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AMD’s comeback means it’s finally time to get excited about CPUs again

GETTING EXCITED over slices of silicon is quite a task. And it’s even harder when you take into account the general lack of anything particularly significant in the processor world, at least until AMD showed off its Ryzen CPUs in 2017.

For a good few years, Intel has dominated the desktop and laptop processors market, offering CPUs that outperformed AMD chips across the board, unless you had specific tasks that really benefited from having processors with loads of cores.

AMD’s Bulldozer chips were often trounced by Intel CPUs in terms of single-core performance, and while some may have done well in multi-threaded tasks, few apps could really put the number of cores and threads of AMD’s CPUs to work, meaning Intel’s processors outperformed their rivals in the majority of computing tasks.

Intel’s chips may have been more expensive but chips like the Core i3 and Core i5 still offered solid bank for the buck.

An unchallenged Intel meant it could rest on its laurels and simply tick along with its tick-tock strategy of creating minor performance entrancements and architecture changes. This was bad news for people looking for CPUs to have significant jumps in power over their predecessors. Intel seemed to be more focused on making each new chip more efficient than its predecessors but offered negligible boosts in power in real-world tasks.

Then AMD popped up with its Zen architecture, promising processors that wouldn’t let Intel walk all over them. And to some surprise, they delivered with the Ryzen family of CPUs.

The Ryzen 3, 5 and 7 are all fairly competitive with Intel’s seventh-generation Kaby Lake chips in terms of everyday and gaming performance, while their number of cores and threads made short work of the growing number of apps that make use of multithreading, notably in video rendering tasks. AMD’s Zen based chips were competitively priced against Intel as well.

Intel could no longer tick along so it had to up its game, which is likely why a Coffee Lake Core i5 now sports six rather than four cores. And Intel responded to AMD’s 16-core Threadripper 1950X flagship chip with its 18-core Core i9-7980XE.

While AMD was giving Intel a headache, for PC fans it was a return for some to the early 2000s, when the two fought tooth-and-nail in the CPU word subsequently releasing impressive and innovative processors that helped accelerate the development of fancy apps and better gaming.

Now, with Ryzen 2 on the horizon promising more powerful and enhanced CPUs, and Intel’s 10 nanometre Cannon Lake architecture set to make a debut this year, we can expect to see the chip wars continue.

For PC builders and chip fans, this should mean more performance at more competitive prices at the most basic level.

But it should also see both chip makers try and push the capabilities of their silicon slices further, hopefully delivering chips that lead to super slim laptops and tiny desktops, or powerful 2-in-1 machines with power efficiency to keep ticking along away from a plug for longer.

We’re already seeing interesting chips from AMD in the form of the Ryzen 3 2200G and Ryzen 5 2400G, which mix Ryzen CPUs with integrated AMD Vega GPU to deliver a budget chip with onboard graphics that are actually suitable for gaming, albeit at the lower end.

And through a surprising partnership between the two chip makers, Intel recently revealed Core i5 and i7 chips with Vega graphics on the same chip, which promise laptops with proper gaming-capable performance without the need for a discrete graphics card. This could be a boon for people fed up with chunky gaming laptops or bulky mobile workstations laptops that play fast and loose with the idea of mobility.

While mobile chips have been advancing at a heady pace with performance and features, thanks to AMD being back in the mainstream CPU game for the first time in what seems like ages, things look to be generally interesting in the laptop and desktop CPU world.

I just hope PC makers now jump onto the new and upcoming chips and make machines that are worth sitting up and paying attention to. µ

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