This has been a good week to be a processor geek. In quick succession, we’ve seen ARM announce its 2020 CPU and GPU designs, Intel reveal its 10th Gen Core chips, and AMD refresh its Ryzen line. Along with Nvidia and its expansion into more complex computation beyond gaming graphics, these three names are the leaders that set the direction of future processor development. By extension, these are also the companies that set the parameters for how future Windows laptops, Mac Pro workstations, and next-gen gaming consoles will look, feel, and function. The processor is still the beating heart of any computer, and now’s a great time to check in on how its evolution is going.
The architect of the smartphone era, ARM authors the instruction sets and blueprint core designs for mobile systems-on-a-chip, which companies like Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung, and (until recently) Huawei then license and develop into products that power iPhones, Galaxys, and Pixels. The newly unveiled Cortex-A77 CPU and Mali-G77 GPU are refreshingly simple in that they’re all about increasing performance and efficiency without doing much in the way of adding features or specialist capabilities.
ARM needs more brawn if it’s going to accomplish its long-held goal of expanding beyond the mobile realm. Every smartphone, along with a majority of tablets, today runs on an ARM-based processor. Intel gracelessly flopped in its repeated attempts to cram x86 — the competing instruction set to ARM — chips into connected mobile devices, and now ARM is in a comfortable monopoly. What the SoftBank-owned, UK-based company wants to do now is get ARM processors into more laptops and maybe even desktop PCs.
Qualcomm has the Snapdragon 8cx, which is its first purpose-built chip for Windows computers, and Windows on ARM is already a thing you can buy. Apple is also reportedly working on building similar parts to replace Intel CPUs in Macs at some point in 2020. If you’re thinking the confluence of ARM focusing on more powerful parts for 2020 and Apple developing Mac-oriented variants of its A-series is a synergistic one, you’re probably not alone. Next year is likely to give us a good idea of how close ARM and its partners have come to rivaling the performance of desktop-class x86 processors. In all circumstances, though, the proliferation of ARM-based convertibles and laptops seems an inevitability.
Still the name most universally associated with the term “CPU,” Intel is spending most of its time these days talking about the stuff that goes around the CPU. One reason for that is that Intel has just been really bad about doing its bread and butter incremental performance, efficiency, and manufacturing size improvements. It only just released its 10nm Ice Lake processors, having been promising and delaying 10nm parts for what seems like a lifetime.
At Computex in Taipei this week, Intel pushed forward its laudable Project Athena effort, which endeavors to set baseline expectations for battery life, connectedness, responsiveness, and thinness among laptops featuring Intel’s latest processor generation. Getting away from core counts and clock speeds, Intel wants the glossy “Intel Inside” sticker to be a mark of reassurance to consumers, a sign that what’s inside lives up to an increasingly common set of ARM-inspired presumptions about modern mobile devices.
The first 10th Gen Intel Core processors are coming to thin laptops and tablets first. Prioritizing portable computers has become a habit for Intel, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the company is investing most of its design and engineering resources into crafting the best chips for portables. Its headline promises speak to adding more features than power: AI-driven adaptability, built-in Wi-Fi 6 and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, and improved graphics for “pro-level” content creation and 4K HDR on the go.
Intel also trotted out the Twin River dual-screen, fabric-wrapped laptop and the Honeycomb Glacier transportable gaming PC from its prototype labs. The latter is nominally a laptop, too, because of how compact it becomes when it’s closed up. Tinkering with alternative form factors is another habit for Intel, giving a nudge and a hint to hardware partners like Dell and Asus to broaden their design horizons. For years now, Intel has been uncomfortably trapped in a place where most consumers are happy with their existing, already powerful PCs and its latest chips fail to wow with any huge performance leaps. So the company’s solution is to build out the ecosystem of designs and devices, while also pushing a unified standard of quality through initiatives like Athena.
Arguably the most conventional of tracks right now is being followed by AMD. The new Ryzen 3000 series ticks off the usual checkboxes by introducing AMD’s first consumer-grade 12-core processor, shrinking the manufacturing process down to 7nm, and undercutting the comparable Intel alternative on price. Except for the 7nm number, it’s really not flashy stuff. AMD is focusing on the fundamentals, hoping and expecting that just making better processors will set it in good stead to sell more of them than before.
Those efforts would seem to be bearing fruit, as AMD’s PC market share numbers have been steadily rising, and the company has a nice win on its hands by securing the contract to provide processors for the PlayStation 5. The next Xbox is a likely candidate for AMD parts as well, and Microsoft has been rumored to be considering AMD Picasso chips for an upcoming Surface Laptop later this year. The AMD formula of lots of cores, strong graphics performance from the Radeon division, and attractive pricing is proving popular both with consumers and hardware partners, especially at a time when Intel’s struggling to overcome security flaws and performance plateaus.
It’s rare to see ARM, Intel, and AMD overlap their announcements quite so neatly as they have this week, though the coincidence of their timing shouldn’t be misconstrued as uniformity in the new stuff they have to offer. Other than treating laptops as essential to our mobile computing future, the three companies have taken very different approaches.
ARM’s designs, which have, from the outset, been about lightness and efficiency, are working to build up its credentials for heavier workloads. Its future vision is one of taking the strengths of the smartphone and expanding them in size and might to larger and more potent machines. Intel, on the other hand, is expending a lot of energy on optimizing the environment around the processor. Its idea for what will sell more chips is a holistic product proposition, along the same lines as Apple offers with Macs and MacBooks. And AMD is just ticking along nicely, concerning itself primarily with performance-per-dollar and performance-per-watt efficiencies.
Over the long run, the balance of power between ARM and x86 processors will be fun to track and observe. But for the near future, this week has simply been an augury for better, faster, and more efficient laptops and mobile devices to come.