
Plus it won't be innovative from Apple perspective, but hey I could be easily contradicted :)

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By FITCamaro on 5/19/2011 2:26:08 PM , Rating: 2
Apple would just do Microsoft is doing. Make an ARM version of OSX or whatever their next OS is going to be called.

By michael2k on 5/19/2011 4:51:30 PM , Rating: 3
They already have, and they did it three years ago.

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By omnicronx on 5/19/2011 3:08:35 PM , Rating: 2
I disagree, ARM chips fit in perfectly with Apples already successful vertical integration.

Why rely on a third party when you can be part of the design process and curtail chips to your needs?

Gone would be the days of having to forgo a new chip design because it does not fit into your strategy. (which is something Apple has had trouble with in the past)

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By Da W on 5/19/2011 4:08:36 PM , Rating: 2
There's already a gazillion more ARM apps (ipad) than there ever was x86 (mac) software. Making the switch to ARM and iOS for the whole lineup wouldn't be so high a price for Apple. Just kill OSx and move on. Although i would call the move stupid. Mac sell, and they sell well. Why fix something that ain't broken?

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By ponidis on 5/19/2011 6:49:16 PM , Rating: 5
There's already a gazillion more ARM apps (ipad) than there ever was x86 (mac) software.

Yeah, but 99.5% of ARM apps are fart software and the like while 99% of serious software runs on x86 (you name it...). Would you ever move all your computing tasks to an iPad if it had the screen, the keyboard and the computing power to match?

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By michael2k on 5/19/2011 7:23:02 PM , Rating: 1
Why not? If it had the screen, keyboard, and computing power, why wouldn't you move to an iPad?

The draw would be the phenomenal weight and battery life: less than a pound and a half and over 10 hours sustained use.

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By Pirks on 5/20/2011 6:27:08 AM , Rating: 2
When ARM reaches the full blown PC performance level in a small iPad form factor in three years - so will Intel with 14nm Airmont.

Then you look at this 2014 landscape and think: why the heck do I use fast and power sipping ARM when I have just as fast and just as power sipping x86 Airmont?

So Intel has nothing to worry about. If they deliver Airmont in time ARM will stuff it again.

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By michael2k on 5/20/2011 11:21:13 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, but what about the projected 60m iPad buyers in 2011? Or the 80m in 2012? Or the 120m in 2013? There won't be a competitive Atom chip for a while, so if you want 10h battery life in a 1.5lb form factor, you're stuck with ARM.

By 2012 we will also have Windows on ARM, so there may be another 50m non iOS devices. So Intel may have nothing to worry about in 2014, they will have something to worry about in 2012.

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By Pirks on 5/20/2011 7:17:47 PM , Rating: 2
I don't need 10hr battery life in 1.5 lb 10" since I already got 14hr of battery life in my 4 lb 14" 2-year old Windows notebook :P So ARM can stuff it RIGHT NOW haha

By KoolAidMan1 on 5/20/2011 4:14:32 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly. If they moved to an ARM based notebook then it would be a serious segmenting in their notebooks. "Real" applications like Office or Final Cut Pro would be relegated to the x86 Macbook Pros while ARM apps and things like web browser and email client would be relegated to the ARM Macbook.

If there was a way to run x86 apps with an ARM CPU without compromising performance, great, but I'll believe it when it actually happens.

RE: This won't happen easily or soon
By nafhan on 5/19/2011 4:29:28 PM , Rating: 2
I think if Apple does a "Macbook" with an ARM chip, it's going to be less a Mac and more an iPad with a built in keyboard/screen protector. Granted, there's a pretty good number of Mac users out there who would be adequately served by that.

The only downside I can see to that approach is that it might make some real Mac users (audio/video creation, etc.) a little more nervous about the future direction of the platform.

They are desperate to have the monopoly or what?
By kensiko on 5/19/2011 1:04:22 PM , Rating: 5
A little pressure from ARM and AMD will just help us, consumers. I really don't like their monopoly attitude.

By Jeffk464 on 5/19/2011 1:18:57 PM , Rating: 1
Hopefully they wont try to strong arm Apple the way they did the rest of the industry. Remember they had to pay out billions to AMD.

By ebakke on 5/19/2011 2:00:06 PM , Rating: 2
I share your sentiment, but I have low expectations to go along with my high hopes.

