In the event that you are unaware, let’s begin this post by making it clear what ARM actually is while using some pretty basic language. Compared with its primary competitor – x86 – ARM is a type of processor architecture used primarily in phones and tablets just like the one you likely have in your pocket. There are lots of different manufacturers of ARM processors, but it is almost a sure bet that the device you interact with most that lives in your pocket runs off of an ARM-based chip.
The more-popular makers of these chips are Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, NVIDIA, and MediaTek, but there are many others. Using the different cores that ARM produces each year, these companies build out their own chips that get used in various mobile hardware across the board. Compared with their x86 competition (think Intel and AMD chips), ARM-based silicon is easier on battery, easier on thermals, and increasingly can be nearly as powerful as mainstream x86 chips. As Apple is showcasing with their upcoming Macbook line, ARM chips are powerful enough for desktops these days. With their Macbook Pro line, they are going all-in on the idea of a cool, battery-sipping, powerful laptop with their own, custom ARM silicon inside as a replacement for the Intel chips we’ve had for years.
Chrome OS and ARM go way back
Here’s the deal: Chromebooks and ARM processors aren’t exactly strangers. You can track the earliest ARM-powered Chromebooks all the way back to almost the beginning of the Chrome OS story with the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook and the follow-up Samsung Chromebook 2. Other early notables were HP’s Chromebook 11 (made in conjunction with Google) and the Acer Chromebook 13 with the NVIDIA Tegra K chip.
Fast forward a few years and we’ve had the Acer Chromebook R13, Samsung Chromebook Plus, ASUS Chromebook Flip C101, the Acer Tab 10, and most notably, the current Chrome OS darling in the Lenovo Chromebook Duet. There are a few others in there to round out the list of ARM-based Chromebooks, but when you put this list up next to the massive, growing set of Intel-based x86 Chromebooks, it is still quite small.
The reasons for this are varied, but there has simply not been an ARM processor included in a Chromebook at this point that really pushed the market forward. Instead, we’ve had several-generations-old chips shoved into devices that were built with only the bottom line in mind. While the MediaTek 8183 in the Lenovo Chromebook Duet is OK, it’s far short of what current-gen ARM chips like the Snapdragon 865 or Apple A14 Bionic are capable of. We may not have any Chromebooks with great ARM chips in them up to this point, but that is clearly changing.
More fire power is on the way
We already know that MediaTek’s latest 6nm (faster/cooler/more battery efficient) chips are on the way in early 2021, bringing with them a big boost in performance versus the current devices we have. We’re also quite convinced that there is a growing number of Qualcomm Snapdragon 7c devices headed our way as well. While there’s no firm timeline on either actually arriving to market, it is clear that manufacturers are ready to start taking ARM on Chrome OS far more seriously moving forward, and that is important.
You see, as Apple transitions over to their in-house, ARM-based silicon and Microsoft continues pushing developers towards the same end goal with devices like the Surface Pro X, Chromebook makers need to stay in the same conversations. At the end of the day, consumers don’t think too hard about ARM vs. x86, but they do think about speed, app performance, battery life, connectivity, and price.
ARM gives advantages in these areas that Intel and AMD struggle to match because of the underlying architecture within. Don’t get me wrong: from a sheer power standpoint, x86 still wins the day. But ARM chips are catching up and are easily capable enough at this point to power general user habits, especially on Chromebooks. So, let’s talk about those advantages real quick and why they add up to making so much sense on Chromebooks and why it will be vital for more ARM-based Chromebooks to show up in the coming months.
For most users, they need their device to get the main stuff done and to do it quickly. Web-based tasks like email, document editing and social media don’t need bleeding-edge power to deliver a solid experience. As a matter of fact, we’ve found Intel’s latest Core i3 chips (the lower-end of Intel’s Core offerings) to be extremely capable and fast for anything you generally do on a Chromebook and the mid-tier Pentium and Celeron chips have become essentially good enough for most people.
