The personal computer revolution that began in the 1970s was fueled in large part by the rapid innovation in microprocessor technology. Two companies, Intel and AMD, have been at the forefront of this innovation, engaged in a fierce rivalry that has lasted for decades and pushed both companies to make bigger and faster chips year after year.
In the Beginning, There Was Intel
Intel invented the microprocessor in 1971 and dominated the market in the early years. In the 1980s, Intel introduced the x86 architecture that became the standard for PC microprocessors. Some of Intel's most iconic chips were the 8086, 80386, and the Pentium, which brought new levels of performance to PCs.
Intel enjoyed a near monopoly and was synonymous with microprocessors. However, this dominance led to some complacency and lack of innovation. Intel was content to gradually increase clock speeds and transistor counts without introducing major architectural changes. This opened the door for competition from a scrappy underdog, AMD.
The Rise of AMD as a Formidable Competitor
AMD was founded in 1969 but did not become a real threat to Intel until the 1990s. In 1991, AMD launched the Am386, its clone of Intel's 80386 chip. This demonstrated that AMD could produce competitive x86 chips while avoiding Intel's patents. The next year, AMD released the Am486, matching Intel's 80486.
In 1995, AMD released the AMD K5, its first in-house x86 processor design. The K5 was flawed, but it was soon followed by the successful K6 in 1997. The K6 shocked the industry by exceeding the performance of Intel's Pentium II at a lower cost. AMD was now seen as a serious competitor to Intel rather than just a clone maker.
The origins of the x86 processor market
The x86 processor market began in the early 1980s, when IBM, one of the largest computer manufacturers at the time, decided to enter the personal computer (PC) market with its IBM PC. IBM needed a microprocessor to power its PC, and it chose Intel, a company that had been producing microprocessors since 1971, as its supplier. Intel offered its 8088 processor, a 16-bit chip that was compatible with its earlier 8086 processor, which had introduced the x86 instruction set architecture (ISA) in 1978. The x86 ISA is a set of instructions that define how a processor operates and communicates with other components, such as memory and input/output devices.
However, IBM did not want to give Intel monopoly power over the microprocessor market, so it demanded that Intel sign a contract with another company, AMD, as a second source for the x86 processors. AMD was a company that had been founded in 1969 by Jerry Sanders, a former employee of Fairchild Semiconductor, and had been producing logic chips, memory chips, and microcontrollers. AMD agreed to become a second source for Intel, and licensed the 8086 and 8088 processors from Intel, as well as the x86 ISA.
The second source agreement between Intel and AMD was meant to ensure that IBM would have a reliable and competitive supply of x86 processors for its PC, and that Intel would not raise its prices or withhold its products. However, Intel soon realized that AMD was not only a second source, but also a potential competitor, as AMD started to produce its own versions of the x86 processors, such as the Am286, which was compatible with Intel's 80286 processor, but had a higher clock speed and lower power consumption. Intel tried to limit AMD's access to its technology and products, and sued AMD for breach of contract, claiming that AMD did not have the right to produce its own x86 processors without Intel's permission. AMD countered that Intel had violated the terms of the agreement by withholding information and products from AMD, and that AMD had the right to produce its own x86 processors based on the licensed ISA.
The legal battle between Intel and AMD lasted for several years, and was finally settled in 1995, when the two companies agreed to cross-license their x86 technologies and end their litigation. By then, both Intel and AMD had developed several generations of x86 processors, each with different features and capabilities. Intel had introduced the 80386, the 80486, and the Pentium series, which increased the bit width, the clock speed, the cache size, and the instruction set of the x86 processors. AMD had introduced the Am386, the Am486, and the Am5x86, which offered similar or better performance than Intel's counterparts, but at lower prices and with lower power consumption.
The "Megahertz Wars" - AMD and Intel Race for Higher Clock Speeds
In the late 90s and early 2000s, AMD and Intel engaged in a "megahertz war," aggressively cranking up processor clock speeds each year. In 1999, AMD launched the Athlon with speeds up to 750MHz, passing the Intel Pentium III. AMD touted its PR (performance rating) numbers to match or exceed Intel’s clock speeds.
Intel struck back with its Pentium 4 "Willamette" core in 2000, regaining the performance lead by getting up to 2GHz. AMD responded with its "Thoroughbred" Athlon XP core in 2001, which could be set to PR ratings of up to 3200+ to beat the Pentium 4. This game of one-upmanship led to remarkable gains in raw clock speed over just a few years, fueling demand for new PCs.
The 64-Bit Revolution - AMD Strikes Back
In 2003, AMD made a bold move and released the Opteron and Athlon 64 processors with an entirely new x86-64 architecture. This added 64-bit capabilities and major performance improvements. Intel had no 64-bit answer and was caught flat-footed. AMD gained market share and acclaim with its forward-thinking design.
Intel was forced to go back to the drawing board. In 2004, Intel released its own 64-bit architecture branded EM64T to match AMD. AMD's innovative push for 64-bit computing increased mainstream adoption and left a legacy that remains part of all x86 chips today.
Dual and Multi-Core - Parallelization Becomes the Focus
As clock speeds plateaued in the mid-2000s, chipmakers shifted focus to adding more cores and parallel processing capabilities. AMD led the way once again, releasing the first dual-core x86 CPU in 2003. In 2006, Intel regained leadership with the Core 2 Duo, its first multi-core processor, forcing AMD to play catch-up.
This began an arms race in core counts. AMD and Intel kept adding more cores each generation, bringing increased performance to multicore-aware software. AMD also innovated with integrated memory controllers and hypertransport links to reduce memory latency. Competition pushed both companies to find new ways to deliver performance as the physical limits of clock scaling were reached.
The Introduction of x86-64 Mobile and Low Power Chips
Another major innovation was the adoption of x86 chips in mobile devices, laptops, and low-power environments. In 2003, AMD created the Athlon 64 for mobile computing. In 2006, Intel launched its Core microarchitecture for mobile. This started a power efficiency battle to reduce wattage while maintaining performance.
AMD later switched its focus to APUs, combining CPU and GPU on a single chip tailored for mobile. Intel responded with its own emphasis on integrated graphics. The rivalry resulted in x86 chips that were both fast and efficient enough to power the latest laptops.
The Modern Era – Smaller Transistors, Bigger Performance
Intel and AMD continue to push the limits of x86 performance today. Intel has led in advanced manufacturing processes, reaching 14nm and 10nm chips by 2017. AMD came roaring back in 2017 with its Zen architecture and Ryzen processors on a 14nm process, achieving up to 32 cores in 2019.
In 2020, AMD launched Ryzen 5000 processors on the 7nm process, gaining the performance crown once more. Intel recently unveiled its 10nm Ice Lake chips and is planning new architectures to catch up. The back-and-forth competition has brought incredible gains, with the latest chips more than 100 times faster than early processors.
The Rivalry Continues into the Future
AMD and Intel have been locked in an intense game of one-upmanship for decades now. Each time one takes the lead, the other responds with an improved architecture or manufacturing process to retake the crown. This cutthroat competition has been bad for the companies’ profit margins but great for innovation and consumer choice.
Looking ahead, AMD and Intel both have their sights set on advancing to 7nm and smaller transistors, adding more cores, and integrating new technologies like AI and security features. With the rivalry as heated as ever, we can expect leaps in x86 performance to continue benefiting users into the foreseeable future. When two giants clash head-to-head, consumers come out winners.
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