Is Intel in Trouble? A Brief History of the CPU Company’s Troubles

Listen for the audio version of this article, featuring editor-in-chief Matthew White

The current CPU market is a fun place to dabble in. There’s always a new piece of silicon to praise, and when there’s not, the two companies responsible for making and releasing new chips are always competing with each other over market share in the computer market. We’re talking about AMD and Intel here. But the biggest thing to focus on right now is the upcoming CES, or Computer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas on January 8, where AMD is supposed to release some exciting information about their new Ryzen 3000 series, which has a chance to put Intel on the back burner in the CPU market.

Until recently, Intel has released their CPU’s with the same amount of threads as there were cores. It wasn’t until the release of AMD’s first-gen Ryzen in 2017, featuring the 4 core 8 thread Ryzen 3, the 6 core 12 thread Ryzen 5, and the 8 core 16 thread Ryzen 7, that Intel realized that they had to be more competitive in order to stay in the game. But how were they going to do that? Hyperthread their i7 series processors, while leaving the i3 and i5 series processors with a 1:1 core-to-thread ratio.

What prompted this sudden change in Intel’s marketing strategy? It wasn’t because they didn’t offer the absolute best performance in silicon processing, because they did. It wasn’t because their processors weren’t being used by a vast majority of the computer industry, because they were. Finally, it wasn’t because AMD offered stand-alone graphics in their processors, while Intel did not, because it was the exact opposite. It was AMD who lacked integrated graphics in their processors. So what was it?

There are many ways to answer this question, but the main reason was because AMD was the cheaper option. Sure, AMD offered hyperthreading in all of their Ryzen chips, and sure, Ryzen processors were better for actually processing information than gaming (that crown still belonged to Intel). Another plus to AMD’s processors were that they came with a decent stock cooler that could handle even extreme tasks, perhaps with a little overclocking on all cores.

But AMD had beaten Intel from an economic standpoint. The one thing AMD excluded from their Ryzen processors that Intel regularly added was that AMD processors did not have integrated graphics. What this meant was that you could not run a computer with a Ryzen processor without a graphics card, where you could do just that with an Intel chip.

Why would AMD exclude this from their Ryzen chips, knowing that Intel had it, and would ultimately beat them in the market that didn’t want dedicated graphics in their computers? The first reason is AMD knew that while they would lose customers who didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a GPU, the majority of people building computers at the time were factoring in the price of a graphics card into their budget. AMD also knew that the money their customers saved on a Ryzen CPU would ultimately result in a better GPU being bought for the finished computer, making the performance gap between Intel and AMD smaller when it came to gaming. And this further proves the point that I made earlier: without integrated graphics, more threads per core, and an included CPU cooler, AMD was not only a cheaper option but therefore a better option than Intel.

Intel didn’t stay down long, however. They soon came out with their eighth generation of processors in late 2017, with their flagship being named the king of gaming CPU’s at the time: the Core i7 8700K. This CPU was a 6 core, 12 thread monster that had a base clock of 3.7 GHz and could overclock to a whopping 4.7 GHz.

Intel also released their Core i9 processors as well, trying to compete with AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper CPU’s released soon after their first-gen Ryzen chips. The Core i9 and the Ryzen Threadripper were monstrous chips, ranging from 8 cores to 18, and all of them were hyperthreaded. These chips were not for the average computer user: they were meant to create content, render images, and flat-out outperform the competition. Again, Intel offered their chips at a higher price, with their flagship 18 core, 36 thread, Core i9 7980XE being an astounding $1,700, while AMD’s 16 core, 32 thread, Ryzen Threadripper 1950X was offered to the public at $1,000. Neither of these chips came with a stock cooler, and even if they did, they would not be sufficiently cooled. That’s how hot they could run.

