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ARM vs. Intel Processors: Key Differences Explained 

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ARM vs. Intel Processors: Key Differences Explained 

Key Points

  • ARM and Intel processors have distinct differences in terms of structure, instruction set, implementation, advantage, energy usage, computing speed, and operating system compatibility.
  • Intel processors are generally faster and more suitable for high-speed computing, while ARM processors are more heat efficient and have faster compute speeds for certain tasks.
  • ARM processors require less external cooling than Intel processors.
  • Intel processors are primarily used in desktop and laptop hardware, while ARM processors are commonly found in mobile devices.
  • ARM processors are built for efficiency with a pared-down instruction set, while Intel processors prioritize fast functionality.

Which one is better when talking about processors: ARM vs. Intel? Computers use a variety of different architectures, which in turn influences the processor used for a device. Now, for the last decade or so ARM has been relegated to mobile devices.

Intel has been the king when it comes to overall desktop and laptop use. The last few years have marked the first real viable ARM-based desktop and laptop computers on the market. It makes for a fascinating comparison since these two architectures are so functionally different.

This won’t just be a comparison of laptops, but also of desktops using similar hardware. This guide will cover how they function, which one is more efficient, and whether one is better than the other.

ARM vs. Intel Processors: Side-by-Side Comparison

ARMIntel
Monolithic StructureYesNo, components are separate from the main processor
Instruction Set UsedRISCCISC
Most Common ImplementationMobile devices like smartphones and tablets, SoC implementation like Raspberry PiDesktops, laptops, point-of-sale machines, servers, and more enterprise implementation
Biggest AdvantageMore heat efficient; SoC allows for faster compute speeds for certain tasksGenerally faster; built for high-speed computing that benefits more simplistic programming
Energy UsageMuch lower; as it is intended for mobile devicesQuite high; power draw for certain processors can reach into the hundreds of watts
Computing SpeedSlower on average, but depends on the usage and softwareFaster by many measures, even with poorly implemented software
Operating System CompatibilityAndroid, iOS, Windows, Linux, MacOSWindows, Linux, MacOS, BSD
Core Symmetry?No, ARM can use specialized cores that aren’t symmetrical to the whole of the designYes

As you can likely see, there are some pronounced differences between these two CPU types. They have both resided in a specific niche for some time, with the lines just now beginning to blur.

ARM vs. Intel Processors: What’s the Difference?

Generally speaking, ARM and Intel processors wouldn’t even be a fair point of comparison. A mobile device won’t ever stack up to the likes of a purpose-built desktop for work. However, that changed considerably with Microsoft’s support of ARM for Raspberry Pi devices and Apple’s M1 and M2 CPUs.

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In a typical implementation of both architectures, an Intel processor is going to win most of the time. This is down to the design itself. Intel or x86_64 processors use the CISC instruction set, which allows for faster compute times and completion of calculations. As such, they aren’t built with efficiency in mind.

Conversely, ARM processors see usage primarily with mobile devices. While mobile devices certainly have plenty of speed on tap for their use cases, they can’t readily compare to a full-blown workstation. This was subject to change with the M1 and M2 processors from Apple.

These processors are ARM-based, built around a proprietary chipset developed by the tech giant. Apple Silicon processors seem to handle similar workloads to Intel processors with the same level of performance.

That said, you’ll likely want to stick with Intel processors for any serious workloads. Server farms have been slow to adopt the new Apple chipset, just as a general example.

Thermal Draw

arm vs. intel processors
Intel processors typically need cooling solutions to prevent thermal throttling.

ARM has a massive advantage over Intel processors when it comes to overall thermal efficiency. Yes, ARM devices can get hot, especially under strain. However, you’ll find thermal output is smaller overall when compared to an Intel processor running a workload.

Intel processors generally need some form of external cooling, whether it be through thermal shielding or integrated CPU fans. This keeps the thermal runoff from forcing a lockdown of the processor itself. Thermal energy is a major concern with x86_64 processors.

You won’t typically see closed-loop water cooling solutions for an ARM processor. Even Apple’s higher-end Apple Silicon devices just opt for case fans to keep things cool and tidy.

Desktop or Mobile?

Intel processors seldom see use in truly mobile devices. You aren’t going to see very many x86_64 smartphones. While some may exist, they are likely subject to thermal throttling with extended use. x86_64 processors are more at home with desktop and laptop hardware.

ARM is generally used in mobile devices. Any smartphone or tablet you pick up off a store shelf is likely going to use a specialized ARM processor built by any number of manufacturers. That said, there are desktop implementations of the architecture.

The Raspberry Pi, while not a traditional desktop, still serves as a great platform for users looking to make or code their own projects. The RPi can be seen as more of a hobbyist device but does quite well as a lightweight web server or DNS server.

Apple’s latest laptops and desktops also use ARM processors, bearing a striking similarity to the processors in use by contemporary iPhones. Apple has received quite a bit of acclaim for the likes of its MacBook Air and Pro series using Apple Silicon processors. You’ve got stellar speed and battery life.

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ARM processors are built for efficiency. The RISC instruction set is severely pared down compared to CISC but allows for computing devices that can function with minimal energy.

Intel processors use CISC, as previously stated, but it is a far more complex instruction set. As such, Intel processors aren’t going to be efficient. When you have a processor built and intended for fast functionality, there isn’t much room for efficiency.

These lines are beginning to blur considerably, however. While Intel processors have been fast approaching the theoretical limit in terms of speed and transistor density, there has been progress. New laptops by the likes of Lenovo and ASUS have proven you can have great battery life.

This comes despite using a generally powerful Intel processor. Sure, the battery life might not be as astounding as a MacBook Air idly browsing with Safari, but it is still quite substantial.

ARM vs. Intel Processors: 6 Must-Know Facts

  1. ARM processors use the Reduced Instruction Set Computer, or RISC, for handling task processing.
  2. ARM processors are typically found in mobile devices.
  3. Intel makes processors for PCs and laptops, whereas ARM processors are used primarily in low-power devices like smartphones, tablets, and smart home devices.
  4. Intel processors use Complex Instruction Set Computer, or CISC, for task processing.
  5. Intel processors are usually found in laptops and desktops.
  6. Intel processors allow for simpler software but also have far more complex processors as a result.

ARM vs. Intel Processors: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Choose?

There really isn’t a best or worst when it comes to picking either of these processors. That said, if you’re looking for a laptop or desktop using ARM, you’re only real choice is an Apple device. Intel-based laptops and desktops are plentiful, and more affordable overall.

Both of these processors are likely to last years, at least until something that can maintain supreme efficiency and speed comes along.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there mobile Intel devices?

Technically, yes. If you think of a laptop as a mobile device, then there are certainly Intel devices that are also portable. However, when looking at smartphones, they typically use ARM.

Can ARM processors acheive the same sort of speeds as an Intel processor?

Not on paper, but through clever coding in the software it can achieve better performance. Oddly, Apple’s Rosetta has the tendency to speed up Intel software on an ARM processor.

Are there desktop ARM devices?

Yes, you’ll find ARM processors in the likes of the Mac Mini, Mac Studio, and iMac. There are shockingly few Windows-based ARM devices intended for desktop use, however.

Is there a definite winner between either processor type?

Not really, as they are both built for very different purposes. That might be subject to change as Apple’s Silicon architecture gets more firmly entrenched in computing. However, there weren’t many manufacturers jumping ship to make PowerPC chips.

Which processor is more complex in terms of programming?

ARM processors greatly benefit through clever implementation of low-level languages like Assembly. Assembly is far more complex to properly implement than say C++. While both languages are low-level, Assembly speaks directly to the hardware.

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