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Intel vs. AMD at CES 2021: The processor war wages on

The rivalry between Intel and AMD continued this week at CES as both companies vie for silicon supremacy. These two incumbents will not only be competing against each other, but this year, they’re both trying to fend off threats from Apple, Qualcomm, and even Microsoft‘s oft-rumored ARM-based silicon.

This means that both companies are putting their resources where they know competitors can’t reach, at least not in the foreseeable future. Intel and AMD made big bets in gaming and high-performance computing, with both companies dedicating large portions of their presentations to mobile chipsets. Which company had the more impressive showing at CES? Let’s break it down by the biggest announcements.

Ryzen 5000 mobile vs. Intel 11th-gen Tiger Lake

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AMD’s presentation was mostly devoted to bringing its Zen 3 core architecture to laptops, and the company showcased its new Ryzen 5000 mobile processors that are built on the 7nm process. AMD stated that we can expect to see 150 new laptop designs this year from its partners — like Asus, Acer, HP and Lenovo — that will be powered by Ryzen 5000, a 50% jump from the 100 designs that were powered by the prior-generation Ryzen 4000 mobile CPU. That alone is a huge win for AMD, especially when it comes to higher-end gaming laptops that feature more powerful graphics.

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In the company’s presentation, AMD focused on how Ryzen 5000 outperforms when compared against Intel’s 11th-gen mobile processors. The Ryzen 7 5800U, according to AMD’s own benchmarks, beat the Intel Core i7-1185G7 by as much as 44%. The Ryzen chip was 7% faster at office applications and 18% faster at digital content creation, AMD CES Lisa Su said.

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In addition to performance, AMD noted the processor’s power efficiency — we’re looking at up to 17.5 hours of battery life for general use or up to 21 hours for movie playback. If AMD’s numbers are accurate, this compares favorably to the M1-powered MacBook Air, which Apple claims can last for up to 18 hours.

AMD also announced a new series of unlocked processors for performance gaming that can be overclocked as part of its Ryzen 5000 series. The AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX and Ryzen 9 5980HX processors top out with a design with eight cores and 16 threads. Compared against Intel’s 10th-Gen Core i9 mobile processor, the Ryzen 9 5900HX leads by as much as 35% in overall CPU performance and outperforms the Intel offering in single-threaded performance and game physics benchmarks, according to Su.

Unlike AMD, which has narrowed in on the gaming and thin-and-light laptop market, Intel is casting a far larger net with its new processors. In addition to having launched Tiger Lake late last year, Intel is now expanding its reach to enterprise with new 11th-Gen vPro processors for business laptops, plus 11th-Gen vPro Evo laptops for the C-suite, new Pentium Silver and Celeron processors built on 10nm for Chromebooks and the education market, and new 35-watt Tiger Lake-H series for gamers.

The problem? Intel’s 45-watt Tiger Lake-H gaming chips were a no-show. Sure, Intel gave us a sneak peek and said they were coming soon, but Intel will have missed the window on all these new gaming laptops being updated.

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These gaming chips will eventually offer 5GHz boost speeds on multiple cores, eight cores, and PCIe 4 with 20 lanes to the CPU, giving it “more bandwidth than any other laptop outside our own 10th-Gen core family,” Intel claimed.

But again, the chips themselves aren’t here yet, and that gave AMD an open opportunity to step in with its Ryzen 5000 HX series. To fill the hole, many major laptop manufacturers such as Lenovo and Asus have moved the majority of their laptop lines over to AMD. That includes high-end gaming laptops like the Asus ROG Zephyrus laptops, which include graphics up to an RTX 3080.

RDNA 2 mobile vs. Intel Xe

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Graphics was not a huge part of either company’s presentation. AMD briefly stated that its RDNA 2 graphics architecture – which powers the Radeon RX 6000 desktop graphics cards along with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 — will be coming to mobile later this year. Laptops with RDNA 2 graphics will appear in the first half of 2021, Su said.

Though Intel has been gaining ground on its rivals with its own Intel Xe integrated graphics architecture in recent months, AMD’s discrete graphics solution will give it an advantage over its rival’s emerging discrete GPU, which has been mostly targeted at midrange notebooks. Gamers and creatives will likely choose Radeon or GeForce RTX for their discrete GPU over Intel’s Xe.

This will add to the number of Ryzen- and Intel 11th-Gen-powered laptops that ship with Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3000 series mobile GPUs. Nvidia stated that its graphics cards will be in more than 70 gaming and Studio RTX laptops for professionals that will appear starting on January 26.

