Intel’s last 5 flagship consumer CPUs, released 2015–2019: the i7’s 6700K, 7700K and 8700K and i9’s 9900K and 10900K. All of them are on the same process node. 5 generations of stagnation, when Intel’s previous cadence meant a node change after the third.

Intel’s Troubles in Shrinking Down

Intel has been synonymous with new technology in CPUs for decades, but more recently, they have been fighting a long battle for making progress with their offerings

Yatharth Sood
18 min readAug 7, 2020

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CPU design is an extremely complex science and a complicated business. There are many ways you can lose out on something while being ahead of your competition at the same time, with the same product. That is where scientific ingenuity wins you the technical battle, and you win the “numbers game”, in a roundabout way if the circumstances are like so. But the battle of the “mind share” of the consumers cannot be won so convincingly with a technicality. You need the marketing strength behind your product for it to win over the doubtful buyer, and more importantly, the investor. So, what has Intel done (or has not) that makes it lose that fight against AMD, their only competition in the x86 CPU space? What problems has Intel faced in the recent years that make their CPU’s fall behind the competition, despite Intel being able to show, in some form or another, that buying them is still a better choice than AMD? They have kept their promise of being the superior choice for tasks such as gaming, that high-end CPU’s are very commonly used for, but for everything else, AMD has rocketed past them, and has recently come quite dangerously close to taking over in gaming as well. And it’s a popular opinion that they will go further than that as well, and will do so very soon. We need to start looking from the mid-2010’s, to understand Intel’s current position.

What is “shrinking” in computer processor terms?

The idea behind a “die shrink” or more precisely, reducing the gate width of the MOSFET (Metal Oxide Silicon Field Effect Transistor) to a smaller measurement (measured in nanometres in 2020) is a process that helps processors achieve greater efficiency in operations, as they can be more densely packed with more transistors in the same area, and also reduce power lost in transmission within a MOSFET, which increases the efficiency of the processor, as lesser energy is then lost to heat. In short, the smaller the die size is, the more likely it is for the processor to be fast and adept at tasks while staying efficient and cool. With each new shrink, a new “fabrication process” is adopted to adapt to the challenges of the new technology. The very popular Moore’s Law also relates to transistor technology, as it states that the number of transistors on a dense integrated circuit — a CPU , doubles every two years, and the entire computer hardware and software industries use the Moore’s Law as a predictive model and technical goal since the dawn of modern-day computing technology. As we are quite limited in terms of how far we can take the physical size of a processor area-wise, we have to stick to Moore’s Law to plan and/or predict our processor technology and keep on shrinking die sizes to keep up with it.

Now, having explained the central concept of this story, let us begin with the recent history of Intel’s CPU design and marketing strategy.

Early 2010’s — The times of “Tick-Tock”

Please note the “c”’s.

To try and fast-track the introduction of this piece, I will start from the first Intel Core “i” Processors. Intel’s Core series had spawned several processors, spanning different architectures and had been through several shrinks in transistor sizes, which are many, and quite stratified for different applications and so on. But their development and its planning were quite simplistically laid out by Intel, with their Tick-Tock Model. It was introduced in 2007, and it follows a repetitive pattern of how Intel planned to advance their CPU’s, roughly every year or slightly more. The “tick” represented a new fabrication and process, therefore a reduction in the die size, but no change in the microarchitecture from the previous year, thereby serving as an evolutionary step for the microarchitecture before it is replaced. The microarchitecture is replaced, while the fabrication technology does not change in the “tock” in the following year, thereby serving as an optimisation of the fabrication process, so that it can take advantage of the newer process fully, before it is replaced itself by the next “tick” that released the following year.

An old Intel press presentation slide showing the progression of Tick-Tock. From ZDNet

This was Intel’s game plan for their most dominant years, a simple strategy got Intel a lot of success, as it made Intel achieve great results with their microarchitectures which seemed to get better and better with each year, and Intel was able to handily beat their competition in seemingly everything; and if not everything, it was a convincing win for Intel mostly every time. In concise terms: The Tick-Tock model was adept at pushing technologies to their maximum potential, and was successful for Intel, if they were able to advance with every tick and tock.

Now, Intel’s naming is quite confusing, as they have one name for a new microarchitecture, as introduced in the “tock”, which also serves as the name of the step (the tock) in general. But the following step has a different name while using the same microarchitecture, as it is a “tick”, and we only see a die shrink. I hope it is not too messy.

Intel’s first-generation i-series CPU stickers. The black i7 sticker is the “Prosumer” i7 CPU range, which has since been rebranded i9. These are more expensive parts, incompatible with consumer motherboards, but have a more professional-friendly feature set.

