The central processing unit (CPU) is one of the most important components in any computing device. It is responsible for executing instructions and carrying out calculations. Over the years, two major processor architectures have emerged as leaders in the CPU market – ARM and AMD.
ARM processors power the majority of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. On the other hand, AMD processors are predominantly used in desktops, laptops, and data centers. Both have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages.
In this guide, we will do a deep dive into ARM and AMD processors. We will look at their history, architecture, market share, performance, and use cases. By the end, you should have a clear understanding of the key differences between these two processor giants.
A Brief History of ARM and AMD Processors
Let‘s start by looking at the origins of ARM and AMD processors.
ARM stands for Advanced RISC Machines. It was originally developed as a joint venture between Acorn Computers, Apple, and VLSI Technology back in 1983. The first ARM processor launched in 1985 inside Acorn‘s Archimedes computer.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, ARM processors gained modest success in embedded systems and budget computers. But the real breakthrough came when ARM partnered with companies like Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and others to bring ARM processors to mobile devices.
The low power requirements, small size, and energy efficiency of ARM chips made them a perfect fit for battery-powered gadgets like PDAs, mobile phones, and later on, smartphones. Today, ARM dominates the mobile processor market with its energy-efficient chip designs. Major companies like Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, Huawei, and MediaTek license ARM‘s intellectual property to build their own custom ARM-based processors.
As of 2022, ARM chips power over 95% of smartphones and tablets worldwide. The company continues to push the envelope on power efficiency and performance with its next-generation designs.
Compared to ARM, AMD has a more recent history. AMD was founded in 1969 as a Silicon Valley startup. In the beginning, the company produced logic chips and microprocessors for various clients.
AMD launched its first proprietary x86 CPU in 1991 – the Am386. This kicked off AMD‘s journey into the PC processor market as a competitor to Intel. Throughout the 1990s, AMD continued releasing new processors that delivered better performance at lower prices than Intel‘s chips.
In 2003, AMD brought out the Athlon 64 – the first 64-bit processor for mainstream PCs. This cemented the company‘s reputation for innovation and affordable high-performance CPUs. AMD also entered the server CPU space in the 2000s with Opteron processors, taking on Intel Xeon chips.
In the 2010s, AMD struggled against Intel and had mixed success in the CPU market. But the launch of Ryzen processors in 2017 marked a comeback for the company. Ryzen delivered a massive jump in performance, core counts, and value compared to Intel‘s offerings. As a result, AMD steadily gained desktop and laptop CPU market share over the next few years.
Today, AMD powers desktops, laptops, and data center servers with its lineup of Ryzen, Threadripper, EPYC, and Athlon processors. The company continues to challenge Intel‘s dominance in the x86 processor industry.
Now that we know the history, let‘s examine the internal architecture of ARM and AMD processors. This will reveal some core differences in their design philosophy and capabilities.
All ARM processors are based on Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) architecture. As the name suggests, RISC uses a smaller, simplified set of instructions to carry out tasks. This differs from Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) used in AMD‘s x86 processors.
The RISC architecture has several advantages:
- Simplicity – RISC instructions are basic and can be executed within one clock cycle. This makes the processor logic simple and fast.
- Low power – With simpler execution logic, ARM chips consume very little power compared to CISC processors.
- Efficient pipelining – The straightforward instructions are easy to pipeline for parallel processing. ARM CPUs can do more work per clock cycle.
- Smaller silicon size – RISC processors require fewer transistors, leaving space for more cores or cache memory in a smaller die area.
- Cost efficiency – The simpler design results in better yields and lower cost of manufacturing.
However, RISC also comes with some disadvantages compared to CISC:
- Code density – RISC uses more lines of code to accomplish the same tasks as CISC.
- Larger binaries – RISC executable files are larger in size than stripped down CISC binaries.
- Hardware flexibility – With fixed instructions, RISC CPUs rely more on software optimizations compared to microcode enhancements in CISC.
Overall, the RISC architecture favors low-power applications where energy efficiency and low cost are critical. The tradeoffs in flexibility and code density are acceptable for embedded and mobile devices.
AMD‘s processors are based on CISC x86 architecture, which has been driving the PC market since the 1980s. It is intentionally designed for higher performance at the cost of increased power draw and complexity.
Here are some salient features of x86 CISC architecture:
- Complex instructions – x86 instruction set consists of complex multi-step instructions. A single instruction can do the work of multiple RISC instructions.
- Hardware flexibility – x86 processors have microcode that can optimize instructions at a hardware level for added performance.
- Code density – CISC results in smaller executable file sizes and requires fewer lines of code for the same programs.
- Legacy compatibility – Modern x86 CPUs retain backward compatibility with older software written for past x86 generations.
- Performance focus – CISC architecture focuses on maximizing computational throughput instead of power efficiency or die size.
