Eavesdropper: RISC and how it delivers on efficiency gains

By: |
November 23, 2020 2:15 AM

Apple’s success will spell trouble for Intel. It would also force others to adopt ARM for laptops.

But the new announcements show that Apple may have again turned the corner.

$3.4 billion. That is the amount Apple will save every year from now onwards as it transitions to its silicon chips and moves away from Intel. Factor in the better performance, more battery life as claimed by reviewers and the gains may put Apple back on top. While the company is still the first choice with creators, over the years, it has been losing ground to Dell, HP and other laptop brands.

More important, sans any innovation in the last decade, it has also been losing novelty. While the company has delivered on its promise to create world-class machines which are better integrated and more efficient than many other brands, others have been playing catch-up quite well. Until a few years ago, Apple would occupy the space in top high-end laptop brands, but it has been ceding ground. Dell, with its XPS line-up and HP with Spectre, has been giving the Cupertino giant stiff competition.

But the new announcements show that Apple may have again turned the corner. While most eyes have been transfixed on smartphones and mobile innovation over the years, Apple may have changed the laptop business yet again. Whether it would be a death knell for Intel in laptop brands will depend on the company responds to the emerging threats. Till now, nothing that Intel has done is too revolutionary.

A fortnight ago when Apple announced its new line of laptops sporting its new silicon chips, many were sceptical of the idea. Earlier experiments with ARM have failed, and there was no reason that Apple would succeed. The company had earlier transitioned from reduced instruction-set computing (RISC)-based PowerPCs, owing to the high computing ability of Intel’s complex instruction set computer (CISC) based systems.

But life for Apple seems to have come full circle. The company earlier this year announced that it would transition to ARM processors and its new chips called M1. After years of experimenting with ARM chips for its iPhone and iPad—this is now more powerful than many laptops available in the market—the company decided its time to use the technology for laptops.

ARM has shown tremendous results in mobile phones and tablets—Qualcomm and Apple are prime examples. Given its history, Advanced RISC Machine or ARM has not been successful in laptops. It has delivered on efficiency gains, but laptops running ARM have been underpowered.

Microsoft RT is a classic example, launched a few years ago, as this revolutionary piece of technology, RT failed to impress as the machine was underpowered.

However, initial tests show that Apple’s new chips outperforming in single-core and multiple core processors, and that too with an impressive 15-hour battery life.

So, what has changed?

RISC-based systems have been underpowered because they can only communicate in simple commands with each other, the CISC architecture, on the other hand, is based on complex commands. Over the years, as processors have become more powerful and companies have made good on Moore’s law—the number of transistors you can place on a chip—RISC-based machines have become better at what they do while requiring less power and delivering on efficiency. That is how phones can survive for longer and do complex tasks on smaller battery packs.

Both RISC and CISC have evolved incorporating aspects of one another to improve on performance, CISC is coming to the near end of innovations. There is only so much juice that Intel can take out of its machines while keeping them light, efficient and longer-lasting. Had people preferred chunky systems, CISC would still be a thing. But as devices per user have increased, no one wishes to laden themselves with heavy machinery.

RISC still has its limitations, but for an average creator or everyday user, it’s the best way forward for companies, especially as people wish to work on the go and not find a charging point everywhere.

What is so revolutionary about Apple?

While Apple is trying what others like Samsung have tried with a Qualcomm 8cx chip, given its Apple, there is a bit of interest surrounding the way it does so. In a specs game, Apple may not prove to be the leader, but as has been witnessed over the years with iPhones, it’s the integration, not the specs that matter. The new M1 chips come with higher performance and normal cores, so the machine can switch between the two depending on usage, giving better battery life. Two, the system is more tightly integrated than ever.

More important, Apple is trying to fit more transistors on a chip than Intel has. The new chips have 5nm processors, with a RISC based architecture, which, in a layman’s term, means that less communication with more systems, delivering more power.

Recent reports indicate that Apple will try to push efficiency further with 4nm chips next year with its M2 iteration—even more transistors.

The other difference is the ecosystem and Apple’s heft. For any other standalone device maker and operating system creator to force companies to make apps for its OS would have been impossible. But given that its Apple, its phones and tablets have no dearth of apps. Apple is banking upon this to recreate the magic for its M1 chips. For now, its also banking on Rosetta 2 for transition, so that people are not left in a lurch.

There is also the four core machine learning integrated on the chip, how successful it is, or what all it can do is not clear, but from now on one can expect laptops to become a whole lot smarter.

Is it game over for Intel?

While Intel announced its project Athena a few years ago to improve performance and battery life of its systems, it has not been able to build on that promise. In fact, last year, when it said in its forward guidance that it will still take time to integrate 5nm chips, its shares tanked in the market.

Not that the company has not achieved efficiency or compute gains in years, but it seems as if it is running out of steam. But that does not mean Intel cannot turn around. However, as time passes, this would be more unlikely. Given that not all Apple developers will be quick on their feet to develop apps for new M1 chips—RISC systems work differently than CISC, so everything will have to be redesigned—Intel will still have an advantage. However, this shall all depend on how fast it acts and how better AMD gets with Ryzen, which is fast gaining traction. Another thing that may play out to Intel’s advantage is the VR and AR integration.

It’s ‘app’ening

But for all these variables to play out, one thing that necessarily has to work is developers coming out with native apps. As has been seen before with Microsoft, Lenovo and Samsung, Apple will be dead in the water. It is here that Apple’s might will come into play. Microsoft has already announced that it will create apps for M1, so has Adobe. But given that millions of codes will have to be rewritten, it is not clear how much time this will take. So, the full functionality of many apps may still not be available.

But there is still a future for ARM. Apple’s announcements have piqued interest, and it would force others to reconsider. Microsoft announced Surface Pro X earlier this year, while Samsung has its Galaxy Book based on ARM. As more people turn to Apple for better battery life and more performance, companies will have no choice but to innovate.

Whether Apple wins or not, the landscape has changed. At a time when most people were looking away.

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