So, Intel’s newest Nehalem microarchitecture was the first one that utilised the “Core i” branding, a common colloquial way of categorising Intel processors, recently a little misleadingly. It was made on the 45-nanometre node with product launches in the years 2009–10 and followed up with a shrink to 32 nm (Westmere) in late 2010. The Nehalem products covered the whole product stack, server (most expensive, more features for enterprise uses), prosumer (“professional” consumer, higher in performance and with more features than consumer grade, but still similar. Check picture for some more context), consumer (most common, seen in desktops of the time), and mobile/embedded (low-power, for laptops and other smaller-scale use cases). These products are, for several important reasons, not launched all at the same time, as there are tens of unique models of parts (referred to as SKU’s i.e. Stock Keeping Unit). This was an ideal execution of a complete tick-tock, as Intel had been doing for a while, and would keep on doing for some time before cracks started to show.

In the times of Sandy Bridge, hardware aesthetics were less of a priority. Source: Anandtech

Intel executed the Sandy Bridge (I owned a Sandy Bridge CPU myself!) at 32 nm step similarly, a newer microarchitecture, a refresh of their entire product stack, followed by the next one, a die shrink to Ivy Bridge at 22 nm. These numbers are more important than the names, as these names will get more confusing very soon. One clarification in these names is the use of the second word as a suffix, making it simpler to group them. Sandy Bridge was the microarchitecture, and Ivy Bridge used the same microarchitecture, but with a 22 nm process. This also corresponds to the marketing phrase “2nd Generation Intel Core” which we use colloquially too, with 2nd Generation being Sandy Bridge, and 3rd Generation, Ivy Bridge. So far, so good. Tick-tock keeping competition (just AMD) honest, as AMD really was losing ground with their new FX series CPUs really were no match for the combination of versatility, power-efficiency, and raw performance that Sandy Bridge offered. All these factors led to enthusiasts and critics alike recommending the Sandy Bridge CPUs (most notably the i7–2600K and the i5–2500K) back in 2011, and sealing Sandy Bridge’s status as one of the greatest CPU microarchitectures in recent history, in terms of its feature set, raw performance and competitive pricing.

[For everyone], Sandy Bridge is easily a no brainer. Unless you already have a high-end Core i7, this is what you’ll want to upgrade to.

-Anandtech, The Sandy Bridge Review: Intel Core i7–2600K, i5–2500K and Core i3–2100 Tested, 3rd January, 2011

Market share trends between AMD and Intel. The rift had been becoming bigger even before Bulldozer, but back then AMD still had a strong product. AMD has since admitted that Bulldozer brought them to their knees, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The cropped out part of this graph, however, we will see later. Credit: WCCFTech

As AMD struggled to keep up with Intel’s progress, Intel kept “tickin’ and tockin’”, with the next microarchitecture, “4th Generation”, Haswell. And as you would expect, it did well too. AMD, by 2014 had conceded that their Bulldozer microarchitecture and its subsequent iterations were not “game-changing”, and Intel had a clear road ahead of them in the desktop and the server market. AMD had still some hold in the budget market space, like entry-level laptops and some cheaper PCs. In other markets, which are more worth the marketing, Intel was far superior, and AMD was trying to stay afloat, in its entirety. AMD’s CPUs are its main product, and they were struggling financially at that time due to the poor sales of their products. I wish to cover this period of AMD’s history in another article, but for now the subject still is Intel. But after all the mountains Intel conquered in market share, raw performance and profits, some plateauing had to happen.

14 nanometres, the long “tick”

2014–2020, and likely, further beyond as well. A lot of “lakes” here. A LOT.

A normal Tick-Tock pair at 22 nm, and then the never-ending tick of 14 nm, since 2015. From Wikipedia

Intel had moved to the next fabrication process, which was the 14-nanometre process. Haswell’s evolution, called Broadwell, was not used to follow-up on all their Haswell CPU’s, which is understandable, as it is a huge undertaking to release a whole product stack utilising a new process, especially when the performance difference might just be a marginal one. Yet, it was a mitigating step. Intel waited longer to get 14 nm across their stack because they were slowing down. Tick-Tock had started becoming less viable for them now. Their full release was the tock here, called Skylake, also called the “6th Generation Core”, which came in 2015. Skylake was yet another step up for Intel, introducing the next generation or memory, DDR4, which has a higher ceiling for the speed at which it operates, a step up that AMD would only take in 2017. Skylake was not earth-shattering, but with the successes of Intel’s recent past, it was not too pressing for it to be so. There was no competition, so why not just coast along? At this time, Intel had also not brought down the features and the specifications (core count for instance) from their higher-end CPUs to the lower ones, because there was no reason for them to make their CPUs the more lucrative option, because there was no other option. AMD had nothing to compete with, neither in the high-end desktop, nor in the server space. AMD was just surviving bankruptcy by working with both Microsoft and Sony for the CPUs in their Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles, which was instrumental for AMD to stay in relevance before 2017, when the market was changed for the better. But before 2017, Intel was the king of the hill, and they saw it fit to stay there, and do nothing at all in the way of innovation and favouring their loyal consumer base.