By nafhan on 5/19/2011 4:19:58 PM , Rating: 3
Hopefully they wont try to strong arm Apple
Don't worry, Intel gave up on StrongARM years ago... :)

By Strunf on 5/20/2011 7:32:39 AM , Rating: 2
Cause you think ARM is any better? there may be a dozen ARM makers but they ALL have to pay ARM holdings to use their designs... if you don't like monopolies then don't look into the smartphone arena.

Both Intel and AMD can make X86 CPU with no questions asked, on the ARM camp no one can make a ARM CPU without first getting a license from ARM holdings. No software will be compatible between X86 and ARM, and even if software makers decided to support both it's us costumers that will pay this extra job.

By nafhan on 5/19/2011 1:49:45 PM , Rating: 5
The chief advantage of ARM cores is that they're more efficient than rival x86 designs.
Eh... more properly, they're power efficient for certain workloads - workloads that leave things at idle for a long time or never perform complicated processing.

That said, an ARM based Macbook would be perfect for the guy who buys a Macbook to look cool in a coffee shop. He could sit there all day sipping his latte with a smug look on his face for like 20 hours straight... Anyone doing actual work on a Mac will likely stay far away from these hypothetical ARM based Macbooks for the forseeable future.

RE: Efficiency...
By JarredWalton on 5/19/2011 3:58:06 PM , Rating: 2
So much of this article is purely speculative, and frankly there's no way Apple would downgrade to ARM CPUs in the MacBook line. 16 ARM cores might outperform two Sandy Bridge cores on a very specific workload, but a single ARM core is really no better than a single Atom core running at a similar clock speed.

So let's see, we could have sixteen cores each providing the equivalent of a 2.5GHz Pentium (e.g. the older Pentium M designs, not the Core 2 stuff). Or you could have two cores (plus Hyper-Threading) running at up to 3.2GHz, with each one providing at least four times the performance of the ARM cores. You could do heavily threaded tasks okay, but anything simple like rendering web pages would take several times as long.

What, haven't any of you tried surfing the web on an iPhone 4? Sure, it can load and render most web sites, but on a Core 2 Duo even I can click a link and have it pop up and finish rendering in a matter of one or two seconds. The same pages on an iPod Touch (iPhone 4 equivalent, but with half the RAM) takes roughly eight times as long. I'm sure Apple would love web browsing and email to plug along at 20% of the speed of their current generation MacBooks.

And the AMD side isn't any better. Worse battery life, worse performance, but a better GPU. Guess what? Apple just ditched NVIDIA for their base model MacBook/MacBook Pro 13 because the IGP in Sandy Bridge is "good enough" for most users--yes, even for light gaming. By the time ARM or AMD is even up for consideration in MacBook (e.g. next year), Intel will have Ivy Bridge out. 22nm plus tri-gate transistors and we're talking probably double the performance of current SNB laptops with lower idle power.

If Apple even pretends to consider ARM or AMD for their MacBook line, it will be purely a ploy to get better pricing on Intel chipsets and processors. Maybe in five years ARM could come out with something amazing, but mark my words: Apple is not going to switch from Intel for MacBook or desktops any time in the next two or three.

RE: Efficiency...
By TakinYourPoints on 5/21/2011 1:05:28 PM , Rating: 2
Absolutely. Leverage is all this means in the short term.

RE: Efficiency...
By ajfink on 5/23/2011 10:37:06 PM , Rating: 2
I would disagree only to the extent that AMD's processors / "APUs" could be a potential challenge to some of Intel's positions in Macs. Better GPUs, lower costs, adequate performance, no changes to the codebase...not all necessarily bad factors in AMD's favor.

AMD can't touch Intel in high-end performance, but for web browsing and all the basics, AMD's next generation of so-called "APUs" might be good enough for Apple to at least put some engineering samples together.

80 percent of the world's CPU intel?
By shompa on 5/19/2011 1:22:15 PM , Rating: 1
80 percent of the world's CPU intel?
ARM licenced 1.8 billion ARM chips in the first quarter. Intel is no where near that number.

By PrezWeezy on 5/19/2011 1:43:37 PM , Rating: 2
Intel is no where near that number.

So how many CPU's does Intel have in the wild?

