Apple just saved Arm-based Windows laptops, and it’s a wakeup call Intel needs


Sangram Rana

Recent news about PC sales has been pretty bad, but there is one part of the market that is going against the trend and growing: laptops that use the Arm architecture.

Toms Hardware says (opens in new tab) that sales of laptops with Arm processors went up last year and are likely to go up again this year.

This is a big change from the past, when most laptops were powered by Intel (and to a lesser extent, AMD) hardware, especially processors. In the past, there have been attempts to make laptops that run a version of Windows called “Windows on ARM” (or “Windows on Snapdragon”) or “Arm-based architecture” that was made just for that device.

Arm System on Chips (SoCs) were mostly used in mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. The idea behind these early Arm-based laptops was that they would bring some of the benefits of those devices to laptops, like long battery lives and almost instant boot times.

Mostly Armless

Arm-based Windows laptops had some of these features, like long battery life, but they were slow, had bad software support (many apps weren’t compatible with Arm), and were expensive.

It caused many people to dismiss Arm-based laptops for a long time. There were, of course, some bright spots. Many of the best Chromebooks use Arm processors, and the success of these laptops showed that the hardware could be used to make great devices.

But Chrome OS, which Chromebooks use, is an operating system that was made to be as light as possible. Apps, including Android apps, can run on Chromebooks because Arm is compatible with Chrome OS.

Arm-based laptops were still not a good choice for people who wanted a more flexible and reliable operating system.

Enter Apple

Microsoft’s efforts to make Windows laptops work on Arm hardware failed, but Apple made it look easy.

The company released its M1 chip in 2020. It was an Arm-based SoC that was first used in the MacBook Air (M1, 2020), which I still think is one of the best laptops you can buy, and the MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020).

Arm-based laptops were all of a sudden seen for what they could be. There were powerful laptops that were much better than the Intel-based models that came before them and had much longer battery lives. Most importantly, they ran the full macOS operating system, and Apple made sure that major apps were either M1 compatible or could run with the Rosetta 2 tool’s compatibility layer.

Many of the complaints about Chromebooks and Windows on Arm laptops could not be made about these new MacBooks. Performance was on par with or better than Intel and AMD chips, you could run a full-featured operating system with all of your favourite apps, and prices weren’t too high. Apple will never make a cheap laptop, but these M1 machines cost the same as the ones that came before.

As a rising tide lifts all boats, Apple’s success with its M1 MacBooks has helped the entire Arm laptop market grow. A report from Counterpoint Research shows that market share grew from 11% in 2021 to 13% in 2022, and it’s expected to reach 15% this year.

It’s pretty clear how big of an effect Apple has on the Arm laptop market. Apple has a huge 90% share of the market, while MediaTek and Qualcomm, which have been making Arm chips for longer, only have 10%.

This year, there will also be new laptops with MediaTek and Qualcomm hardware that run Windows or Chrome OS. Together with Apple’s new M2, M2 Pro, and M2 Max chips, which are in a new batch of MacBooks, this makes Counterpoint Research confident that the Arm laptop market share will continue to rise over the next few years, reaching 25% by 2027. That’s a big goal, and it would mean that Arm-based laptops would sell more than AMD-based laptops, but I can see this happening now, unlike a few years ago.

What does this mean for Windows, Intel and AMD?

Even though Apple and Chromebooks clearly dominate the Arm market, this is an opportunity for Windows on Arm devices as well. Apple’s success has mostly removed the stigma against Arm devices, and while I don’t like to say Microsoft copies Apple, I’m going to do it here: Microsoft! Like Apple!

Make sure, in particular, that the number of Windows apps and programmes that work with Arm devices is growing. If app developers are hesitant, they need to come up with a solution that works as well as Apple’s Rosetta 2. Basically, people need to be able to pick up a Windows on Arm laptop and run all of their favourite apps on it.

Laptop companies like Dell, HP, and Lenovo will be watching this market grow and will want to get in on it. We hope to see more laptops from MediaTek and Qualcomm that use their newest technologies. The more options there are, the better. Even though I love the M1 and M2 MacBooks, I don’t want Apple (or any company) to have that much control over a market.

This growth is more worrying for Intel and AMD. AMD has never made it seem like laptops were a top priority, but it would hurt if Arm laptop sales surpassed its own by 2027. Intel will still have a healthy lead in the market, but it won’t like losing market share to competitors. Both companies will need to offer similar benefits to Arm to stay competitive, especially when it comes to battery life.

To be fair to both companies, but especially Intel, they have been putting more focus on making their products more efficient and, as a result, making laptop batteries last longer, which is still one of the biggest concerns customers have. Intel’s newest processors even use a combination of efficiency cores and performance cores that have been a part of Arm architecture for a while.

So, I think the growth of Arm laptops is a good thing, no matter what platform they use. Could I find an Arm-based Windows laptop that I would want to use one day? Things have happened that were strange.

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