Intel x86 or x64 processors have traditionally been found in laptops and desktops, while ARM processors have been found in lower-power embedded devices, smartphones, and tablets. But you can now buy laptops with ARM chips and smartphones with Intel chips.

ARM and Intel offer two entirely different and incompatible architectures. Whether you’re choosing a Windows, Android, or Chrome OS device, you can choose between ARM or Intel x86/x64 — and the choice matters for software compatibility.

ARM vs. Intel: A Quick History Lesson

Intel chips have historically had the best performance, but have had the highest power consumption and price. ARM chips have historically had the lowest power consumption and been significantly cheaper, but haven’t been able to compete with Intel on performance. This isn’t a recent distinction — a cell phone from ten years ago will probably have an ARM chip, while a desktop PC would have an Intel chip.

Note that we’re including AMD chips along with Intel chips here. AMD chips also use Intel’s x86 — now x64, because it’s 64-bit — architecture.

ARM chips have been improving rapidly in terms of performance. iPhones and iPads along with most Android smartphones and tablets all have ARM chips inside them to achieve their low power usage. ARM started with an inexpensive, low-power architecture and has been improving their performance, and we can see that in how much faster smartphones and tablets have become over the last few years.

Intel x86 and x64 chips have been improving in power consumption as Intel realized they’d fallen behind to ARM on mobile devices, with Intel’s latest Haswell chips granting huge battery life improvements to laptops. Intel started with a more expensive, high performance architecture and has been lowering its power consumption and making the lower-end chips more price competitive.

ARM and Intel chips are growing closer to each other, so it’s no surprise that the lines are starting to blur. Whether you’re buying a Windows device, a Chromebook, or an Android device, this difference matters.

Here’s Why You Should Care: Software Incompatibilities

ARM and Intel chips have different processor architectures and instruction sets. This means that you can’t run an application compiled for the Intel architecture on an ARM computer, and you can’t run code compiled for ARM on Intel computers. This has important implications for Windows devices, Chromebooks running desktop Linux programs, and even Android devices.

Windows 8 vs. Windows RT

Most of the Windows devices you’ll find in the wild run the full version of Windows 8 on an Intel processor. However, some devices — including Microsoft’s Surface 2, Surface RT, and Nokia’s Lumia 2520 tablet — have an ARM processor inside them. These ARM devices run Microsoft’s Windows RT.

RELATED: What Is Windows RT, and How Is It Different from Windows 8?

Windows RT is very limited and can’t run any non-Microsoft desktop programs at all. Microsoft chose to lock it down in this way — they could have allowed developers to modify and recompile their applications for Windows on ARM. If they did, you’d only be able to install Windows desktop applications specifically compiled for ARM. All the Windows desktop applications out there wouldn’t run on Windows RT.

Microsoft would have been starting from square one here, building a new Windows on ARM desktop software ecosystem. They also knew that many people would have been confused, attempting to install Windows on Intel software on their Windows on ARM systems. In the end, they decided to make a break from the past and lock down the desktop completely. They’d probably like to remove the desktop from Windows RT completely, but they haven’t yet released a version of Office that runs in the new interface formerly known as Metro.

You can only install new “Windows 8-style” apps from the Windows Store on a Windows RT device. Most Windows Store apps will function because they’re designed to be cross platform, but the occasional app may only run on Intel processors.

In Short: Windows RT on ARM is limited and you can’t install any desktop software on it at all.

Intel Chromebooks vs. ARM Chromebooks

Some Chromebooks use Intel chips, while other Chromebooks use ARM chips. Samsung’s popular Series 3 Chromebook uses an ARM chip, as does the new HP Chromebook 11. Many other Chromebooks use Intel chips.

On Chrome OS, this doesn’t matter too much. You can still run the same Chrome browser and web apps on an ARM processor. Flash and Netflix all function on ARM Chromebooks. Chrome OS doesn’t have the long history Windows does, so you won’t run into applications that can’t run on ARM.

RELATED: How to Install Ubuntu Linux on Your Chromebook with Crouton

However, this matters a lot if you plan to put your Chromebook into developer mode and install desktop Linux. Desktop Linux has historically run on Intel processors, so it’s much more limited when running on ARM processors. The majority of the software you use is open source and can be recompiled for ARM processors, but all of the closed-source applications you might want to run will only run on Intel chips.

The desktop Linux version of the Adobe Flash plug-in, Steam and its library of hundreds of Linux games, Microsoft’s Skype for Linux, Minecraft — all of these applications can be installed in developer mode on an Intel Chromebook, but won’t function at all on an ARM one. If you plan on using your Chromebook as a Linux system, you’ll probably want to get an Intel-based one unless you only need some open-source utilities.

You read that right — while Flash works in Chrome OS on an ARM Chromebook, you can’t install Flash in a desktop Linux environment on an ARM Chromebook.

In Short: Chrome OS is fine with an ARM chip, but you have a much more limited desktop Linux system in developer mode.

RELATED: What Are ARM CPUs, and Are They Going To Replace x86 (Intel)?

Android on Intel vs. Android on ARM

Android smartphones and tablets have historically run on ARM chips, although Intel has been trying to change this for years. They’ve shown off — and released — Android phones and tablets with Intel chips inside. Intel is now saying that many Android tablets with their Bay Trail chips will arrive very soon. These devices may offer higher performance than ARM tablets, but there’s a software comparability concern here, too.

Most Android apps use the Android SDK and run on the Dalvik virtual machine, so most Android apps will be compatible with both ARM and Intel processors. However, some apps use the Android NDK — native development kit — to use native ARM code and squeeze more performance out of their apps. These apps will generally be performance-sensitive ones, like games. Apps with ARM-specific code won’t run on Intel x86 or x64-based Android devices.

In 2012, Intel said they were comparable with 95% of Android apps [Source]. This is a good number, but 95% isn’t all Android apps — at that rate of compatibility, one out of every twenty Android apps won’t work. If a game you want to play won’t run on an Intel-based Android device you buy, this can be frustrating.

In Short: Android devices with Intel chips will run the vast majority of Android apps, but ARM devices will run all of them.

The architecture of the chip in your device matters, so be sure to pay attention to it when buying a new device. You wouldn’t want to end up with a Windows device you can’t install applications on, a Chromebook that you can’t run popular Linux programs on, or an Android device that can’t play your favorite game.

Apple devices are more clear-cut. At the moment, all of Apple’s Mac computer have Intel chips and all of their iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices have ARM chips.

Image Credit: huangjiahui on Flickr, Orde Saunders on Flickr, Torsten Maue on Flickr, Cheon Fong Liew on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »