Will Intel’s CPUs be the Best Again in 2021?
AMD has announced another series of Ryzen CPUs. Of course, we all know that by now. But to summarise it anyway: AMD seems to have improved by a fair amount once again, and this time it seems like Intel’s last stronghold — gaming, is in danger of coming right into AMD’s hands as well. There are many reasons for this happening, and there are many consequences or outcomes that Intel can make happen after this.
When Intel had the crown (of everything)
AMD introduced Ryzen after it had been away from that part of the market for years, close to total obscurity, and having nothing to compete with Intel’s best. They were kept afloat by their work on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles’ processing units (they custom-made both of them), helped in small part by the less disheartening sales of their lower-end APUs which were still appealing to entry-level buyers. Their Bulldozer architecture was not successful in securing any market share and struggled as well. And at that time, the period of early 2010s to 2017, Intel had monopolistic control over the higher-end market space.
Intel had the right hardware for servers, for gaming enthusiasts and for workstation-class machines as well. Their tick-tock cadence was on point too, it let them make advances in architecture and fabrication technology in lock-step. This aided them in being several paces ahead of their competition in AMD. They even tried competing against ARM by making low-power x86 CPUs intended to be used in mobile devices like tablet PCs and potentially smartphones, although they saw minimal success there. Nonetheless, Intel had made AMD look like a badly-managed, on-its-way-out company in their industry, and they were making their CPU brands some of the most solid ones out there at the same time.
At their zenith, Intel was determining the pace of the market: They chose what features would be made available at what pricing and the buyer had to make their peace with it because they were after all a monopoly at this point. And it can be reasonably argued that because of that, Intel had grown complacent enough to stagnate the market. Not bringing down features from the higher end to the midrange (thread counts, for example), making their consumer-grade CPUs more capable of workloads getting more and more prominent (like video editing and game streaming).
Intel Could Get Away With Anything Back Then
An example of this stagnation is easy to be seen in core counts. Intel divided their consumer-grade CPU lineup into three categories (i3-i7) and added the “Extreme” moniker to their prosumer (higher-end consumer/professional usage) i7 chips, which ran on a more expensive platform and cost up to nearly double of what the best standard i7 would be priced at. From the first-generation “Westmere” i7 Extreme Edition from 2011 right to 2016’s “Broadwell-E” i7 Extreme Edition, Intel increased the core counts from 6 to 8 cores. That was it. If you wanted more, the usual route would be to buy even more expensive hardware, go to the Intel Xeon platform and use those CPUs, riddled with compatibility issues with other hardware because they were meant for enterprise deployments.
This was Intel deliberately forcing its prosumers to go with an even more expensive CPU despite having the capability to bring those necessary features to cheaper products. When AMD announced Ryzen and Ryzen Threadripper with a much higher core count for a much lower price over Intel, they jumped and released the Skylake-X i9 CPUs in response, not long after the fact. Not just that, even the lowest-end i3’s and i5’s got a core count bump when later in 2017 the Coffee Lake CPUs came out.
AMD’s comeback did exactly what a competitive player in the market would do: it brought down costs for the consumer. With an alternative eating away at Intel’s market share now, they were forced to bring everything they attempted to hold back in the years before. Now Intel was a competitor, but they were not at a disadvantage at all, at least as face value: They were (and still are) several times the size of AMD in market value and have an impressively diverse product and service portfolio. And to affect their CPU sales more directly: They have the quality assurance and the mind space of the buyer already. Like how we would colloquially refer to CPUs just by their Intel branding (i3/i5/i7). Personally, it still is hard to explain to someone that my work laptop has a Ryzen 5 instead of an Intel i5 or similar. That was how impactful Intel’s branding and reach was for the past decade.
Competition is on the menu for Intel, finally
So as a competitor to AMD, how did Intel fare?
An honest answer would be valiantly, but not adequately. Their problems with moving to a smaller process node came to be their undoing, forcing them back on the same 14 nanometre process year after year, and AMD was given the opportunity to incrementally improve their products with each passing year and generation and creep into Intel’s market share in both consumer and enterprise spaces. And rightfully so, because AMD was offering a consistently superior value with their product stack each year that kept on evolving with each new series of CPUs, while Intel had some specific uses for their CPUs they were aggressive to advertise and market to keep their stranglehold on the market.
