With the upcoming release of Windows 8 coming in October, a surge of new tablets and notebooks touting the new Metro interface is set to hit the market in a variety of shapes, sizes and features. For those looking to purchase one, perhaps the most important feature is what CPU architecture you should choose: x86 or ARM.
Both architectures have their advantages and disadvantages, but you should ARM (hah, geddit?) yourself with knowledge before your purchase.
The x86 CPU architecture has been the standard for which modern desktop computing has been based off of for over two decades, with Intel and AMD both having developed powerful processors capable of everything from decoding the human genome to playing the latest 3D games. Previous versions of Windows were all written for x86 CPUs, and Windows 8 is no different, so all the games and applications you know and love will still work if you purchase a tablet with an Intel or AMD CPU.
However, x86 coding has generally more been focused on raw processing power, and less on power efficiency. Despite inroads in the last few years on addressing TDP draw, x86 based CPUs still draw significantly more power than their ARM based counterparts, so battery life on those devices will typically be shorter, all things being equal.
The ARM CPU architecture also got their start in the desktop computer market, but no where on the scale of x86 processors. Their design allowed them to have a much lower power consumption than the x86, which lead to devices having greater battery life (or smaller battery size) and required less cooling. Processors like NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 quad-core CPU offer outstanding performance and power, as well as a very low TDP, so you can use your portable device for longer amounts of time compared to x86-based CPUs.
But just as software is written for x86-based devices, software also needs to be written specifically for the ARM architecture, which includes Windows. Along with the Windows 8 release will be Windows RT, the same operating system as Windows 8, but written specifically for ARM based processors. Bundled with Windows RT will be a full version of Microsoft Office, that’s specially optimized for your tablet and touchscreen experience. Other than that, it will be at the discretion of software makers to rewrite their programs to work on ARM, so you may want to consider compatibility issues if you’re highly dependent on specific software.
So in review:
- Backwards compatible with older software
- Wide range of power for CPUs
- Lower battery life
- Increased heat generation
- More efficient battery life for devices with ARM processors
- Smaller form factor for devices with ARM processors
- Requires software to be written
- Less software support (for now)