RE: 80 percent of the world's CPU intel?
By omnicronx on 5/19/2011 2:06:18 PM , Rating: 2
We are not talking about embedded systems here, outside of this world ARM is almost non existent..

The 80% represents desktop/laptop/server sales.

By michael2k on 5/20/2011 2:38:08 PM , Rating: 2

Over 302m ARM powered smartphones last year. Apple sold over 15m iPads, pushing that number up to 317m. They also sold about 30m iPod touches (maybe 25m), pushing that number even higher to 342m; including the identically specced AppleTV, that number is 344m ARM CPUs in handheld, desktop, or tablet form factors.

So, my 40% represents desktop/laptop/server/handheld/tablet/smartphone sales.

Given that the CPU in the iPad is identical to the CPU in the iPhone, iPod touch, and AppleTV, and is largely identical to the CPUs in the Galaxy Tabs, Galaxy WiFis and Galaxy Phones, in the HTC phones, in the Droids, etc, Intel is no longer as dominant as you would think.

Disconnect between price and cost
By vgermax on 5/19/2011 1:51:18 PM , Rating: 2
Many commenters, including some here at DailyTech complained that the $350-$500 price range for the early "ChromeBooks" was too expensive -- they were hoping for $200 designs. While part of the problem is the large screens used, another obstacle is the Atom chip, which remains pricier than lower clocked, but power-savvy ARM alternatives.

It's curious to pin a $150-300 price difference on $20-25 of cost.

By michael2k on 5/19/2011 5:52:10 PM , Rating: 2
Are you ignoring the extra support chips?

An ARM SoC will have GPU, CPU, memory controller, RAM, and a handful of other things on a single $15 chip.

Atom, on the other hand, costs $40 for CPU and GPU in a two part solution, with a third for multimedia processing, and a fourth (or more) for RAM. So really, the difference is $15 for ARM and maybe $60 for Atom. On top of that you have an extra $10 to $15 for the headers and connectors for RAM and SATA since you can't integrate the RAM into the CPU, you need the extra PCB and wiring, etc.

So really, $100 of extra cost for Atom.

ARM Virtualization support
By MeesterNid on 5/19/2011 6:36:13 PM , Rating: 2
My main concern with an ARM-based MacBook is how efficient/fast virtualization software like VMware, Parallels, VirtualBox would be on them compared to Intel ones. If they offer equivalent or better performance than current then I'm good to go, otherwise I'm not going to be happy.

Intel brainlessness
By superstition on 5/21/2011 2:40:28 PM , Rating: 2
For all the company's money and power, it couldn't come out with a 32nm Atom just as soon as 32nm foundries were rolling?

It couldn't alter the design a bit to be more efficient and faster?

"They don't want the Atom to eat into sales of ultra-low voltage higher-end chips."

Well that may be, but surely Atom could be better without doing so... Whenever AMD succeeds, it's because Intel chose not to.

Apple foothold
By fic2 on 5/19/2011 3:31:16 PM , Rating: 1
In the face of uncertain times with Microsoft and Google, Apple clearly wants to hang on to its Apple foothold.

Shouldn't be that hard for Apple to hang on.

Intel's good for a few years
By corduroygt on 5/19/11, Rating: -1
RE: Intel's good for a few years
By Chaser on 5/19/2011 1:22:28 PM , Rating: 2
Today right?

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By Jeffk464 on 5/19/2011 1:29:24 PM , Rating: 2
I think AMD is going to out due Intel in the $500 laptop market. Llano is a much better all around solution than intel's core i3. Sure intel wins on the cpu front but its integrated gpu is for stink. Llano should give decent all around performance for gaming and multimedia. Intel will dominate in the high end laptop market with core i5/7 with discrete graphics.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By PrezWeezy on 5/19/2011 1:40:04 PM , Rating: 3
You may be right in the PC space, but I don't see Apple moving to AMD and maintaining a split manufacture system. Apple is about controlling the experience and limiting possible hardware differences so they can keep a smooth, and concurrent, UI and experience. If they were to ditch Intel on the low end they end up with different chipsets, different NIC, hard drive controller, etc. Right now they can keep everything aligned nicely between all of the different models. It just doesn't seem like something they would be apt to do. Lest we forget, Apple will probably never have a $500 laptop. It doesn't fit their profit margin.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By corduroygt on 5/19/2011 8:10:50 PM , Rating: 2
True, but very few people actually need GPU power beyond what Intel offers in Sandy Bridge.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By Taft12 on 5/20/2011 1:05:34 PM , Rating: 2
They also don't need CPU power beyond what AMD offers (at a lower price, natch)

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By FITCamaro on 5/19/2011 2:24:14 PM , Rating: 1
Apple already doesn't really care about cutting edge performance.

