Why the iPad is Intel’s worst nightmare

Written by Alex Watson

February 12, 2010 // 9:50 a.m.

Tags: #apple #apple-a4 #arm #arm-vs-x86 #ipad #iphone #iphone-os #x86

Whereas most people were only too keen to talk and talk about the pros and cons of the iPad, I think there’s probably one set of people who, more than any other, wish the iPad would just go away: Intel’s senior executives.

The iPad is close to Intel’s worst nightmare because it’s a ‘proper’ computer - it’s certainly not a smartphone - that doesn’t use an Intel x86 CPU. It’s also a machine that doesn’t face any of the demand-killing limitations non Intel laptops have done before. It’s not from a no-name company that people won’t trust, or whose products you can’t actually find in the shops. It’s not running Linux or an OS that’s difficult to understand. It’s not unfamiliar – millions of people know how to use the iPhone – and once the Apple marketing juggernaut gets up and running, you’re not going to be unaware it exists.
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Plenty of netbook manufacturers have expressed an interest in getting away from x86, and this time last year we were hearing rumours of ARM-powered netbooks. There were even a few on show at Computex 2009, but none of the manufacturers have been confident enough in these machines to actually release them.

The main problem is that Windows is currently x86 only, so switching to ARM involves finding a new OS. Manufacturers tried and failed with Linux in the early days of netbooks and so are understandably wary of it. Chrome OS isn’t ready yet – and no-one knows if it will be ARM-compatible or not – leaving the manufacturers with no real option, unless they were to write their own system. The x86 CPUs in netbooks have a problem, too, because as they’re scaled down chips, and yet still run a full-fat OS, netbooks can end up as slow, poky and frustrating to use, promising to be a proper computer and not being able to deliver.

Why the iPad is Intel’s worst nightmare
The A4 CPU at the heart of the iPad uses an ARM core

By taking the opposite approach – upsizing a phone, rather than downsizing a laptop – Apple has a far better strategy in terms of getting the necessary hardware power in the form factor it wants. The iPad is running an OS that (at least as far as we know) is very similar to the iPhone’s. This is a piece of software that runs fairly well on the 412MHz CPU in the original iPhone, and really well on the 600MHz CPU in the 3GS. No surprises that from the video evidence we’ve seen, it positively flies on the iPad – it’s got a 1GHz CPU after all.

Yet while it will seem fast to the user, a 1GHz CPU is actually fairly slow in terms of clockspeed, even for a netbook. Most use Atoms clocked at 1.6GHz. This is why the iPad can be extremely slim – and why its battery life (at least in terms of what’s promised), at 10 hours, is a lot higher than competing netbooks.

Even better, the success of the App Store means Apple gets round the other problem of moving away from x86 – it has a large software library for people to use, in addition, of course, to the web, which is what many people will use most on the iPad.

You can bet that Intel tried its best to convince Apple to make a netbook or small PC with an x86 CPU. Maybe it even offered to make a custom chip or give Apple first dibs on a new design as it did for the Macbook Air – but it’s impossible to imagine the iPad being as thin, light and power efficient as it appears if was based on x86. Using x86 would also have forced Apple to either give people OS X – and likely have it run as slowly as Windows does on a netbook – and not allow them to expand the iPhone platform.

For Intel, the problem is clear, especially if the iPad is the kind of runaway success the iPhone is: it proves that x86 is no longer the only choice for a mobile computer – in fact, it proves x86 is not even the best choice. Meanwhile, it makes Apple’s hardware design for the iPad look like a stroke of genius, a classic of 'under promise, over deliver,' which all but guarantees a level of delight in the hardware performance.
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