Intel’s architecture stack. Note the really large 14 nm section and the number of “steps” under the Skylake microarchitecture. From Wikipedia

This was also the end of Tick-Tock. Intel announced before the release of their next generation CPU’s, that Tick-Tock will be done away with, to make way for “Process-Architecture-Optimisation”, a deprecated form of the same strategy. This allowed them to stick to a fabrication process longer, because now for every new fab process, there are 2 steps of microarchitecture improvements on the same process. Thus, Skylake was followed by Kaby Lake, the “optimisation” to Skylake. Now, if Intel had made a complete migration to 10 nanometres after Kaby Lake, for all their CPUs, the move to this model would have been completed. That, however, did not happen.

I never mentioned why Intel got rid of Tick-Tock and both these things have the same reason: Intel realised that their 10 nanometres fabrication process has fundamental issues in manufacturing, which require massive reworkings, and to match these extended deadliness, Intel first tried to add a second “tock” before the 10 nm tick in early 2016, before the Skylake launch. Now, Intel had a deadline of the second half of 2017 to start shipping 10 nm CPUs. By 2018, they did have 10 nm CPUs being shipped off from their factories, but yet again, they had to admit that their yields are poor, and they will not be able to resolve everything until 2019, meaning 10 nm was waiting until 2019 now. Keep in mind that the original shipping date was supposed to be late 2016, with a complete rollout by 2017. But in 2017, something else had happened to the CPU market.

Zen

AMD’s return to form was good news for all enthusiasts. Competition is ALWAYS good, if it is fair. Also, as a side note, Ryzen, Threadripper and Epyc are some amazing product names, as was noted by many at the time of their reveal as well.

AMD was finally back: Their Zen architecture was their answer to Kaby Lake. It was based in the 14 nm process (but a different process of manufacturing it, as silicon is complicated, in short), had support for DDR4 memory, and had competing products for all of Intel’s CPUs, from their higher-end desktop parts (AMD Threadripper), to server CPUs (AMD Epyc) and mainstream CPUs as well (AMD Ryzen). Further, AMD had announced in their New Horizon event in December 2016, a roadmap for their CPU’s that went all the way till 2021 and mentioned plans after that as well. That roadmap also had a move to the 7 nanometres (comparable to Intel’s 10 nm) process node predicted to take place in late 2018 with actual products available by early 2019. At the same time, Intel had newly released their Kaby Lake line, their “optimisation” of Skylake.

The long “tick”, continued

When I was just learning about PC hardware, in the holiday season of 2017, I found this picture on Reddit, and it fits the scenario at that time as well. Intel was everywhere, but (and it’s hard to spot) AMD is just there in the middle of the tree hidden by some branches, and is soon going to knock down Intel’s monopoly. Just a solitary Ryzen in the tree of Coffee Lake. Credit: u/camaroguy719 on r/pcmasterrace. Hint: Spot the large “Optane” box at the height of the counter on the tree.

Zen was the competition Intel was thriving in the absence of. Intel was still dominant in every way, and if Intel could still pull away further as Zen saw iterative improvements, if they could beat AMD to 10 nm. But as previously mentioned, Intel was unable to work towards 10 nm on time, yet they had to respond to this, as another release cycle was coming, by the end of 2017. Coffee Lake was a departure for Intel, as their top-end part for the consumer (Intel i7–8700K) was finally a six-core CPU, after a decade of releasing quad-core i7 CPU’s for that price range. This was in response to AMD’s Ryzen 7 1800X, which was similarly priced, yet had 8 cores, and beat Intel at productivity-related tasks (which include rendering, file compression and file transcoding) across the board. Intel still had the measure of AMD in gaming, which is the use case of many Internet users and hardware enthusiasts. Intel’s Coffee Lake release was a compromise for them, as it was not part of their plans, it was supposed to be a new process (10 nm) that was supposed to come out instead, yet what we got was “14nm++”, a way for Intel to show that “this is better” than AMD’s own 14nm process, which had no “+” next to them (and as we all know, more + is better, right!). Despite all this, Intel had still pulled it out of the bag for now and showed that 14nm still has life in it. And yet again, Intel was dominant… for now.

