Editor’s note: Following the IDC Market Research that expects to see ARM capturing 13% of PC marketshare, as well as Intel’s knee jerk leak on Windows 8 for ARM – we’ve decided to republish our article on ARM versus X86, an excellent analysis by our Microarchitecture expert, Mr. Van Smith. Van is also working on a follow up article which will be published in the next couple of weeks.
In this in-depth analysis, we will discuss the emerging competition between ARM and x86 microprocessors. Led by the Intel Atom, x86 chips are quickly migrating downwards into embedded, low-power environments, while ARM CPUs are beginning to flood upwards into the more sophisticated and demanding market spaces currently owned by x86 processors. The central focus of this report will be an extensive compute performance comparison between the ARM Cortex-A8 versus the Intel Atom N450, VIA Nano L3050 and, for historical perspective, an old AMD Mobile Athlon based upon the Barton core that is still being used in the commercial industries such as automotive and airline. The Apple iPhone 4 system-on-chip [SoC] is equipped with a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8.
The Coming War: ARM versus x86
Over the last few years a war has been brewing. Two armies have been massing troops in their respective strongholds. Inside desktops, notebooks, servers and now even reaching into mainframes and supercomputers, the x86 family of microprocessors has mercilessly driven all competitors to extinction.
The “x86” moniker refers to the descendents of the 16-bit Intel 8086. Its 8-bit little brother, the Intel 8088, was the chip that powered the first IBM PC back in August, 1981. Shockingly primitive by today’s standards, the 8088 spoke a computer dialect that is still understood by the most modern, powerful and successful CPUs from Intel, AMD and VIA.
The roll call of those vanquished by the x86 family include microprocessors from IBM, DEC, Motorola, HP, Sun, Silicon Graphics, Commodore and even rivals from within Intel itself. Resistance has been futile. Eventually, even persistent holdout Apple succumbed to the relentless performance advances of the x86 juggernaut, dumping IBM’s Power architecture for the safety and reliability of x86 microprocessor advancements. Almost like clockwork, x86 CPUs double in capability every 18 months while prices continue to slowly decline.
Yet, almost silently, a stealthy opponent has built up forces within the modest confines of PDAs, calculators, routers, media players, printers, GPS units and a plethora of other embedded devices but most notably mobile phones. Based in Cambridge, England, ARM Holdings dominates 32-bit microprocessor sales despite its very low profile. AMD, a microprocessor vendor that commands about one-fifth of the x86 market, celebrated the sale of their 500-millionth CPU last July in their 40th year of operation, while over 15 billion ARM chips shipped in 25 years of market presence.
The history of ARM microprocessors is almost as long as that for x86 CPUs. Sometimes called the “British Apple,” Acorn Computers began in 1978 and created a number of PCs that were very successful in the United Kingdom including the Acorn Electron, the Acorn Archimedes and the computer that dominated the British educational market for many years, the BBC Micro.
As the Commodore produced, 2 MHz MOS Tech 6502 microprocessor that powered the BBC Micro grew long-in-the-tooth; Acorn realized it needed new chip architecture to compete in business markets against the IBM PC. Inspired by the Berkeley RISC project which demonstrated that a lean, competitive, 32-bit processor design could be produced by a handful of engineers, Acorn decided to design its own RISC CPU sharing some of the most desirable attributes of the simple MOS Tech 6502. Officially begun in October, 1983, the Acorn RISC Machine project resulted in first silicon on April 26, 1985. Known as the ARM1, the chip worked on this first attempt. The first production product, the ARM2, shipped only a year later.
In 1990, Acorn spun off its CPU design team in a joint venture with Apple and VLSI under a new company named Advanced RISC Machines Ltd, which is now an alternative expansion of the original “ARM” acronym. While Acorn Computers effectively folded over ten years ago, its progeny, ARM Holdings is stronger than ever and dominates the market for mobile phone microprocessors.
Contrary to x86 chipmakers Intel, AMD and VIA, ARM Holdings Ltd. does not sell CPUs, but rather licenses its processor designs to other companies. These companies include NVIDIA, IBM, Texas Instruments, Intel, Nintendo, Samsung, Freescale, Qualcomm and VIA Technologies. In 2009, AMD spin-off GlobalFoundries announced a partnership with ARM to produce more advanced 28-nanometer versions of ARM-based system-on-chip designs. In meanwhile, both TSMC and GlobalFoundries announced work on 20nm and 14nm process nodes, even demonstrating a 20nm wafer on GlobalFoundries event. Intel isn’t sitting back and plans to bring 22nm and 14nm Atoms as soon as possible.
TO BE CONTINUED
Original Author: Van Smith
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