Desktop updates

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Though AMD didn’t detail much about its Threadripper Pro processor during the company’s keynote, the high-end desktop part gives it a huge performance advantage over Intel. Announced quietly through a press release, the new Threadripper Pro is now available directly to consumers, featuring up to 64 cores, 8 channels of memory, and a whopping 128 PCIe Gen 4 lanes.

AMD also quietly announced lower TDP alternatives to its Ryzen 9 5900X and Ryzen 7 5800X desktop processors that will be coming to prebuilt systems. “Powered by the new Zen 3 core architecture and with a lower 65W TDP, the Ryzen 9 5900 desktop processor and AMD Ryzen 7 5800 will offer better performance to more users,” the company stated in a media advisory.

On the desktop side, Intel quietly unveiled a new S-class desktop processor, code-named 11th-gen Rocket Lake. These chips are are still built on the old 14nm node, but Intel has backported some 10nm features to keep it competitive. Rocket Lake will support A.I. capabilities, 20 lanes of PCIe 4, and Intel Xe graphics. Unfortunately, the trade-off is that they will now be limited to just eight cores, putting them at a disadvantage in multithreaded performance against AMD.

Stacking up against Apple and ARM

Intel and AMD’s strategy radically diverges when it comes to heading off future threats. With Apple entering the PC processor business with its M1 silicon for the Mac, AMD and Intel are addressing new competitors in different ways.

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At CES, Intel previewed its Alder Lake processor, which will be the company’s 12th-Gen silicon for both laptops and desktops. Intel executives noted that unlike previous processors, Alder Lake will take a heterogenous core approach, combining high-efficiency and high-performance cores into the same silicon.

If this sounds familiar, it’s what mobile phones have been doing for some time now with the big.LITTLE approach. And this is also what Apple has been doing with its processors for the iPhone, iPad, and now the Mac.

Intel’s move prompted a number of tech sites to postulate that it is in fact emulating Apple in order to compete against the Mac maker. For its part, Intel never made mention of Apple or the M1 silicon in its CES 2021 presentation; the company only used benchmarks to show how its newly announced mobile processors outperform rival AMD’s.

Radeon Graphics Card
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On the other hand, AMD is taking a more holistic approach to new competition from Apple. Although the M1-powered Mac products rely on Apple’s proprietary integrated graphics architecture — a departure from using AMD’s Radeon technology on Macs that have discrete graphics — AMD CEO Lisa Su still seemed upbeat about maintaining a working relationship with the Cupertino, California-based tech giant.

“The M1 is more about how much processing and innovation there is in the market,” Su said in a press session after her company’s CES keynote, which she headlined. “This is an opportunity to innovate more — both in hardware and software — and it goes beyond the [instruction set architecture].”

She later added that there are still opportunities to work with Apple.

“From our standpoint, there is still innovation in the PC space,” she continued. “We expect to see more specialization as we go forward over the next couple of years, and it enables more differentiation. But Apple continues to work with us as their graphics partner. And we work with them.”

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By moving to the ARM-based M1 processor, Apple had in fact reestablished its working relationship with AMD rival Nvidia — it was Nvidia that acquired the ARM business last year from Softbank.

And even though AMD is best known for its discrete Radeon GPUs in the discrete graphics space, the company seems more open to licensing its intellectual property. Ahead of CES, there were rumors that Samsung may debut new high-end Exynos ARM-based processors for select models of its Galaxy smartphone business that uses AMD’s integrated graphics architecture.

Potentially, AMD could also be looking to Apple to license its Radeon architecture as part of a future M-series silicon, furthering the two companies’ GPU partnership.

AMD gains more momentum

While traditionally viewed as the silicon underdog, AMD’s recent architectural advancements in processing and graphics technologies are making it an appealing choice among gamers and PC enthusiasts. But more than that, it’s increasingly becoming a go-to option on basic work and gaming laptops as well.

Intel’s response this year is a move to a 10nm Alder Lake processor launching later this year with an enhanced SuperFin process that brings together faster transistors and improved capacitors, the company said. It was smart for the company to focus on the more exciting developments ahead, but it has certainly given AMD an opportunity to move in and scoop up more of the laptop market.

While AMD’s announcements were far less explosive than they were last year, they position the company well to move into the rest of 2021 with even more momentum. With Intel announcing a change in leadership and considering the outsourcing of fabs, the ball is in Intel’s court. It needs to make the rest of its transition to 10nm a rousing success, or else it’s in trouble.

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Chuong Nguyen
Silicon Valley-based technology reporter and Giants baseball fan who splits his time between Northern California and Southern…
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