The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Student Newspaper of MAST Academy, since 1991.
The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

Senior Issue 2024
June 5, 2024

Shapeshifters: Why your next computer may be more phone than PC

By Theo Miller
News Editor

Have you ever thought about why your laptop’s battery sucks so much? What about why your computer’s fan suddenly gets really loud for no reason? Why do these infernal machines even have fans? And why is the bottom of my laptop suddenly too hot to touch? Why do phones not have this problem?

What if I told you that big things are coming that may fix these very quibbles for you?

Let’s talk about processors (I know), and why big things are happening in the world of computers. If your computer is a body, the processor is the brain. You’ve probably heard of companies like AMD or Intel. Your computer might have one of their stickers on the bottom. Even if it does not, it probably runs on their technology, in one form or another. 

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Whether or not you have an AMD or Intel computer, they speak the same language, known as ‘x86’. This is what is known as a CPU architecture. x86 has been around for years, since the late 70s, and it is one of the main reasons you can download programs written for Windows XP and run them on a laptop bought 2 months ago. It works, and it works well. There is a reason we keep using it.

But x86 is far from perfect. While it’s good for large-scale processing, the shorter day-to-day activities like web browsing and email writing are usually pretty inefficient. Computers need electricity to run, and the processor is one of the most power-hungry components in a system, as it is responsible for running the whole show. But, processors work by sending electricity through transistors and resistors, science happens, and a lot of energy is lost as heat. That’s why computers need fans and why laptops get hot when gaming or doing other heavy tasks.

What if there was a better way? Well, there is. Your phone does not use x86, but rather a different architecture called ARM that was developed much more recently. I am afraid that the specifics of what makes ARM are beyond what I can put concisely, but at it’s core, ARM is all about running cooler and more efficiently. It may struggle a bit more under long, sustained, or heavy chores, but 90% of the time for 90% of people, ARM is a better choice. ARM machines almost universally have better battery life than their x86-powered colleagues, by at least double, and are able to do so with minimal performance difference in thinner, lighter, and fanless chassis. The more efficient chips also mean phone things like always being connected to a data plan now actually make sense.

So why have we not switched? Programs. Apps and programs have to be rewritten based on whether they will be run on an x86 or an ARM-powered machine. x86 has been the only platform since 2005, when Apple switched to Intel chips, so that’s what 99% of desktop apps are written for. Making a platform shift to ARM would require all new programs from every developer. Developers are not going to spend time on rewriting apps if users are not going to use those rewritten versions. Manufacturers are not going to develop ARM-based machines if users are not going to buy them because there are no programs written for ARM. The chicken and egg problem becomes immediately apparent. To continue our computer-as-a-body metaphor, this would be the equivalent of having to translate the Library of Alexandria from Ancient Greek to Chinese. Clearly, not going to happen anytime soon on it’s own.

Microsoft and Apple are starting to take the lead on transitioning to ARM. Microsoft tried once in 2012 with the ill-fated, Windows-Store-only, short-lived, ARM-based Surface RT. No one bought it. Big things are happening in the Micro-verse, though. Windows on ARM is now a thing, again. Last year saw the launch of the Surface Pro X, running an ARM processor. Reviews were mixed. While the hardware was beautiful and clearly a vision for the future of the Surface lineup, ARM’s software problem began to rear it’s ugly head. See, Microsoft solved the app problem by introducing a compatibility layer, basically a lightweight emulation layer that translates the x86 code into ARM-ese. This, technically, is a valid solution to the problem. The only issue is that in a device with a processor that specializes in low-to-medium performance, introducing a performance overhead for basic program running seems to defeat the purpose of the exercise, slowing basic tasks to a snail’s pace. So, sure. The Surface Pro X delivered on the promise of usable ARM computers, but only in theory. Clearly ARM-powered Windows laptops are not taking over the market.

Enter: The Benevolent Dictator. Apple has a long history of making brash and potentially anti-consumer changes either in the name of profit, performance, or “courage” (see: the iPhone 7 headphone jack). They may never be first to a thing, but if Apple does something, bet your bottom dollar that the rest of the industry will follow suit. So imagine the collective eyebrow-raise when at their annual (and temporarily virtual) Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced that they were ditching Intel for in-house ARM chips on the next generation of Mac computers. Imagine the collective impatience when Apple executives once again took to the stage several months later to announce the M1, an Apple-designed ARM processor that would power the future of Apple’s flagship line. Imagine the collective eye-roll for those of us with long enough memory when the company brought out unlabeled graphs with unnamed competitors supposedly showing an exponential leap in performance. Any time any manufacturer tries an ARM PC we always get these grandiose claims and misleading graphs. And so, without so much as a warning label, the new Macbook Air, Macbook Pro 13, and Mac Mini were released to the public, powered by the M1.

So, did Apple do it? Of course they did. They wouldn’t bother releasing it if they did not. The M1 is a superb chip that outperforms the outgoing model by a considerable margin, even running through a compatibility layer. No fan required. And how did Apple solve the app problem? Well, they took the road-less-taken when it comes to translation. Rosetta 2, Apple’s compatibility layer, translates apps at their install instead of live while running. It is not the world’s most efficient translation, but it is functional, and legacy Mac apps run perfectly acceptably on M1-powered Macs. Their battery life is exceptional, their boards are smaller and more efficient than ever, and their prices remained the same. Most importantly, from a user’s perspective, 90% of people will not be able to tell the difference.

ARM is most certainly the future. Whether that transition takes years or decades remains to be seen. Apple has committed to transitioning their product line fully within 2 years, but maintaining support for legacy Intel machines. Apple’s last transition was violent but quick. It remains to be seen how long it will take for ARM versions of all your favorite apps to be released. And now, the elephant in the room: should you buy one? If you understood everything of what I just said perfectly, probably not. Techies are going to want to wait for second- or third- gen Apple Silicon chips to iron out the kinks. For everyone else, I’d say yes*. The asterisk is the warning label that should be on these computers. This is first-generation hardware. There will be bugs. There will be issues. Apple will most likely not support these computers as long as their subsequent entried. If you enjoy macOS and are willing to roll the dice on the software front, go ahead. These are fine computers, and you are ushering in history. Oh, and give Microsoft a bit more time to figure everything out. They clearly are not quite there yet.

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Shapeshifters: Why your next computer may be more phone than PC