Intel’s 10nm endeavour was saved from being a little too late yet again by Coffee Lake. AMD’s subsequent release (Zen+ in 2018) was an iterative one, so the performance bump was not too significant, and now if Intel could still deliver on 10nm with the coming generation due to arrive in late 2018, they would be in the clear lead yet again, before AMD comes back at them with their Zen 2 architecture, slated for a release in 2020. But — and this is setting up to look like a pattern now — Intel admitted they must delay volume production yet again, to 2019 this time, because of poor yields. 14nm will have to do for another year, into the 9th Generation as well. It introduced the Intel i9–9900 group of CPUs, octa-core CPUs with a price of around $500, competing to a Ryzen 7 2700X, which was cheaper by nearly 40%, and had the same number of cores and threads. These two were extremely competitive options in tests in gaming and productivity-related tasks, but AMD’s price advantage clearly hurt Intel’s sales, and not just of the 9900K, their entire product stack seemed to be in a losing fight, because Ryzen was simply a cheaper overall deal across the board. There was some performance to sacrifice, but the cheaper motherboard options or the presence of a CPU cooler with all purchased Ryzen CPUs made it them cheaper and thus more compelling for anyone except for the few who want the best, no compromises. And that is an incredibly tiny amount of people, though they are a vocal one. What Intel still had going for them at this point was the sheer mindshare that was the result of their stellar reputation of the past. AMD could not match them there until they are consistently the superior choice by a convincing enough margin for a few years, like Intel was until Zen came knocking at their door. So, once again, if Intel does not delay 10 nm any further, they will be able to gain back their lost favour and stop Zen’s/AMD’s ascent as a market leader.

Zen 2 (also known as Zen 2, 7 nanometres)

AMD CEO Lisa Su revealing the price of the Ryzen 9 3950X in their “Next Horizon” event in June 2019. This event also saw the announcements of other Zen 2 CPU’s including the Threadripper 3990X.

AMD, in the first half of 2019, unveiled their best product line to date. With the cache (both CPU cache and market cache actually) Ryzen CPU’s had been gaining, AMD’s absence was soon reversing itself into near ubiquity in discussions about CPU’s and computers in general. This came to a head with the launch of Zen 2, another promise by AMD to keep making expensive technologies and features they bring to the table, even cheaper and viable on a budget. And this time, it was in 7 nanometres. Intel had soundly been beaten in the race away from 14 nanometres, and AMD’s new process proved itself by providing a performance boost across the board, in every tested metric there was. From their more mainstream (and currently the best-selling CPU worldwide according to PCPartPicker.com) Ryzen 5 3600, to their 2 ultra-high-end Ryzen 9 3950X, providing users with 16 cores on the same platform as a $250 Ryzen 5 3600, which has 6, and their Ryzen Threadripper 3990X, the world’s first consumer-grade/prosumer 64-core CPU, priced at $3990, like the name suggests. AMD CPU’s usually have had higher core counts than Intel CPU’s, but this time, AMD had improved even more on the downside to it: lesser per-core performance due to a lower IPC (Instructions per Clock). It has to be mentioned that neither the 16-core 3950X, or the $500 3900X with 12 cores still did completely beat the 9900K (or the newer 9900KS, because Intel needed to get a newer model with a slight performance boost to seal their narrow lead over the Ryzen 9’s with their i9’s) in gaming performance. But the absolute destruction they were facing in every other metric, including support for faster peripheral interfaces (PCI Express Gen 4.0), was clear. AMD had not just thrown cores, but also extremely good engineering and business strategy at the problem.

Intel’s 10 nm, and Intel’s 14 nm and Intel’s 7 nm and even Intel’s 22 nm

Can’t catch a break, can they?

Intel has had troubles in their 14 nm production for a long time. These could be seen having their effects shown on the limited availability of 14 nm CPU’s from the start, but this was particularly exacerbated by 2018, when they actually moved back to their older 22 nm process to manufacture lower-end motherboard chipsets. The bottleneck was not just the R&D of 10 nm all this time, but also a lack of proper supply of 14 nm silicon. That was not the only time we saw 22 nm make a cameo appearance in Intel’s line-up either. Intel had been producing the Pentium G3240 which was based on 22 nm Haswell until 2019, when it was scheduled for discontinuation. But Intel overrode that with a notification on 5th December 2019, as they had to make up for the short supply of entry-level CPU’s in smaller PC’s called NUC’s and to fulfil orders placed by PC manufacturers. It is to be noted that there are Pentium CPU’s that are manufactured on the 14nm (or 14nm+) nodes, which are roughly the same price as this CPU, at least retail, but they are frequently in short supply since 2017, and also tend to be marked up higher in price due to this shortage.