In summary, CISC architecture provides rich instructions, better hardware flexibility, and superior performance ideal for desktops and servers. But the complex design consumes more electricity and generates more heat.
Now let‘s examine how ARM and AMD processors stack up in terms of market share across different segments. This gives us a sense of their dominance in key computing categories.
Mobile Processor Market Share
ARM has a near monopoly in the mobile processor industry. According to Statista, ARM-based designs accounted for over 95% of all smartphone processors shipped in 2020. Qualcomm and MediaTek together control nearly 60% of the mobile CPU market. Other ARM chipmakers like Samsung, Huawei, and Apple make up the remainder.
This shows the dominance of ARM in the smartphone and tablet space. AMD currently has no presence in this category. Intel tried breaking into the mobile market but saw very limited success.
Desktop Processor Market Share
AMD and Intel have been battling it out in the desktop CPU space for decades. But AMD has eaten into Intel‘s long-held market share lead in recent years.
According to Passmark, AMD‘s desktop processor market share has risen from 18% in 2017 to 30% in 2022. Intel‘s share dropped from 82% to 68% during the same period. AMD‘s Ryzen CPUs have won over desktop users looking for high core counts and performance at affordable pricing.
ARM chips have a negligible share of the desktop processor market today. ARM-powered desktops do exist but have not achieved mainstream adoption so far.
Server Processor Market Share
In the server processor segment, Intel still holds a majority share of around 90% according to Statista. But AMD is quickly gaining ground on the back of its EPYC server CPUs. AMD‘s server chip market share climbed from 0.8% in 2017 to 10.7% in 2021.
ARM is trying to break into the data center market as well. Amazon Web Services offers cloud computing instances powered by its ARM-based Graviton processors. ARM server chips account for less than 1% market share currently but are projected to capture over 15% share by 2025.
Now let‘s stack up the processing capabilities of high-end ARM and AMD CPUs in different applications.
Single-threaded performance measures how fast a processor core can execute sequential code. This depends on factors like architecture, instructions per cycle, and clock frequency.
In mobile processors, ARM-based chips fall behind high-end AMD and Intel chips on single-thread speed. For example, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 scores around 1,200 on the Geekbench 5 single-core test. In comparison, the AMD Ryzen 9 5950X scores over 1,700 on single-core Geekbench tests.
However, smartphone ARM processors are steadily closing the single-thread performance gap with each generation. Qualcomm‘s latest Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 flagship SoC delivers a 20% speedup on single-thread workloads over previous generations.
But on the server side, ARM still lags AMD in single-threaded performance. The 64 core Amazon Graviton3 processor scores just over 1,000 on the SPECrate2017_int_base benchmark. In comparison, AMD‘s 64 core EPYC 7763 processor has a score of over 1,600 on the same benchmark.
So in summary, AMD‘s fastest x86 chips still have an IPC and clock speed advantage over ARM processors for sequential tasks. But ARM is catching up across both mobile and server segments.
Multi-threaded performance evaluates how well a CPU handles parallel workloads across multiple cores. More cores allow processors to process heavier workloads and finish faster.
ARM processors powering smartphones and tablets are limited to around 8 CPU cores today. In comparison, desktop AMD Ryzen Threadripper processors can have up to 64 cores. More cores allow AMD CPUs to excel at multi-threaded work like video editing, 3D modeling, and compiling code.
However, ARM processors meant for servers and data centers are scaling up core counts as well. Amazon‘s 64 core Graviton3 chip is designed to rival AMD EPYC for highly parallel work. ARM server chips also benefit from greater energy efficiency in high core count configurations.
So AMD dominates multiprocessing on PCs thanks to honing x86 for performance over decades. But ARM holds an edge in delivering both high core counts and power efficiency crucial for data centers.
Modern processors come equipped with integrated graphics processors (GPU) on the same chip. We can compare the 3D graphics capabilities of ARM and AMD SoCs.
Smartphone ARM processors power very high resolution displays up to 4K. The Adreno 730 GPU inside Qualcomm‘s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 delivers graphics performance in the 2-3 TFLOP range. Tablet ARM processors like Apple‘s M2 chip can hit around 4 TFLOPS.
AMD‘s Ryzen desktop processors have integrated Radeon Vega or RDNA graphics. The Ryzen 7 5700G with 8-core Radeon graphics scores around 5 TFLOPS on the 3DMark Time Spy benchmark. The fastest desktop Ryzen APUs top out just under 10 TFLOPS graphics throughput.
For desktop gaming and graphics work, AMD APUs deliver stronger integrated GPU performance compared to mobile ARM processors. But ARM processors are catching up by adopting advanced technologies like RDNA 3 graphics. Qualcomm‘s upcoming Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC will hit the 10 TFLOPS mark in mobile gaming performance.
