The state of AMD
AMD entered the x86 processor market as a sub-contractor for Intel. The contract allowed AMD to use Intel’s x86-based 8086 design to manufacture processor clones. These chips would help Intel fulfill orders for IBM’s new PCs.
Once Intel introduced its 32-bit processor, AMD’s contract stalled, forcing both companies into a legal battle spanning years. AMD resumed making clones until 1996 when it launched its first in-house x86-based processor, the AMD K5.
AMD introduced the first consumer-facing 64-bit processor, the Athlon 64, in 2003. It also launched the Athlon 64 FX for enthusiasts and the Opteron chip for servers. The company’s first consumer-facing dual-core chip, the Athlon 64 X2, arrived in 2005. Its first four-core chip, Phenom, arrived two years later. The Athlon and Phenom desktop parts appeared to be AMD’s prime focus.
That changed when Apple ignited the mobile boom with its first iPhone and iPad.
The Bulldozer years
After a brief presence between 2006 and 2008, AMD rebooted its mobile efforts with Fusion. This initiative introduced AMD’s very first Accelerated Processing Unit, or APU, cramming CPU cores and GPU cores into one chip. It also started a chain reaction that would see AMD fall behind Intel in the desktop space until 2016. AMD’s APU efforts essentially dominated the Bulldozer years.
For example, between 2011 and 2016, AMD’s only desktop efforts were the FX-branded chips. Codenamed Zambezi and Vishera, they were based on AMD’s Bulldozer architecture (Piledriver was a revised Bulldozer). Meanwhile, Intel cranked out desktop and laptop chips every year. The company also focused on the enterprise sector given the uncertainty of desktops.
To AMD’s defense, naysayers predicted tablets and smartphones would kill the desktop and laptop markets. But Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s, and detachables seemingly saved the PC industry and nearly killed tablets in the process. Still, OEMs mostly stick with Intel-based chips in PCs while resorting to ARM-based solutions in handheld mobile devices.
Yet despite its heavy APU focus, AMD had a master plan.
Consoles and graphics
Custom APUs based on its Graphics Core Next GPU architecture landed in the Xbox One, Xbox One X, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 4 Pro. Developers working on x86-based PCs could now create games that worked across console and PC without any porting involved. High-definition PC gaming finally returned.
That’s the flip-side to AMD’s minimal CPU presence during the Bulldozer years: It’s also a graphics card manufacturer. AMD acquired ATI Technologies in 2006 and began producing add-in graphics cards for desktops. Intel won’t enter the discrete GPU race until 2020.
AMD’s first-generation Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture appeared in 2012’s Radeon HD 7000 “Southern Islands” add-in card family. The Radeon RX Vega series concluded AMD’s GCN era with the 7nm Radeon VII graphics card manufactured by Gigabyte, Sapphire, XFX, and more.
Similar to AMD’s mobile focus, the two years between Radeon RX 300 and Radeon RX Vega targeted mainstream graphics. That gave Nvidia room to dominate the desktop and notebook spaces with its GeForce GTX 900 and GTX 10 Series. Meanwhile, AMD released budget-friendly RX 400 and 500 cards, bringing low-end VR and Full HD graphics to every desktop.
Meet Zen and Vega
Looking back, AMD experienced a four-year gap between its FX “Vishera” CPU family and its Ryzen 1000 chips. Two years passed between AMD’s final high-end Radeon RX 300 desktop add-in GPU and its budget-friendly Radeon RX 400 family.
In that time, AMD secretly worked on a new from-scratch CPU architecture. Called Zen, it would set the company back on a competitive course.
AMD also developed the Vega graphics platform based on its fifth-generation GCN architecture. This design served as AMD’s high-end successor to the RX 300 family. AMD created Radeon DNA too (RDNA): The company’s first new from-scratch GPU architecture since GCN’s introduction in 2012.
According to AMD, Ryzen CPUs can match the performance of Intel processors at half the cost. While that sounds great, there’s a huge setback: Ryzen desktop chips do not include integrated graphics. If you’re a PC gamer, that likely won’t matter given you’ll want a specific graphics card. If you don’t require a discrete GPU, most Intel desktop and mobile CPUs include integrated graphics. AMD’s Ryzen-branded APUs include integrated graphics as well.
