The One Horse Race That is CPUs.

Roll back the clock a decade or so and the competition for what kind of processor ended up in your PC was at a fever pitch with industry heavyweights Intel and AMD going blow for blow. The choice of CPU, at least for me and my enthusiast brethren, almost always came down to what was fastest but the lines were often blurry enough that brand loyalty was worth more than a few FPS here or there. For the longest time I was an AMD fan, sticking stalwartly to their CPUs which provided me with the same amount of grunt as their Intel brethren for a fraction of the cost. However over time the gap between what an AMD CPU could provide and what Intel offered was too wide to ignore, and it’s only been getting wider since then.

AMD Logo Official

The rift is seen in adoption rates across all products that make use of modern CPUs with Intel dominating nearly any sector that you find them in. When Intel first retook the crown all those years ago the reasons were clear, Intel just performed well enough to justify the cost, however as time went on it seemed like AMD was willing to let that gap continue to grow. Indeed if you look at them from a pure technology basis they’re stuck about 2 generations behind where Intel is today with the vast majority of their products being produced on a 28nm process, with Intel’s latest release coming out on 14nm. Whilst they pulled a major coup in winning over all of the 3 major consoles that success has had much onflow to the rest of the business. Indeed since they’ll be producing the exact same chips for the next 5+ years for those consoles they can’t really do much with them anyway and I doubt they’d invest in a new foundry process unless Microsoft or Sony asked them nicely.

What this has translated into is a monopoly by default, one where Intel maintains it’s massive market share without having to worry about any upstarts rocking their boat. Thankfully the demands of the industry are pressure enough to keep them innovating at the rapid pace they set way back when AMD was still biting at their heels but there’s a dangerously real chance that they could just end up doing the opposite. It’s a little unfair to put the burden on AMD to keep Intel honest however it’s hard to think of another company who has the required pedigree and experience to be the major competition to their platform.

The industry is looking towards ARM as being the big competition for Intel’s x86 platform although, honestly, they’re really not in the same market. Sure nearly every phone under the sun is now powered by some variant of the ARM architecture however when it comes to consumer or enterprise compute you’d be struggling to find anything that runs on it. There is going to have to be an extremely compelling reason for everyone to want to translate to that platform and, as it stands right now, mobile and low power are the only places where it really fits. For ARM to really start eating Intel’s lunch it’d need to make some serious inroads into those spaces, something which I don’t see happening for decades at least.

There is some light in the form of Kaveri however it’s less than stellar performance when compared to Intel’s less tightly coupled solution does leave a lot to be desired. At a high level the architecture does feel like the future of all computing, well excluding radical paradigm shifts like HP’s The Machine (which is still vaporware at this point),  but until it equals the performance of discreet components it’s not going anywhere fast. I get the feeling that if AMD had kept up with Intel’s die shrinks Kaveri would be looking a lot more attractive than it is currently, but who knows what it might have cost them to get to that stage.

In any other industry you’d see this kind of situation as one that was ripe for disruption however the capital intensive nature, plus an industry leader who isn’t resting on their laurels, means that there are few who can hold a candle to Intel. The net positive out of all of this is that we as consumers aren’t suffering however we’ve all seen what happens when a company remains at the top for far too long. Hopefully the numerous different sectors which Intel is currently competing in will be enough to offset their monopolistic nature in the CPU market but that doesn’t mean more competition in that space isn’t welcome.

2 Comments

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  1. Great article. It really is fascinating to see a (relatively) long-tenured example of a monopoly which hasn’t taken advantage of consumers’ lack of choice. I also admit to having been an AMD fan right about 10 years ago, but have to say I’m impressed and surprised by Intel’s ability to continue innovating. Oh, would that more industries had the sort of existential pressure to innovate that exists in the realm of the cpu!

  2. It’s probably one of the only market segments I can think of where it’s occurred. I’m sure there are others but as we all know monopolies usually only exist to the benefit of that one company.

    Yeah it really surprised me just how rapidly Intel has innovated over the last few years, especially when it came to the disparity between the fabrication processes. Intel has blasted through several “impossible” barriers whilst AMD has sought to try and diversify and win business elsewhere. Comparing that to any other monopolistic industry and you just don’t see that kind of innovation.

    So true! Maybe one day other industries will follow their lead.

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