Power and Thermal Comparison
Another key area where ARM and AMD processors differ is power consumption and thermal efficiency. Let‘s take a look at the numbers.
All processors are rated for Thermal Design Power (TDP). TDP indicates the maximum amount of heat generated that the CPU cooler has to dissipate.
Flagship smartphone ARM chips like Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 have a TDP around 5 Watts. Comparatively, AMD‘s top Ryzen 9 7950X desktop CPU has a rated TDP of 170 Watts.
In fact, even a mid-range 6 core AMD Ryzen 5 5600X desktop processor has a 65 Watt TDP rating, far higher than a smartphone ARM chip.
For server computing, AMD‘s 64 core EPYC 7763 chip has a TDP up to 280 Watts. Amazon‘s 64 core Graviton3 tops out at 200 Watts.
So ARM processors are designed to operate in a very low 5-10 Watt power envelope. AMD desktop and server CPUs require far more cooling to dissipate heat from their much higher TDPs.
We can also compare performance-per-watt to gauge energy efficiency. ARM mobile processors deliver excellent energy efficiency thanks to their RISC architecture.
The Apple M2 chip inside the latest MacBook Air achieves around 18,000 Score/Watt on the Geekbench benchmark. In comparison, AMD‘s Ryzen 9 7950X scores around 14,500 Score/Watt.
For servers, Amazon‘s Graviton3 achieves around 30,000 Score/Watt while AMD‘s EPYC processors top out under 20,000 Score/Watt.
So ARM processors are generally 30-50% more energy efficient than AMD‘s chips on a per-watt basis. This allows ARM processors to pack decent performance even under tight power budgets.
Use Case Differences
Based on their respective strengths, ARM and AMD processors tend to target different classes of computing devices. Let‘s examine their typical use cases.
Here are the main segments where ARM-based processors are dominant:
- Smartphones – Mobile telephony is the biggest application for ARM. Android smartphones extensively use ARM processors from Qualcomm Snapdragon, Samsung Exynos, and MediaTek Dimensity series.
- Tablets – Android and Apple iPad tablets are powered by ARM chipsets. Apple‘s custom Silicon M series ARM processors drive its iPad range.
- Smart wearables – Wearables like smartwatches and fitness bands use compact and low power ARM processors. For example, the Apple Watch uses Apple‘s S series ARM processors.
- IoT devices – Internet of Things gadgets like smart home hubs, IP cameras, robots, and appliances are powered by ARM CPUs optimized for the application.
ARM will continue expanding into edge computing devices where low power and thermal efficiency are critical product requirements.
AMD‘s x86 processors primarily see use in the following computing segments:
- Desktop PCs – AMD Ryzen CPUs are a popular choice for home and office desktops among budget-conscious consumers and gamers.
- High-end laptops – Many premium gaming laptops and content creation notebooks opt for AMD‘s Ryzen H series mobile processors.
- Data centers – AMD‘s EPYC server processors compete with Intel Xeon in powering cloud infrastructure and hosting providers.
- Workstations – AMD Threadripper HEDT processors excel at computing-heavy workflows like video editing, 3D CAD/CAM, research, and programming.
Going forward, AMD will continue catering to desktop, mobile, and data center markets requiring maximum x86 performance. The need for backward compatibility ensures AMD‘s relevance for legacy Windows and Linux software.
ARM vs AMD – Which is Better?
Given the differences in their architecture, target use cases, and strengths, is one processor technology clearly better than the other? The short answer is – it depends on the application.
For smartphone and tablets, ARM processors deliver the best balance of compute capabilities and energy efficiency. AMD cannot match the tiny footprint and low power draw required in mobile devices.
On the flip side, AMD‘s desktop processors handily beat ARM in raw CPU muscle while offering wider software compatibility. Servers also benefit from AMD‘s core x86 optimization over decades.
ARM is the future for edge devices where a low TDP is critical. AMD drives performance-hungry computing workflows. Both processor architectures will continue evolving and thriving in their respective domains.
So rather than declaring one architecture as the outright winner, it is better to select the appropriate option based on the end-user device and its performance goals.
We have done a comprehensive architecture-level comparison between the two industry giants – ARM and AMD. While they adopt very different philosophies, both processor technologies have secured leadership in their target segments.
ARM dominates the mobile ecosystem with its emphasis on power efficiency. AMD caters to performance-seeking desktop and server users thanks to its CISC architecture maturity.
Looking ahead, the lines may blur between the two. AMD‘s acquisition of Xilinx could enable ARM-powered supercomputers in the future. Equally, ARM is exploring higher power envelopes for laptops and cloud servers.
But in 2023, ARM and AMD processors complement rather than compete with each other. ARM drives the billions of IoT edge devices around us. AMD powers the high-performance PCs and infrastructure running cloud apps.
Understanding the complementary strengths of these processor architectures is key to selecting the right computing platform.