2-in-1 PC ARM processors explained

What is an ARM processor and how do they compare with AMD and Intel?
Fergus Halliday
Jun 01, 2021
Icon Time To Read2 min read

Not all 2-in-1 laptops work the same. While many run and rely on the same kind of Intel and AMD processors found in laptop and desktop PCs, others incorporate a different type of central processing unit (CPU) called ARM.

What is ARM?

ARM is a specific kind of computer processor.

The acronym ‘ARM’ is often used to refer to either: a) A processor using the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) design architecture, or b) M. Ltd, the British company that designs ARM processors.

If you’re not too tech-savvy: think of a device’s CPU as its brain. The bigger the brain and the faster it can think, the smarter the computer. Like the engine inside a car, the CPU isn’t the only thing that matters, but it is a pretty important detail.

If someone tells you that a laptop has an ARM processor, what you mean to say is that the Snapdragon or Apple processor inside that laptop is an ARM processor.

Who makes ARM processors?

Although ARM Ltd plays a key role in the design of most modern ARM processors, they rarely manufacture them at scale. Instead, they license their specifications out to other tech companies looking to make their own ARM chips.

These days, most major tech giants like Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft are making ARM processors of various stripes.

Chances are you’ve probably seen or used a device with an ARM processor at some point in your life, since every iPhone ever made by Apple (along with most Android phones) have used this kind of processor.

ARM processors are extremely popular in the tablet and smartphone markets. In contrast, 2-in-1 laptops using ARM processors are a rare and recent development.

Microsoft took their first stab at this with Windows RT back in 2012 but re-ignited their efforts in 2017 through partners like Dell, HP and Lenovo.

Modern 2-in-1 laptops featuring ARM processors include the Microsoft Surface Pro X, the Samsung Galaxy Book2 and the HP Elite Folio.

How are ARM processors compared to Intel and AMD processors?

As opposed to ARM, the majority CPUs found in modern laptop and desktop PCs use a different kind of processor design called x86. For example, modern Intel processors like the Intel Core i7-10700 or AMD processors like the Ryzen 9 5900X use this kind of processor architecture.

ARM processors are different from the above in several fundamental ways. One of the most important distinctions here is that they use a reduced instruction set computing design (RISC) rather than the complex instruction set computing (CISC) one. What this means is that rather than be prepared and able to solve lots of different problems and do lots of things, ARM processors opt to do fewer things at a much faster speed.

A more lean approach to processor design also means that ARM processors are more power-efficient. Less complexity translates into more efficiency. This also makes ARM processors easier and cheaper to produce at scale. ARM has become popular for devices like smartphones and tablets for precisely this reason.

Why do so many 2-in-1 laptops use ARM processors?

Compared to traditional desktop PCs and laptops, the 2-in-1 market has proved fertile ground for brands looking to test the waters and see if consumers are as interested in ARM-powered PCs as they are smartphones and tablets. This is partially due to the natural overlap between the strengths of ARM processors and 2-in-1 laptops.

ARM is cheaper to produce and smaller than the alternatives, making it easier to squeeze inside compact or unorthodox PC form-factors.

If you’re only using your laptop as a web browser, then the fast speed and long battery life of ARM has a natural appeal. If you’re not expecting high-end performance from your 2-in-1 laptop, it doesn’t matter whether Photoshop runs well on it or not.

Fergus Halliday
Written by
Fergus Halliday
Fergus Halliday is a journalist and editor for Reviews.org. He’s written about technology, telecommunications, gaming and more for over a decade. He got his start writing in high school and began his full-time career as the Editor of PC World Australia. Fergus has made the MCV 30 Under 30 list, been a finalist for seven categories at the IT Journalism Awards and won Most Controversial Writer at the 2022 Consensus Awards. He has been published in Gizmodo, Kotaku, GamesHub, Press Start, Screen Rant, Superjump, Nestegg and more.

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