The original Ryzen 1000 series relies on AMD’s first Zen design using 14nm process technology. The Ryzen 2000 series for desktop relies on an enhanced Zen architecture (aka Zen+) and 12nm process technology.
On the mobile front, AMD’s Ryzen 2000 APUs for laptops and desktops use the original 14nm Zen architecture. The new Ryzen 3000 APUs arriving in July rely on the 12nm Zen Plus (or Zen+) design. Compared to the desktop chips, AMD’s Ryzen-branded APUs are one step behind in Zen’s Gen1-Refresh-Gen2 update model.
The new Ryzen 3000 desktop CPUs are based on AMD’s second-generation Zen architecture (Zen 2) and TSMC’s 7nm+ process technology. That’s notable given Intel’s 10nm Ice Lake chips won’t appear until the end of 2019. Even more, AMD’s new batch includes the upcoming Ryzen 9 3950X, a 16-core chip clocked up to 4.7GHz for $749. Intel’s equivalent is the Core i9-9960X costing at least $1725. Ouch.
But wait! There’s more! AMD’s new Ryzen 3000 series boasts support for PCI Express 4.0 while current Intel products do not. Short for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express, PCI Express is a standard for high-speed connections between the CPU, graphics card, storage, and more. The PCI-SIG approved the PCIe 4.0 specification in October 2017 enabling data transfers of up to 64GB per second (16GT/s).
The state of Intel
Intel really needs no backstory. The doors opened as N M Electronics in 1968 and then changed to Intel – short for Integrated Electronics – a month later. The x86-based processor era began with Intel’s 8086 chip used in IBM’s new personal computer family launched in 1981. Intel’s 80286, 80386, and 80486 microprocessors followed thereafter.
Intel began using a tick-tock production model in 2007. The “tock” represented a change in the CPU microarchitecture while the “tick” crammed the revision into a smaller chip layout. For instance, Intel used its 22nm fourth-generation “Haswell” microarchitecture in processors launched during 2013. Intel’s fifth-generation “Broadwell” CPUs arrived the following year based on a 14nm version of “Haswell.”
The death of Tick Tock
The move to 14nm process technology effectively killed Intel’s Tick-Tock model and introduced a new model Intel calls Process-Architecture-Optimization. With its 14nm process node already up and running, Intel designed a new microarchitecture codenamed Skylake. This design served as the foundation for its fifth to ninth-generation processor families. Intel officially killed its tick-tock model with the launch of its seventh generation “Kaby Lake” processors.
Kaby Lake relies on the first optimization of Intel’s 14nm process technology (dubbed as 14nm+) in 2016. Intel refreshed Kaby Lake for 2017 in the first wave of eighth-generation mobile processors using the same process node. This updated design increased power efficiency and added four cores to Intel’s Core i5 CPU family. The eighth generation really didn’t kick off until Intel’s second Skylake optimization *14nm++) dubbed as “Coffee Lake.”
From there we saw a third optimization in 2018 (14nm+++) with “Whiskey Lake,” a mobile-only successor to Kaby Lake Refresh. We also saw the debut of “Amber Lake,” the mobile-only successor to Kaby Lake.
All the while, Intel teased a new processor based on 10nm process technology dubbed Cannon Lake. Still based on Skylake, the eighth-generation chip made an appearance but didn’t go mainstream. What Cannon Lake did accomplish was restart Intel’s Process-Architecture-Optimization engine.
Caffeine and icy waters
That brings us to Intel’s latest processors. Initially launched in October 2018, the ninth-generation family is a refresh of Coffee Lake on the 14nm++ process node. Three desktop CPUs arrived in October followed by six in January during CES 2019 and another twenty-four in April. That rollout number doesn’t even include mobile, server, and HEDT products.
Not stopping there, Intel introduced its tenth-generation “Ice Lake” family during Computex 2019 based on a new “Sunny Cove” architecture. It’s the architecture portion of Intel’s Process-Architecture-Optimization model. The first eleven chips target mobile sporting “U” (ultra-low power) and “Y” (extreme low power) suffixes. You’ll see up to four cores and eight threads, speeds up to 4.1GHz, and GPU speeds up to 1.1GHz.