With that in mind, we don’t need the fastest, most-expensive ARM chips on Chromebooks for most users. We need solid performers, and chips like the Snapdragon 7c and MediaTek’s upcoming 6nm MT8195 should fit right into that category. While I’d love to see how Chrome OS performs on a Snapdragon 865+ or something like Apple’s newest A14 Bionic, the vast majority of Chrome OS tasks don’t necessitate that. As ARM gains more traction, perhaps we’ll get more variety, but for now the price/performance ratio is far better with these sub-flagship chips. Just like we’re seeing in the smartphone world, breakneck speed isn’t always the #1 factor for most users. They just want a snappy day-to-day device that they don’t have to wait around on.
While app performance sounds similar to speed, it isn’t quite the same. Why? Well, with Chromebooks having the innate ability to run different types of applications at this point, it is becoming more important everyday that they are good at running Android apps specifically. Google isn’t backing down on this front and it seems that Android and Chrome OS will be intermingled for a long time.
As most Android apps are written first for phones, it only makes sense that good ARM chips will inherently run those same Android apps a bit more efficiently than their x86-based counterparts. We’ve seen this play out in devices like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet as it struggles with web-based stuff while performing quite well on even complex Android apps like Call of Duty Mobile. If Android apps are going to remain an integral part of the Chromebook experience, ARM chips are a clear fit in this roadmap.
Because of their mobile nature and tendency to be included in small devices with small batteries, ARM chips have always been great on battery. Put them into a device that has a battery 3-4x the size of a standard phone’s power pack and you are bound to have stellar battery life. We’ve seen this play out with ARM-based Chromebooks, Windows laptops already and we’ll likely see it with Apple’s new line of Macbooks. ARM is fantastic at battery life and with Chromebooks already being solid in this category with a 10 hour average battery life, it feels like 15-20 hour battery estimates will become a thing in the near future with ARM-based Chromebooks.
Chromebooks are built around mobility and the web, so the more ways we can stay connected with them, the better. This is why Google made Android phone tethering a built-in part of the Chromebook experience a couple years ago. They know that people want to stay connected on the go and a lot of people have phone plans with mobile hotspots.
Clearly, the more robust version of this idea is simply having a data plan and LTE built right into the Chromebook itself. It is one less step to deal with and makes a Chromebook feel even better to work from when it is present. While not everyone wants to pay extra for this access, many of us would love to have it available, and ARM chips simply work better with LTE modems. Again, these processors are mainly geared towards phones, so connectivity is in their nature. With ARM hitting more laptop platforms, this will be something more and more users expect, so seeing it arrive in higher quantity on Chromebooks will be a win.
Price and form factors
Finally, ARM processors cost less to manufacture, less to power, and less to cool. They don’t need fans and don’t require massive chassis to operate in. Compared to the phones they are usually bound in, a thin/light Chromebook feels like a spacious mansion. With mid-tier ARM chips coming in at very competitive prices, all these factors mean Chromebook makers can build thinner, lighter, less-cumbersome, less-expensive devices for all of us to enjoy.
When you take all of this into account, it becomes quite clear that ARM and Chromebooks make a great fit. Honestly, of all the operating systems out there and all the desktop offerings, I feel like ARM makes the absolute most sense on Chrome OS. As we start to see more ARM-powered laptops from all makers with all operating systems, consumers are going to start drawing comparisons pretty quickly. If Apple has a Mac that costs less, is thinner, faster, cooler, and runs mobile apps better than what we expected a few years ago, Windows users will start to expect the same. And so will Chromebook users.
ARM is an important space for Chromebooks now and in the near future, and it feels like we’re right on the edge of some great new devices pushing into use cases we’ve not seen from ARM-powered devices up to this point. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it all shakes out, but mark my words: we’re going to have a ton more ARM-powered laptops in consumers’ hands in the next couple years.