The only Cannon Lake CPU ever made: i3–8121U. Credit: Anandtech

By May 2018, Intel had 10 nanometre silicon out on sale, but their outputs were very low, and they were only laptop CPU’s, named Cannon Lake. Cannon Lake holds the dubious honour of being the shortest-lived x86 CPU microarchitecture till date, as it managed to spawn one single CPU in all its 18 months of existence. The reason for this was just poor 10 nm yields Intel had to sort out before becoming even a little bit ambitious with 10 nm.

The other new mention here is Intel’s potential attempt at 7 nanometres. Now, this process, due to differences in fundamental designs and marketing buzzwords, is comparable in terms of evolution to AMD’s next step, to 5 nanometres. 7 nm was in development for a while at Intel, but Intel previously had been rather secretive about its progress and development, although it was scheduled for volume production by 2021 until recently, which was already after a previous announcement of another delay. And then on the 23rd of July, Intel presented their second quarter earnings report of 2020, where yet another 6-month delay was announced. Now the first 7 nm consumer CPU’s could only arrive by the end of 2022 or early 2023. Yet again, Intel had a roadblock ahead of it, in their long process towards a more efficient process. Intel’s stock after that announcement plummeted, as is understandable, by around 16%. How significant was that delay for Intel, and why?

The 7 nm process could have served as the next step after 14 nm, so that Intel could step off of the troubled 10 nm node quickly, and stay with 7nm for long, while resuming the Process-Architecture-Optimisation cadence once again, had it not been delayed completely.

We are seeing an approximate six-month shift in our seven-nanometer-based CPU product timing relative to prior expectations. The primary driver is the yield of our seven-nanometer process, which, based on recent data, is now trending approximately 12 months behind our internal target. We have identified a defect mode in our seven-nanometer process that resulted in yield degradation. We’ve root caused the issue, and believe there are no fundamental roadblocks.

-Bob Swan, Intel CEO, “Intel (INTC) Q2 2020 Earnings Call Transcript” (From: The Motley Fool)

Intel at present

The whole market-share graph between AMD and Intel. 2017 was the launch of Zen, and since then AMD has clawed back hard after Intel as they keep slipping, nearly towards parity.

In the wake of the announcement of the 7 nm delay, Intel also announced that they will be restructuring their Technology, Systems Architecture and Client Group (TSCG), a major arm led by Intel’s erstwhile Chief Engineering Officer into 5 divisions, all being led by other Intel staff while directly reporting to CEO Bob Swan. The Chief Engineering Officer position would then be vacated as Murthy Renduchintala, the executive at that position, had been let go. This comes with the stock hit Intel received after the announcement, as well as a potential class-action lawsuit that their investors have gone forward with, claiming that the defendant willingly concealed information about the issues with the 7 nm node under development from investors. In addition to the lawsuit, the restructuring and the stock price fall, Intel still has to resolve their development of the “defect mode” that their 7 nm node had that led to this issue in the first place.

Additionally, Intel also announced that they will seek the help of third-party CPU manufacturers to facilitate the development and production of their 7 nm silicon, such as TSMC, who also manufacture AMD and Apple processors. TSMC’s and Intel’s partnership has been dubbed as a “rescue” for Intel, by TSMC themselves, instead of a “normal” collaboration.

Intel does seem to be finally moving on in consumer CPU’s though, for the end of 2020. The “11th Generation” desktop CPU’s, due to be announced in September called Tiger Lake is rumoured to be on a 10 nm process, like their Tiger Lake laptop CPU’s which released in late 2019. We shall only know by September, however.

Conclusion

Intel still is in no deep trouble. Their incredibly diverse portfolio is a fantastic risk-mitigating strategy for their CPU R&D, making them enough profits to sustain perhaps even more such delays and lawsuits. They did try their best to be competitive with all the problems hounding them, by maximising the potential out of both 14 nm and their marketing strategy departments, but it is clear that Intel’s CPUs have been under great scrutiny and reasonable criticism, and it is about time Intel comes up with enough of a justification for why they are the best CPU makers in the world, as that title seems to be under challenge by AMD at present.

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Yatharth Sood

Business enquiries: yatharthsood00 (at) gmail (dot) com.