AMDs CPUs aren't THAT far behind Intel in the speed department. Really Intel's biggest advantage is power consumption where AMD trails them. However eventually AMD will offer Fusion CPUs that have high enough graphics performance to not need a low end discrete GPU while Intel's chip will still need one. Thus raising costs and power consumption.

AMDs chips are more than fast enough for the average user. Especially the average Mac user who does nothing but run iTunes, iPhoto, etc.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By corduroygt on 5/19/2011 2:47:46 PM , Rating: 1
I guess that's why they're offering quad-core Sandy Bridges with HD 6750 graphics in their laptops? You can't get much better than that without being really bulky in the laptop space, so you're wrong on Apple not caring about cutting edge performance. They care about the most performance they can fit in a 1" chassis without burning their customers.

When someone's paying Apple prices, they don't want CPU's that aren't "that bad." They want the best CPU's which exclude AMD. For the $500 market, AMD can be a good choice.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By omnicronx on 5/19/2011 3:04:53 PM , Rating: 2
I guess that's why they're offering quad-core Sandy Bridges with HD 6750 graphics in their laptops? You can't get much better than that without being really bulky in the laptop space, so you're wrong on Apple not caring about cutting edge performance.
Now of course you are completely disregarding the fact that until earlier this year, most of their lineup was still using original C2D's.. Not to mention even their high end line-up was starting to lag behind the competition before the introduction of the new lineup.

Even with the iPhone4, they chose to clock their A8 at 800mhz and keep with an SGX530 GPU even though the compition had moved onto 1GHZ A8 chips and faster GPUS. (or the Ipad 2, they decided to stay with a 1024x768 display for power and cost reasons)

Historically Apple has time and time again forgone high end technology to assure their goals remain the same. Great battery life and great user experience.

So I don't really see what you are trying to prove here, that what is likely the lowest volume seller happens to have received a refresh recently? (and probably won't get another one for a year+)

The fact remains, Apple does not need the ultra high end for the bulk of their lineup. As result, completely disregarding AMD makes little sense, as long as they happen to meet up with Apples goals.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By FITCamaro on 5/19/2011 3:25:25 PM , Rating: 1
I'm fully aware of their lineup. As the previous reply stated, they just finally updated to this from C2Ds after a couple years.

Hell I'm typing this from a 15" MacBook Pro with a 2.2GHz Sandy Bridge CPU, ATI 6750, and 8GB RAM. All running on Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. Suck it Mac fans.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By HrilL on 5/19/2011 3:07:16 PM , Rating: 2
I could actually see AMD taking the MacBook Air away from Intel. People want better graphics and AMD solves that on the cheap and the CPU is not much slower than that of the air.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By corduroygt on 5/19/2011 7:12:41 PM , Rating: 1
People want better graphics

No they don't, not the majority of Mac users, nor PC users for that matter. If people wanted better graphics, Intel graphics wouldn't be this popular.

RE: Intel's good for a few years
By Exodite on 5/19/2011 7:27:09 PM , Rating: 2
Doubtful, especially for the MBA.

You're not going to be gaming, at least not as far as AAA games are concerned, on an ultra-portable and AMD's deficiency in the power consumption comparison would be a significant drawback in a slim machine with little space to cram additional battery cells inside.

If there's one end of the spectrum that could possibly benefit from running ARM SoC solutions it's likely the MBA, purely due to battery concerns. Heck, it's running an 1.4GHz C2D right now so it's not like people buy them for performance!

As for the general ARM-in-Macs discussion I'd worry more about the iOS trends in MacOS X than I would about ARM CPUs. I have friends who very much enjoy their Macs but wouldn't touch an iPhone with a 10ft pole, which leads me to believe that Apple might well be alienating actual computer users by trying to homogenize their platforms.

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