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ARM chips from Nvidia and AMD should power Chromebooks

A few weeks ago, Reuters reported the both Nvidia and AMD are planning to build ARM chips for computers. And by computers, I mean Windows PCs. However, ARM chips from Nvidia and AMD would be a boon for Chromebooks too, for several reasons.

ARM chips in Chromebooks today

The first Chromebook prototype was powered by an ARM chip rather than one that uses the x86 architecture typically found in PCs. Samsung’s Exynos 5 was the silicon inside the Chromebook Cr-48. Given how meager the ChromeOS interface and functionality was, that chipset was fine. Eventually, however, Google’s hardware partners turned to more powerful x86 chips, mainly from Intel, to run ChromeOS.

And that’s still mainly the case today. The vast percentage of Chromebooks use traditional PC chips from Intel, and in some cases, AMD. You have to dig around for the few ARM-based Chromebooks available these days.

The Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook is one of the best ChromeOS tablets today

You’ll find ARM chips from Qualcomm inside the Lenovo Duet 3 and Duet 5, for example. The newest ChromeOS tablet, the Asus Chromebook CM30, has a MediaTek ARM chip. Acer and HP have also used MediaTek chips in a few models. But that’s about it.

The Snapdragon slap down of ChromeOS

Let’s get back to Qualcomm for a second because its chips showed great promise for Chromebooks. But the best chips never came to the devices. Instead, the Snapdragon 8c and 8cx are used inside Windows on ARM devices.

As I’m sure you have, I’ve heard many comments about an exclusivity deal between Microsoft and Qualcomm on that front. I have no direct knowledge of any such relationship. Indirectly, I know what I see: The best performing Qualcomm Snapdragon compute systems are for Windows PCs.

Ironically, the company touts “Snapdragon for everyone” as long as everyone uses Windows.

So Chromebooks got the less attractive little brother of the 8c and 8cx.

The Snapdragon 7c first and second generation chips are in a few tablets and at least one traditional clamshell Chromebook I can think of. And while these devices are capable for basic tasks, they don’t compete with the ChromeOS laptops running on x86 chips.

Even worse, the third generation of the Snapdragon 7c isn’t happening at all. It’s effectively a dead platform for ChromeOS.

Simply put, Chromebooks have been a second class citizen (at best) in terms of Qualcomm Snapdragon chips. And while MediaTek silicon is also in the “capable” camp of ChromeOS, the company has been slow to get modern CPUs inside a wide range of Chromebooks. It took a year, for example, from the company’s Kompanio 520 processor launch to appear in a ChromeOS tablet.

That opens the door for both Nvidia and AMD. More importantly, it opens the door to consumers who want the performance of x86 processors while using less power.

What Nvidia and AMD could bring to ARM Chromebooks

Frankly speaking, there’s been little competition for ARM chips in Chromebooks. Sure, some device makers have tried to slap a solid phone chip inside a laptop but that’s been rare. And I wouldn’t call those efforts successful either.

These days, it’s generally Qualcomm or MediaTek in the ARM Chromebook space. The former relegates ChromeOS to the backseat of Windows PCs while the latter is slow to gain traction in devices. For consumers, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Adding Nvidia and AMD into the mix could really shake that up, however. Both companies are market leaders in terms of chip design. Both are the defacto leaders in the GPU market, for example. Both are also pushing deep into chips for AI and servers.

Simply put, they have the chops to give Chromebook makers a truly viable option from the same-old x86 chips from Intel. And from AMD itself, which can be found in a few ChromeOS laptops.

My hope is that if either, or both, of these companies do build ARM chips for PCs, that definition of “PC” includes Chromebooks. If so, Qualcomm and MediaTek would pushed to innovate more and quicker in this market.

Given the graphics expertise of AMD and Nvidia, Chromebooks capable of running more demanding games could be a possibility. And higher performance computing that uses less power would be on tap too. It’s time for more ARM choices in Chromebooks.

author avatar
Kevin C. Tofel

4 thoughts on “ARM chips from Nvidia and AMD should power Chromebooks

  1. Kevin, your article strongly implies that chip makers mainly decide whether each of their chips ends up in a device. In other words, Qualcomm is the reason why their premium Arm chips aren’t making it into Chromebooks. Thus, since Qualcomm isn’t behaving rationally, let’s go see if we can convince AMD or Nvidia to put their premier Arm chips into Chromebooks. I would have thought that the Chromebook makers are primarily the ones making that decision, most likely based on the least expensive chip that will hit their performance targets for a proposed product. No? Some discriminating Chromebook customers have a chip preference. But most really couldn’t care less as long as it “just works.”

  2. Just a couple more thought about this. The primary argument for preferring Arm chips over Intel chips is that, all other things being equal, the battery will last a lot longer on an Arm chip. We’ll then, I’d guess that’s a much, much stronger incentive in a Windows environment than a ChromeOS environment! I’d also say that, (1) if the aggregate Chromebook-user market greatly values longer battery life, then its buying pattern should clearly bear that out. Also, (2) Chromebook reviewers’ articles should be extremely vocal about battery life. I’d venture to say that neither of those conditions is true.

  3. @posts I would love to see performant modern ARM chips in Chromebooks. Given the entire platform is free of the legacy x86 architecture that Windows is mired in you'd think it a no brainer. I've also been surprised about the lack of cellular connectivity for Chromebooks as well. But this would partially explain it.

  4. Nvidia and AMD could build ARM desktops and laptops that could run ChromeOS, Linux or Windows, it would be totally up to the user. I currently have a Dell workstation where I triple boot Windows 11, Fedora Linux and ChromeOS Flex with no problems at all. I would like to do a similar thing with ARM. I develop and test Rust programs on all of them.

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