Chip wars are coming to PCs

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When was the last time you thought about the computer chip in your laptop? For most people, the answer would be “never” — and they’d like to keep it that way. Like it or not, though, a spate of new chips that is about to hit the market could soon change the PC landscape.

One sign that something is stirring has been the flurry of news around CPUs — the general-purpose processors that power PCs and servers. This week, as Apple unveiled its latest high-end Macs, its new M3 chips were very much the focus.

Since beginning its move away from relying on Intel chips for its Macs three years ago, Apple’s in-house silicon designs have set new standards for performance and battery life that have put much of the PC world in the shade. Its chips are based on blueprints from Arm, the SoftBank-controlled company with designs that are the main alternative to the x86 technology used by Intel. That has thrown down a challenge to the entire PC world, which relies on the x86 chip architecture.

Last week, mobile chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled an Arm-based PC chip of its own. It is the first chip based on designs from Nuvia, a start-up founded by some of Apple’s top chip engineers that Qualcomm acquired two years ago, and a sign that a real technology race is breaking out in PC chips. 

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The idea of running the Windows operating system on Arm is an old chestnut in the computing world. More than a decade of effort to bring this about has produced little, making the idea easy to dismiss.

But the grandly named Snapdragon X Elite that Qualcomm showed off last week suggests it’s time to revise that view. A report that Nvidia is also working on an Arm-based PC chip has added to the growing sense of anticipation.

Intel, which dominates the market for PC chips, is doing its best not to sound rattled by all of this. Given the high barriers to entry, it has good reason. Big investments by hardware makers and all the other companies that have prospered in the PC world have left it deeply entrenched. It has the only widely recognised consumer chip brand, making it the default choice — something that will be even more powerful when PCs powered by a bewildering array of new chips arrives on the shelves.

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Perhaps most importantly, all the software written for PCs will need to be revised to work with Arm — a monumental task, given the huge range of programs 

Even with these structural advantages, Intel’s manufacturing mis-steps, leaving it dependent on ageing technology, might have doomed it to irrelevance. That makes next month’s official launch of the first PC chips based on its long-delayed Intel 4 manufacturing process a key moment in the company’s attempted comeback.

All of this sets up a race in the normally staid world of personal computing, with Intel trying to pull off a rapid series of manufacturing upgrades over the next two years to get back in the lead, Apple digging in to protect the clear lead it has established with its Mac chips, and a new wave of Arm-based PCs hitting the market.

Two things are likely to determine the outcome. One is the dread that PC makers have felt at Apple’s advances. Starting in the middle of next year, with the arrival of the first PCs powered by the new Qualcomm chip, the PC companies will be hoping to show they can rival or beat Apple on sheer performance.

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This is a recipe for confusion, as buyers try to pick their way through rival x86 and Arm-based computers from the same PC makers. One key question is how much the companies are prepared to spend on supporting multiple product lines and investing in marketing — and for how long.

The other force that could change the balance of power in the PC chip world is artificial intelligence. The high computing demands of AI have increased the focus on NPUs, or neural processing units, the parts of a chip which handle AI — one area in which Qualcomm’s new chip is winning accolades.

However, the AI-powered applications that would make people want to rush out and upgrade their computers do not exist yet. Services like ChatGPT run in the cloud, and though the companies behind them would no doubt love to shift some of the expensive processing demands of these services on to their users’ personal devices, it’s not yet clear how that will happen. If AI turns out to be as disruptive as many in the tech world believe, the new PC chip wars will change the computing landscape. But it is likely to be a very long campaign.

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