Will CES 2021 Be the Battleground for New Computer Chips?

It’s an ARM-wrestling match

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s successful introduction of its custom, in-house Apple Silicon will challenge the fragmented PC market.
  • The battle between Intel and AMD is intensifying, with AMD Ryzen processors coming to many mainstream laptops.
  • Consumers buying a Windows laptop in 2021 will have the most choice in over two decades.
MacBook Air 13-inch
Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

Apple lobbed a grenade into the consumer laptop market at the end of 2020: Apple Silicon. A replacement to the Intel hardware Mac used for over a decade, the new processors immediately boosted the performance, portability, and app compatibility of the Mac Mini, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro 13.

Problems at Intel have opened the door for competition, and it’s not just Apple taking advantage. Microsoft is working with Qualcomm to smoothly transition Windows to ARM-based chips. Laptop makers gradually are introducing these Qualcomm-powered PCs, some of which will debut at CES 2021.

"Both Microsoft and Qualcomm have invested heavily in this space, and even Apple’s switch to ARM will help the Windows camp," Jitesh Urbani, research manager at IDC focused on worldwide mobile device trackers, said in an email to Lifewire.

Laptops Based on ARM Are Building Momentum

ARM, a type of processor microarchitecture, is commonly used as the foundation of processors in smartphones and tablets. Over 160 billion ARM-based chips had shipped through early 2020, with the pace accelerating to a rate of 22 billion per year since 2017.

Placing an ARM processor in a PC laptop isn’t a new idea. Microsoft’s very first Surface device used Nvidia’s Tegra 3 and ran a version of Windows 8 coded to run on ARM processors. The Surface promised a new class of battery life and a fresh, reinvented Windows experience built for touch instead of mouse and keyboard.

It was a flop. Joshua Topolsky, reviewing the Surface for The Verge, was disappointed by its poor performance and inconsistent software support, concluding: "The whole thing is honestly perplexing." The Surface brand would go on to success, but only after introducing models with Intel hardware inside.

"Laptop makers are scrambling to figure out what buyers want in a world where people travel less and use their laptops more."

Yet the ARM dream never died. Qualcomm announced its first ARM processor purpose-built for laptops in 2018, Microsoft put an ARM chip in 2019’s Surface Pro X, and now Apple has its own custom ARM chip powering the latest Mac Mini, MacBook Air, and some models of the MacBook Pro 13.

This switch to ARM is not just about winning market share away from Intel and AMD processors, which are based on a different type of processor microarchitecture called x86. It’s also about winning support from developers. Urbani told Lifewire that with Apple and Microsoft now committed to ARM, "in general, app compatibility for Windows/ARM is certainly expected to improve, thereby benefiting consumers seeking thin, light, and long-lasting notebooks."

Why is that important? It’s about simplicity. Your smartphone has an ARM-based chip; it’s likely designed by Qualcomm if you’re an Android user, or Apple if you own an iPhone. If your PC also used an ARM processor, then it could, at least in theory, run your favorite smartphones apps—and vice-versa. Apple is taking advantage of this already, adding support for iOS apps to all Macs using its new Apple M1 Silicon.

Unfortunately for PC laptops, Apple is significantly ahead of Microsoft in this area. The latest Windows laptops using ARM processors from Qualcomm, like the Lenovo IdeaPad 5G, are making their debut at CES 2021. While these laptops run Windows 10, they aren’t compatible with legacy Windows apps and can’t run apps from Android or iOS. 

A Lenovo IdeaPad sitting on a sofa.

Microsoft has an emulation feature in development that will let older Windows software run on ARM chips, but it’s not ready for general release. Until then, anyone buying a Windows laptop with a Qualcomm processor only has access to Windows software updated for ARM processors. 

A report from Bloomberg in December 2020 claimed Microsoft is working on its own in-house ARM chip designs and software to support them. If true, it would finally give Windows a clear path forward for ARM support. The company isn’t expected to make a major announcement at CES 2021, however. If Microsoft has more to share, it likely will wait for its developer conference, Microsoft Build 2021, which will be held virtually May 19-21.

Competition Between Intel and AMD is Already Changing PCs

The arrival of ARM for the laptop is big news, but it’s not the only processor story to keep an eye on at CES 2021. Intel and AMD’s rivalry continues to take center stage. Once forced to fight for scraps under Intel’s table, AMD has surged forward since the introduction of its new Ryzen processor line in 2017.

Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights & Strategy, said in an email to Lifewire, "Two things have shaped this. Intel’s lack of 10nm execution, and AMD’s flawless execution. These two dynamics had to come together at the same time for this to happen."

Laptop makers are responding at CES 2021. AMD processors, once found in only the most inexpensive laptops, will power numerous models at a wide range of price points. Some will use AMD processors exclusively. Examples include the Lenovo IdeaPad 5 Pro and the Acer Chromebook Spin 514, a pair of mainstream devices that are thin, light, and have excellent battery life—traits AMD-powered laptops couldn’t claim a few years ago.

People in a meeting using the Acer Chromebook SPin 514.

That’s good news if you’re in the market for a laptop in 2021. AMD’s Ryzen processors are known for great multi-core performance and superior integrated graphics performance, making them a great pick for anyone who needs a fast laptop at a reasonable price.

Don’t count Intel out, however. Intel processors remain competitive. Moorhead believes "Intel will lose less unit market share this year, but will likely lose dollar market share." As he pointed out in his email, "Intel is able to supply processors in areas I do not believe AMD can, specifically at the lower end of the price spectrum."

Urbani also thinks the fight won’t be one-sided, saying. "AMD’s recent efforts have allowed the company to gain share, though I don’t expect Intel to stand idle. Consumers can expect more competition, especially in gaming products where performance per dollar really matters."

The battle between AMD and Intel is certain to grab headlines at CES, as it does every year, but it’s particularly important in 2021. Apple’s shift to its own chips cuts into Intel, which supplies Mac processors, and also into AMD, which supplies discrete graphics for Macs. Both companies will be looking at other markets, including Windows PCs, to make up that loss.

More Choice, More Confusion?

Intel rose to dominate the PC market in the late 1990s and hasn’t faced a challenger since. Most laptops sold in the past two decades used Intel chips exclusively. The rise of ARM in PC laptops, alongside the intense battle between Intel and AMD, will bring an unprecedented level of competition and choice to the Windows world at CES 2021. 

"It’s about simplicity. Your smartphone uses an ARM processor. If your PC also used an ARM processor then it could, at least in theory, run your favorite smartphones apps."

More choice gives consumers the option to buy a laptop that precisely meets their needs—but could it also lead to confusion? Urbani is optimistic. "I don’t expect consumers to be more confused by having more options," he said. "The pandemic has accelerated the growth in online shopping, and this has allowed PC makers and channel partners to better target their customers."

Urbani’s mention of the pandemic underscores yet another way CES 2021 is different. The show is virtual this year, and attendees are watching from their home offices. Laptop makers are scrambling to figure out what buyers want in a world where people travel less and use their laptops more.

PC laptop makers need to figure that out quickly. Apple’s successful introduction of the M1 chip stakes out a clear path for the Mac that, despite a radical change in hardware, doesn’t ask consumers to change their habits. The highly competitive PC market, however, remains divided, a trend that CES 2021 will only reinforce.

Want more? See all our coverage of CES 2021 right here.

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