Intel had enough time, however, to get going with a response to the first generation of Ryzen. And they indeed did. The 8th generation Coffee Lake CPUs came with more cores across the board, for one. This was aside from the general improvements that came with a new Intel microarchitecture each year. On the higher end, Intel did finally bring down up to 18 cores in one CPU to a consumer platform as in the i9–7980XE, as part of their Skylake-X lineup for those CPUs. Therefore, if Intel’s delays with their 10 nm architecture, their next lithographic step, were sorted well in time for their succeeding release cycle, Intel could easily come out on top once again.
The Advantages Given By “Coming Out on Top”
Intel was not the competitor with a new product, as we have established. They were the older player here, and as alluded to before, they were completely dominant in the minds of the buyers. Every media outlet, guide or seller was recommending an Intel CPU. And this leverage over any competition coming from the other end is what Intel could very comfortably rely on every release cycle. Now, if the successors to Coffee Lake and Skylake-X as well were leaps ahead of AMD’s offerings that were beating Intel in many use-case benchmarks as well as on price in many instances, Intel could gain that influence back in the desktop PC space. This lead was still being enjoyed by Intel in the laptop market because there were no Ryzen Mobile offerings back then.
But what did Intel do instead? Unfortunately, they faced another roadblock in shrinking to 10 nanometers wholesale and were forced to refresh their Coffee Lake CPU’s going into the ninth generation. They also brought the i9–9900K, a higher-priced 8-core CPU to lead their lineup. It was marketed as the “best gaming CPU”, and benchmarks proved that indeed it was. However, benchmarking was controversial, especially the one that Intel provided to media before the CPUs actually were released. Intel commissioned a firm, Principled Technologies, to benchmark their CPUs against the Ryzen CPUs of that time, instead of just providing pre-release samples of their hardware to press outlets for them to cover it. It was discovered that the firm had unfairly misconfigured AMD CPU’s in their testing (video below), widening the difference in performance between the Ryzen 2000 series and the new Intel CPUs.
It was later proven that Intel did have a lead in gaming performance over AMD’s best, but the unfair tests published by Intel without proper validation, even if the errors made by Principled Technologies were not deliberate, were Intel’s fault and was construed as their undoing. This was questionable behaviour from them further decreased confidence in them amongst the crowd of enthusiasts. Also, more of these enthusiasts saw more merit in switching over to AMD, as they provided them with a more complete package instead of excelling at the singular use case of gaming performance. But as long as their gaming performance was superior and reasonable competence at other tasks could be seen, something like the i9–9900K could still fly off the shelves. Everything from Intel apart from the top-end was in the same boat, compared to the competition. A little more expensive, a fair bit better for gaming, and a little bit worse for most other workloads.
What has since happened after this is a repeat of this same thing: Intel has yet another chance, but they have still squandered it because of problems with new processes. The 10 nm process made it to their laptop CPU’s, owing to their lower production volume. But desktop was still at the clearly ageing 14 nm process.
The Future For Intel (or, part of Intel)
Skipping to the present, all we have in the name of the 11th Generation Desktop CPUs is an announcement of their existence as part of a Medium blog post by Intel VP, John Bonini. That’s about what we have, though. The post was written one day before AMD’s Ryzen 5000 reveal event, leaving no doubts as to what motivated them to make this announcement in the first place. Intel’s humongous reach in the industry and their enormous size has been the only redeemer for them because from what we can currently see, Intel’s CPUs are slowly going the way of AMD in the previous decade. They won’t be called “a company on its last legs” anytime soon, because of their other ventures that are successfully sustaining their CPU division, and even their CPU division itself that still can sell to people who don’t know better. But one must wonder about the amount of mismanagement and internalised problems that have amounted to this predicament.
It would be sensationalist of me to proclaim Intel as a weak competitor to AMD at the moment. The past would be quick in proving it to be a complete falsehood. It would be more appropriate, however, to call out their incompetence as it is: a mess created by bad decisions and complacency.
What’s next then? We do not know anything at all about the upcoming CPUs apart from their existence, but older rumours would lead us to believe that these chips will still be 14 nm. As before, hopefully for the last time. Also, Intel has made significant strides in graphics, to the point where they are now shipping discrete Xe-branded GPUs in volume, per their latest earnings report for Q3 2020. Seemingly, Intel may be readying itself for a flurry of events that could constitute a full comeback to the front and this time with AMD giving it serious competition.