In 2018, AMD responded to not only Intel’s Coffee Lake release but also their Core i9 Extreme series CPU’s. AMD came out with Ryzen 2nd generation, which offered a 4, 6, and 8 core lineup, just like first generation Ryzen. However, what made Ryzen 2000 better than Ryzen 1000 was the architecture, primarily when it came to individual transistor count. AMD made each transistor 12 nanometers in length, coming down from the 14-nanometer architecture they used in 2017. AMD also increased the clock speeds that their chips could operate at, increasing efficiency across all cores of the CPU. Each Ryzen 2000 chip could also be overclocked past 4.0 GHz, with the highest being 4.3 GHz. This would work to increase Ryzen’s instructions per cycle (IPC), which would, in turn, result in less GPU bottlenecking and increased CPU rendering speed; in other words, better gaming performance and ability to perform productivity tasks faster.

In addition to 2nd-gen Ryzen, AMD put their flagship Threadripper series CPU’s on their new 12-nanometer process, increased the core counts and clock speeds, and called it 2nd-generation Threadripper. This time, AMD released two series of Threadripper: ones for gaming, and ones for creators. The best gaming chip, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X, has 16 cores, 32 threads, and can overclock to an astounding 4.4 GHz. The best creator chip is the Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX. A man amongst boys in the CPU market, the 2990WX boasts a monstrous 32 cores, 64 threads, and a max boost of 4.2 GHz on all cores.

AMD’s release shocked the world, showing gamers and producers alike that Intel was not the only one who could be successful in the CPU market. 2nd-gen Ryzen immediately took off, gaining market share from Intel until finally, in July 2018, AMD took the lead in total market share over Intel, while Intel received more revenue.

Intel tried to respond with what many would call a poor attempt to match AMD’s core counts in mainstream CPU’s. Intel came out with their 9th-gen processing lineup, which ridded the Core i7 of hyperthreading and released a hyperthreaded Core i9 to the mainstream computer world. This product contained 8 cores, 16 threads, and operated at a base clock of 3.6 GHz and could boost up to 5.0 GHz. Everything sounded great to the consumer until it was released. Once everyone saw the $500+ price tag, they turned away from Intel’s 9th-gen CPU’s and began to question what Intel was thinking when they released the second Coffee Lake series. Further questions would arise concerning Intel’s capacity to take on AMD in the computer market, and more specifically the enthusiast computer market.

The point of this entire article was to give you some context on what AMD’s next move means for the computer industry as a whole. AMD is now planning to release their next lineup of mainstream CPU’s, which will not only increase the number of cores in each chip but also increase the clock speeds and lower the transistor size to an unbelievable 7 nanometers, 58% smaller than 2nd-gen Ryzen. AMD will release their Ryzen 3 with 6 cores and 12 threads, their Ryzen 5 with 8 cores and 16 threads, and their Ryzen 7 with 12 cores and 24 threads. AMD is also preparing to compete with the Core i9 9900K, releasing a Ryzen 9 with 16 cores and 32 threads. All of these chips can overclock to over 4.5 GHz, with the X versions, such as the Ryzen 5 3600X and the Ryzen 7 3700X, being able to overclock to 5.0 GHz.

AMD hasn’t officially released the Ryzen 3000 series yet, meaning nothing is guaranteed, but AMD has sent out a few tweets that people should get ready for CES on January 8th because of a bombshell announcement. Many computer enthusiasts have already speculated that they are referring to Ryzen 3000 series chips.

All of this to say that Intel is in some deep trouble as far as performance per dollar is concerned. AMD has come a long way in the past two years, and more power to them if they are able to overtake Intel’s previously held crown in the gaming industry. Intel has pulled some weird stunts since the release of Ryzen, and now they are paying for them as AMD’s strategy begins to kick in.

Do not misunderstand; I am not rooting for the downfall of Intel. I would like there to be competition in the market as far as who has the best CPU and how cheap we can get high-performance products. Such is the capitalist ethic, and such is the path to a better world. What I am rooting for here is exactly that; competition in the computer hardware world and the absolute best products for the least amount of money. Intel has been underselling their customers for too long, and AMD deserves the love they have been getting from fans across the world.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens, but it is possible 2019 is going to be a big year for CPU’s, with team Blue and team Red duking it out every single day.

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