Given the speed at which AMD Ryzen processors are flying off the shelves, it's not hard to see that the desktop CPUs are hugely popular with enthusiasts. With excellent single-core performance and the option of 6, 8, 12 or 16 cores, the Ryzen 5000 series processors have outperformed Intel. Critically acclaimed by our test staff and everyone on the internet, it's hard to think about when AMD had so much success with its CPU releases.
AMD previously beat Intel in terms of performance, but previous wins against the chip giant have been rare over the years. Whenever Intel looked inferior, it responded quickly and effectively.
The story last time
Hop on a time machine and go back to 2005 when you want to see the last time AMD thoroughly outperformed Intel in terms of performance. It was the new dual-core Athlon 64 X2 that managed to impress reviewers back then, making the Intel Pentium 4 and related Pentium D processors look positively dated.
This AMD Athlon 64 X2 was the successor to the already impressive Athlon 64 that defeated Intel in the 64-bit world, but was overshadowed by the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. The Pentium took a sky-high clock speed to get AMD's attention, which looked like a cheap trick compared to the AMD innovation. With this 64-bit, two-core offensive, Intel turned its tires for almost a year until it had something competitive to offer.
Put a plan into action
The Netburst architecture that Intel used in the Pentium 4 was considered obsolete, and even implementing dual-core technology in these products did not bring Intel back to performance parity. It was time for something new and that led to the development of the core architecture.
To get to Core, Intel went to the Pentium III and its Tualatin revision. Refinements in this design led to the Pentium M, a mobile product that proved fast but also efficient. Features like SpeedStep varied the voltage and clock rate to extend battery life.
That nifty laptop chip played a huge role in 2006 when Intel needed something to impress the enthusiasts who drooled over the AMD Athlon 64 X2. The Intel Core architecture was launched in the middle of the year. The mainstream Core 2 Duo range and the Core 2 Extreme enthusiast models cemented Intel's dominance over AMD.
Quad-core offerings were added within a year, and Intel products were significantly more efficient, faster, and even cheaper than what AMD could offer.
The core improvements
How did they do that? At the time, the Core 2 Duo used a smaller 65nm manufacturing process than the 90nm process used by AMD. The Intel product also included more instructions per clock, slightly higher clock and bus speeds, more L2 cache, and operated at a lower voltage with a lower TDP.
These features have all contributed to the improvement in performance. For example, these chips became more efficient by pairing instructions for execution thanks to an Intel feature called "Macro-Fusion".
Additionally, the two cores shared the L2 cache instead of allocating a fixed amount per core. Eventually, all the lessons Intel had learned from the Pentium M about power management were drawn to make the core processors even more efficient.
AMD's stumbling blocks and Intel's long-term thinking
Intel continued to put pressure on AMD by switching to a 45nm process that enabled lower power consumption and higher clock speeds. This step was part of the Intel production model "Tick-Tock". Any change in the microarchitecture was considered a "check mark". This was followed by a "tick", which represented a shrinkage of the manufacturing process.
While Intel worked non-stop to regain its pole position in the performance race, AMD made some business decisions that had a lasting impact.
In late 2006, they bought graphics card maker ATI for a staggering $ 5.4 billion. Their next desktop processor struggled to keep up with the Intel Core 2 Quad, and other performance issues have further boosted the company's reputation. Meanwhile, Intel celebrated an impressive comeback.
The financial crisis hit a few years later and put the chip maker in an even more difficult position.
It took the Graphics Core Next release of graphics cards in 2012, their work on Wii U, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 in 2013, and finally the introduction of Ryzen processors many years later (2017) to show that AMD seemed to be recovering.
Change what worked
That tick-tock game plan worked wonders for Intel, resulting in a series of impressive processors that took AMD serious distance for about ten years.
When 2016 came, Intel changed the development model for process architecture and optimization and added another step to the strategy. The company cited economic feasibility as the main reason for change, as smaller dies can be expensive to make.
However, shrinking to 7nm has been instrumental in helping AMD catch up with Intel and gain the momentum with which they are in the successful position they are in today.
What can we expect
Intel's next steps will be very meaningful as it is in the latest benchmarks. We only know a few details about the upcoming Rocket Lake processors, which have a completely new architecture and will stall the Skylake models currently for sale.
These Rocket Lake CPUs appear to be a mild upgrade, with some speculating a 10 to 18 percent increase in performance compared to the current generation. More enticing upgrades to these processors include PCIe 4.0 support, support for higher-speed memory, and the inclusion of new Intel Xe graphics.
Alder Lake a.k.a. 12th Gen Intel Core, the anticipated sequel to Rocket Lake, is more in line with what an inspired Intel has done in the past.
Alder Lake is not expected until the end of 2021, it will shrink to 10 nm, which gives Intel a little more leeway to compete with AMD in terms of performance and efficiency. Expect more cores and support for DDR5 memory, which should result in an impressive version if everything goes according to plan.
History makes it seem like Intel can reclaim its place as the king of performance, but consumers will have to be patient as Rocket Lake and then Alder Lake hit the market. Of course, don't expect AMD (or Apple) to have some surprises of their own to keep Intel on its back. If this rivalry has shown us anything, it is that the two will continue to trade punches for years.
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