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Will MacBooks Take Up ARMs?

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 6, 2011 2:23 PM PT

Whispers are circulating out in Web Rumor Land that Apple may be planning to switch processors in its MacBook line of laptops from Intel-made silicon to ARM chips.

Will MacBooks Take Up ARMs?

ARM chips dominate the mobile world, having left Intel's Atom processors behind in the dust.

Certain recent Cupertino moves may have given rise to this rumor -- among other things, the company has opened an iOS-style app store for the Mac. It has begun issuing betas of OS X Lion its next operating system, as apps in the Mac App Store.

However, Apple may not want to abandon Intel just yet. The chip maker has just announced the world's first 3-D transistors, a move that might breathe fresh life into its battle against ARM's dominance. Plus there's the possibility that it might team with Apple on this technology.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Speculation on Apple's Possible Move

Apple's move to ARM-based chips will take place by mid-2013, according to the blog SemiAccurate, which first raised this possibility.

That's when the first products from Nvidia's Denver project are likely to come online, SemiAccurate reported.

Denver is Nvidia's project to build high-performance ARM-based CPU cores designed to support future products, from servers to workstations to supercomputers.

"We talked about this issue with ARM this morning, and they said they wouldn't comment," Jennifer Grabowski, who's with ARM's public relations agency the Racepoint Group, told MacNewsWorld.

Intel also kept mum.

"The reports and questions you call out are based on rumors and speculation, and not something we comment on," Intel spokesperson Claudine Mangano told MacNewsWorld.

A World of Infinite Possibilities

Technically, it's "quite possible" for Apple to switch from Intel processors to ones from ARM, Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told MacNewsWorld.

Given its prominence in the smartphone field, ARM is often associated with mobile devices, and lately it appears the personality of Apple's mobile line is beginning to rub off on its Mac platform. Apart from opening the Mac App Store in January that emulates its iOS App Store, Apple has also mentioned plans to bring the "best thinking from iPad" to Mac OS X Lion, the next iteration of its Mac operating system.

"Mac OS X Lion, which is coming out in the fall, really blurs the lines between Macs, iPads and iPhones because Apple has taken a lot of the concepts they're using in those devices and bringing them back to the Mac," Howe pointed out.

"Apple have done a rethink of the PC experience based on what they've done with the iPad," Howe stated. "They're trying to make the whole experience on your laptop or PC just like the iPad."

That could include moving to the ARM chip, which Howe describes as "much smaller and less power-hungry." Apple's iPad 2 runs on an A5 chip, a processor with dual ARM-based cores.

Safety in Numbers?

Could Apple be following in Microsoft's footsteps because it fears being left behind?

At the Consumer Electronics Show last January, Microsoft announced that the next version of Windows would support system on a chip (SOC) architectures, including ARM-based systems from Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

"Once you put that combination [of Windows 8 on an ARM processor] into a server architecture, you can have really big data centers that don't have to be next to hydroelectric plants to run because they'll consume less electricity," Howe stated.

What About Intel?

There's one thing that might derail this scenario of Apple's moving off Intel to ARM processors -- or at least modify it to some degree. Intel announced Wednesday that it has developed the world's first 3-D transistors.

Intel demonstrated this technology, which it calls "Tri-Gate", in a 22nm microprocessor codenamed "Ivy Bridge" on a laptop, a server and a desktop PC.

The chip giant has been working on this technology since 2002. Tri-Gate transistors offer more performance and consume less power than previous state-of-the-art transistors, making them ideal for use in small, handheld devices, Intel said.

Might Apple work with Intel on Ivy Bridge, designing chips for its laptops and PCs and getting Intel to handle the physical aspect of manufacturing, much as the two teamed up on the Thunderbolt I/O technology?

"This scenario is entirely possible," the Yankee Group's Howe said. "Apple never likes to have only one vendor supply them because that would let the vendor dictate terms to them."

For example, when Apple had was using the PowerPC G4 chips from IBM and Motorola, it had been running Mac OS on Intel for five years without telling anyone about it, Howe pointed out.

"Apple may never go over to ARM, its ARM-based products may just sit in a lab, but working with ARM may be seen as a way to keep Intel honest," Howe suggested.

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