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What Happened to Intel?

Rewind the clock just one decade, and Intel were the undisputed leader in computer chips for almost every category of computing device. Sure, they had made a few missteps along the way – the useless Itanium family of enterprise chips, the Pentium4 with its NetBurst architecture which turned out to be an evolutionary dead end and lets not even get started on their pitiful range of Atom processors which were supposed to power low end devices but ended up being nothing more than a joke when pitted against chips by the likes of Qualcomm and Mediatek.

But none of this mattered – the Core series of processors was an immediate hit, built on top of the technology used in the Pentium 3 series, along with several features found in the companies more successful laptop processors; Intel finally had a powerful chip to be reckoned with. If you wanted to play the latest games at the highest framerates, do your work without being forced to wait for your computer to catch up with you, or simply just play a game of cards or spin the latest games from the likes of Pragmatic Play, Intel was the go-to brand.

At this time, it was current champion AMD who was struggling back then; their Bulldozer line of Athlon and Phenom processors simply could not compete with the Core i5 and i7 chips that Intel was producing. A monopoly is good for no-one, and Intel was taking strong advantage of theirs. They ramped up the price of their chips year after year, and people had no choice but to pay for them if they wanted the highest performance. In short, Intel grew comfortable in their dominant position. Too comfortable.

The Ryzen Era

When AMD began outsourcing their chip manufacturing to Taiwan’s TSMC, they immediately got a leg up on Intel overnight. Intel had been producing 14 nanometer chips for years before the launch of Ryzen as they struggled to perfect their 10nm process. Two years turned into three. Then four. Then five. No matter how hard Intel tried, all they could do was tinker with their existing, proven processes. And it just wasn’t enough.

In came AMD, back with a bang, with the launch of their Ryzen series of chips for both desktop and laptop platforms. Nobody expected just how good these processors were going to be – not the industry, not the analysts, and certainly not their competitors. It shocked the world to the core when it turned out that AMD had come up with something truly special – and they were just getting started.

Whilst Intel had never offered a mainstream CPU with more than four cores, AMD shook things up by offering both six and eight-core options right out of the gate. These chips blew everything that Intel had to offer out of the water, and it was only the first generation of the product. As if to rub Intel’s nose in it, they even launched a line of enthusiast chips named “Threadripper”, offering up to 24 full high-performance cores. And they were just getting started.

Intels Current Offerings

Every year, Intel launches a new line of their Core series of chips, and every year, reviewers are disappointed at how small the gains are, how much heat these chips use, and the insane amount of power they require to work at their full potential – making them extremely poorly suited for mobile applications. The few 10nm chips Intel are managing to produce are all going into laptops – there is no other choice, as power hungry chips such as the Core i7 11600K are completely unsuitable for such applications.

Things got even worse for Intel when Apple announced their M1 line of chips, designed in house using ARM specifications and produced by TSMC. When Apple began using Intel processors in their Mac and Macbook lines, it was a huge win for Intel, yet Intel’s inability to create higher powered, less power-hungry chips force Apple to look elsewhere for a processor to use in their newer computers.

With Samsung and Apple dominating the mobile space, and AMD swallowing up most of the enthusiast and gaming crowd – Intel’s previously most loyal fans – they finally realized that it was time to take some drastic action if they wanted to remain relevant as we progress through the 2020s. The roadmap that Intel has come up with is nothing short of astounding – the question is, will they be able to pull it off?

The Future for Intel

Intel is now building half a dozen new ultra-high tech, world class fabs – mostly in the USA, but also in Europe and Asia too. The company is preparing itself to take back the performance crown in a big way. If they do everything that they say they are going to do, it’s hard to see them failing to pull it off. The trouble is, building one of these facilities is no small task – it will be several years before these factories are ready to start pumping out chips, and who knows what the competition will come up with before that time comes?

We should have a better idea of the state of play next year – Intel’s long-awaited 7nm chips are scheduled to be released in 2023, and their next generation transistor architecture codenamed “Intel 20A” is set to debut in 2024. If the company can hit these milestones, the markets may finally regain some confidence in the company’s ability to make things happen. If they don’t, it is easy to predict billions of pounds being wiped off Intel’s stock market value, which could make it more difficult to complete the rest of their goals.

On a positive note, there is no doubt that Intel have finally realized the precariousness of their position. They are doing everything they can to regain the ground they have lost to their competitors, and if all of the new fabs they are constructing do come online before the middle of the decade, AMD and TSMC are going to have a real fight on their hands. Watch this space.

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