Besieged by AMD and ambushed by ARM, Intel needs a CES win

It’s tough being the top dog. Everyone loves to see David take down Goliath, and that makes it easy to cheer against Intel. But loyalties aside, we PC enthusiasts should want to see more competition in this space. It’s good for everyone — Intel included. And the competition has never been so fierce.

At CES 2021, though, it feels like we’re headed toward a turning point in the industry. Intel still has a chance to shift the momentum back in its direction, but one thing is for sure: The stakes have never been higher.

Look out, here comes AMD

The historic rise of AMD has been well-documented over the past couple of years. Once a down-and-out RC Cola to Intel’s Coke, AMD has been an attack on all fronts against Intel, from insanely powerful desktop chips like the Ryzen 9 5950X to the glut of new Ryzen-powered laptops that came out in 2020.

But two very specific things happened in 2020 that should scare Intel. The first is that the latest Zen 3-powered Ryzen processors finally beat Intel’s own 10th-gen processors in gaming. While Ryzen has always had a thread-count advantage, single-core performance has always been Intel’s calling card. But with the Ryzen 5000, AMD finally surpassed Intel’s single-core performance, which lends itself to playing many games better. Now, there will always be some games that Intel outperforms AMD on, but on average, it’s no longer an advantage.

AMD has been riding on years of momentum and enthusiasm.

The best part? AMD accomplished this without giving up its substantial lead in multithreaded applications like content creation and data science performance.

2020 also marked the year that AMD finally got its foot in the door on the laptop front. For many years, AMD’s chips were sidelined to ultra-budget laptops only, which has always been a branding nightmare. No one wants to be the budget brand.

But Ryzen 4000 changed all that. Thanks to the 8-core performance brought to thin-and-light laptops, PC manufacturers finally felt that AMD had a marketable feature they could sell over Intel. The result was dozens of laptops sporting Ryzen that could outperform their more expensive Intel counterparts. That was especially true on gaming laptops, where performance is paramount.

AMD has been riding on years of momentum and enthusiasm, and unfortunately for Intel, there’s no sign of slowing down any time soon. The battle between AMD and Intel is becoming unbalanced.

ARM: A new rival appears

You might laugh at the idea of ARM on Windows being a serious competitor to Intel. Though a handful of laptops have used ARM-based processors from Qualcomm, such as the Snapdragon 8cx, they are still small in number. The ones that do exist, such as the Surface Pro X or the Lenovo Yoga 5G, don’t yet have the performance to match Intel machines. App support for ARM systems is also a hurdle, adding to the likelihood that Intel is safe.

Then, the M1 Macs launched. Now, you might not think Intel is overly worried about losing its massive x86 customer base to the now Nvidia-owned ARM system architecture.

But the M1 isn’t just good. It’s incredible. So much so that we named it the best tech of 2020. Despite only being in its first generation, these ARM chips are already running circles around Intel.

Defectors back to the Mac are inevitable, and it leaves everyone on the Windows/Intel side (remember Wintel?) looking bad. It’ll only be a matter of time before PC manufacturers start investing more in ARM machines. If you believe the rumors, Microsoft is already developing its own ARM chips for future Surface products. Once Microsoft fully commits on the software side of things, Intel will be in a tight spot. That’s not a wave Intel wants to be on the opposite side of.

The opportunity ahead

The elephant in the room, of course, is Intel’s own postponed technical development. The company’s infamous struggle with moving away from the 14nm process has slowed its pace of innovation over the years. Intel has officially moved its lower-wattage laptop chips to 10nm, but its more powerful laptops and desktops are still stuck at 14nm. That’s a problem now, and it’ll be an even bigger problem a few years down the road.

Intel doesn’t help its positioning with its stiff, buttoned-up image. Its keynote presenters prattle on about buzzwords like big data, A.I., and machine learning, leaving details about its product launches sparse. The charisma of AMD’s leaders alone makes its keynotes and press conferences must-see events. They’re audacious. They’re exciting. They’re downright fun. AMD has a story to tell — and they’re good at telling it. Intel needs a new way of framing its innovation if it hopes to win back some of that good energy.

The presentation is important, because Intel does have some great things going for it. The latest 11th-gen Tiger Lake mobile processors were seriously impressive, as were the first iteration of the integrated Xe graphics. If Intel can continue to double down on its graphics technology over the next year, it could dramatically transform the future of laptops and give itself an edge over the competition. It’d be good on Intel to preview more of what it has in store on that front at CES this year.

A lot is riding on the success of Intel’s 10nm.

There’s also a lot of potential surrounding its upcoming 11th-gen desktop line, Rocket Lake. The new chips are rumored to launch in the first quarter of 2021, and though they’ll remain on 14nm, certain features will be backported to the older architecture, including better integrated graphics and PCIe 4.0 support. Later this year, we’re to get Intel’s first true desktop 10nm with Alder Lake. There have been conflicting reports about just how good Intel’s 10nm will be, but one thing is for sure: A lot is riding on its success. Even though Rocket Lake comes first, Intel really needs to dissuade any concerns that its 10nm desktop chips will underperform.

So yes, the stakes are high. They’ve never been so high. Intel is far from out for the count, but it’ll need to show up to CES 2021 with its best foot forward if it wants to turn the tide.

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