Phones and computers never used to be compared when it comes to power. Phones generally use ARM while computers use x86. Phones have been getting faster much more than computers. When they reach power comparable to computers, those processors can be added to computers, which is precisely what Apple did with M1.
CPUs run on instructions and a group of such instructions is called an instruction set. The difference in how these sets are handled is what separate ARM and x86. x86 instruction set architecture started to dominate the market. Chip manufacturers started adding more complex instructions to be perceived as better to a buyer. Overtime, these made the functionality bloated. Space in the processor was being taken up by fancy instructions. Acorn used RISC (Reduced instruction set architecture CPU) instead of the x86’s CISC (Complex ISC) which tries to add only required instructions. Out of this came the Acorn RISC Machine project or ARM. The creators didn’t expect ARM to be a success. Their aim was to find out why it wasn’t already a working architecture in the industry. The initial chip wasn’t connected to a power supply, yet the chip was running on residual power (power efficient). A computer chip on ARM was thus created but only efficiency wasn’t enough to dominate the industry. RISC CPUs like ARM do 1 cycle per instruction whereas CISC can do many instructions per cycle. Thus more heat would be generated for RISC to keep up with the same level of performance. Despite this belief, both types of processors were flourishing. RISC were great for engineering and graphics (used to create Jurassic Park, Toy Story, etc.). They were also used for Nitendo switch and other gaming consoles. However, in the PC industry, intel (x86 CISC) still dominated. PowerPC was a desktop chip based on RISC developed by Apple and Motorola. Use of ARM in portable devices was popularized by Apple’s use of the processor in the iPod. The collaboration result of PowerPC however, wasn’t going too well because Intel CPUs were more powerful.
Apple also approached Intel to see if the processors would work for iPhones, but the CEO at the time didn’t see such a deal working out and that the revenue wouldn’t be enough and iPhones wouldn’t sell much. This proved to be a big lost opportunity. iPhone launched in 2007 with an ARM processor and signed a license with ARM to design their own chips in 2008. They also bought PA Semi, whose founder specialized in high performance ARM chip development. This gave Apple the ability to design great chips to demolish Intel’s. Apple release their first fully custom CPU in 2012 called the A6. It had impressive performance compared to other mobile processors, but wasn’t head turning. The real shock was the A7 released in 2013 in iPhone 5s. These processors even beat ARM’s own designs by a year for the adoption of 64 bit architecture. ARM’s 64 bit processor would be seen later in 2014 in the Samsung Galaxy s4. Apple called its design a desktop class architecture. Most people thought this to be Apple bragging but the wording was a hidden clue to where the company was heading. The latest chips do actually hold up to computer performance. The high revenue bought heavy R&D and thus eventually the A12Z was born. Intel managed to improve performance by 28% in the past 5 years, while Apple in the same time managed to improve the same by 300%.
Interesting enough, in the same metric that provides the above figures, the top of the line processor by Intel is the core i9 10900K, a desktop chip that uses 125 watts of power (something that needs to be plugged into a wall). Meanwhile, Apple’s A14 in the iPhone 12 performs better than Intel’s and uses 5 watts of power.
Thus, Apple had to do away with Intel, and were struggling to keep up with the manufacturing. On the other hand, Apple could outsource manufacturing to companies like Samsung. The performance leads of Intel were being evaporated in the previous years (in 2019, iPad was more powerful than the MacBook Pro of the previous year).
With the A series processors, Apple pushed boundaries and it was time to deal with the PC industry. In November 2020, Apple reveals the M1, designed with only Mac in mind. Due to the same architecture, the chip can also run iPhone and iPad apps. Tech reviewers have been shocked by the performance of these processors. AMD has been progressing great but still doesn’t come close to Apple’s power efficiency. Continuing on the same trajectory, the x86 performance will never be looked at again.