It's easy to think of desktop CPU memory as a duopoly: on the one hand, Intel has 12th with this year's Alder Lake parts, and on the other, you have a resurgent AMD that spans successive Ryzen generations Has made massive improvements in the number of IPCs and cores.
In the consumer CPU area, it's a two-sided battle. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't any other desktop CPUs. Take a closer look and you will quickly find that the CPU space is much more diverse.
From powerful arm designs to specialized Russian government chips, there are a variety of non-Intel and non-AMD chips that power full-size desktop PCs. In some cases, like the Zhaoxin Kaixian range of chips, you can even get your hands on them through the right channels. Who makes these CPUs? How do you look? How fast are you? And can you play on it? Let's take a look and find out.
Poor on the PC: From the cell phone to the desktop future
The prime example of Arm challenging the status quo on the desktop. Last year, Apple launched new MacBooks that look identical to the previous generation of Intel on the outside, but inside, Apple has quietly started a revolution in the PC space. The M1 Macs have a 5 nm Apple SoC with highly customized ARM cores. From an architectural point of view, the M1 has more in common with the A14 bionic chip of the iPhone than the mobility-oriented x86 parts from AMD or Intel.
The M1 needs a Rosetta translation layer to convert x86 code into something that the M1 can execute. Despite the overhead for legacy applications, the M1 can even outperform Intel Comet Lake on some x86 workloads. Then it can wipe out the competition in native apps.
Apple plans to phase out x86 chips in Macs in the next few years. MacOS has less than 7 percent market share in the PC market worldwide. This means that Apple Silicon parts won't magically replace those like Tiger Lake U. However, Apple's switch to the M1 will likely spur other manufacturers to take Arm on PC seriously.
As early as 2012, Microsoft Surface RT was equipped with an Arm SoC that ran a version of Windows. However, speed, app compatibility, and a host of other issues have kept Arm on PC out of the spotlight. The M1 could be a sign of the future, with a wider range of products such as the Samsung Galaxy Book S equipped with Qualcomm 8cx. Arm on the PC is still in its infancy. However, five years from now, non-Intel and non-AMD chips in desktops and laptops could be a common sight. And the vast majority of those would be arm machines.
Zhaoxin: The Chinese x86 manufacturer is about to jump into the big leagues
Desktop and laptop arm chips are becoming increasingly popular. But what about alternatives in the x86 area? Only a handful of manufacturers: Intel, AMD, VIA and DMP Electronics have x86 licenses. Intel and AMD are well-known figures. DMP is a Taiwanese fabless manufacturer responsible for the Vortex86 line of embedded chips that can be found in some set-top boxes and in the industrial sector.
Stay VIA. In 2013, they founded Zhaoxin as a joint venture with the Shanghai city government as part of China's efforts to reduce reliance on foreign technology. VIA still owns a minority stake in Zhaoxin and offers – critically – an x86 license that allows Zhaoxin to develop its own desktop CPUs.
Zhaoxin Kaixian CPUs are based on the 16 nm process. The KaiXian-U6880A, which is their top-end chip, can actually be bought and built into a gaming system provided you live in China. It's an 8-core part that runs at a relatively low 3.0 GHz. The U6880A lacks hyperthreading, “boost” clocks or an L3 cache. Benchmarks show that the U6880A is more or less on par with the quad-core AMD A10-9700 APU, a further development of the older bulldozer designs from AMD around 2016.
The U6880A isn't exactly what we would call a “good” gaming CPU: we're looking at a part that is often surpassed by the dual-core Athlon 200GE. Still, the Zhaoxin CPU is enough to deliver frame rates north of 30 FPS in AAA titles like Hitman 3 and Far Cry 5.
Zhaoxin's next generation KX-7000 series is reportedly based on the 7nm process node. This opens the door to higher clock rates and greater efficiency. It remains to be seen how these pieces will fare against Alder Lake and Zen 4. However, raw performance leadership is not exactly the point here. It's a commercially available homemade Chinese x86 alternative that can easily handle most normal workloads.
Elbrus: The Russian government's server workhorse
Named after Mount Elbrus, the highest point in the Russian Federation, the Elbrus architecture is another attempt at technical self-sufficiency. In contrast to Zhaoxin's chips, however, Elbrus is designed exclusively to meet the requirements of the Russian government for secure computers: you will not see any consumer-oriented Elbrus parts in Moscow hardware stores.
The Russian government has two main uses for Elbrus: HPC servers for universities and research and secure endpoint PCs for the military and other sensitive areas.
MCST, a Russian semiconductor manufacturer that emerged from the leading IT research team in the Soviet Union, has been building chips based on the Elbrus ISA for almost 30 years. These are not x86 chips. However, Elbrus offers a binary translation, similar to the Apple M1. This enables Elbrus-Hardware to execute x86 programs and operating system environments such as Windows.
A few months ago, MCST presented the Elbrus 16S. This is a 16 nm chip that runs at 2.0 GHz and provides up to 1.5 TFLOPs of processing power. Interestingly, the Elbrus-16S supports quad-socket implementations with up to 16 TB of RAM – something that is not possible even on top and AMD and Intel server hardware.
SHAKTI: An IoT and embedded platform made in India
Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology unveiled this RISC-V-based platform in 2018. Indian silicon foundries are still in their infancy. This is why the latest processors in the Shakti E series are based on the 180 nm process and clock at up to 100 MHz. These are not chips designed for mainstream workloads. Instead, Shakti's E-Series focuses on low power IoT and embedded use cases like sensors.
While Shakti's core IP was developed with government funding, InCore Semiconductors manufactures bespoke Shakti chips for a limited number of private-sector customers. It will definitely be a while before the Indian semiconductor industry catches up with Intel (or even Zhaoxin). It's a step on the roadmap, however. In the here and now, Shakti chips can be used in a wide variety of commercial and governmental IoT workloads. We probably won't see a Made in India desktop CPU for at least the next five years, but the foundation has definitely been laid.
Intel and AMD continue to have a dominant presence in the desktop CPU space. Unless you live in China or work for the Russian government, an Apple M1-powered device is the only alternative that offers competitive performance. However, between the self-sufficiency efforts of governments around the world and the slow rise of Arm on PC, desktop CPU space is becoming much more diverse.
What does the end of the decade look like? We assume that Intel and AMD parts will remain relevant. But you could just as likely be running an arm desktop or something even more exotic.