A Brief History of AMD v. Intel

In the beginning

Intel was founded on July 18, 1968 and produced its first microprocessor, the 4004 microcomputer, at the end of 1971. The processor used 2300 transistors, and was capable of executing 60,000 operations in one second. Shortly after the release of the 4004 the 8008 microcomputer was released and as the name implies, it was capable of executing twice as many operations per second. Eight years later on July 1, 1979, the Intel 8088 was introduced. It was IBM’s choice for their first PC and guaranteed Intel a viable future.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

In 1969, a group of executives from Fairchild Semiconductor met in the living room of one of their members. Their intent was to start their own semiconductor company and supply this new burgeoning market. As a result, Advanced Micro Devices was up and running before that meeting was over. By 1975 AMD was successfully marketing its own clone of the Intel 8080 processor. In 1982, Intel needed additional manufacturing in order to meet IBM’s stipulation of having at least two sources for the 8088 processor. To that end a contract and licensing agreement was signed between AMD and Intel in February 1982. This made AMD the second-source manufacturer for IBM’s supply of 8086 and 8088 processors.

The honeymoon is over

In 1986, Intel terminated their contract with AMD. AMD promptly sued, but the courts did not render a decision until 1994. Intel had indeed breached their contract. Not content to sit on their hands while awaiting a legal decision on the use of Intel’s microcode, AMD decided to pursue a different path. By 1991 they had released their own AM386, followed by the AM486, and then the AM586.

Keeping its momentum, AMD rolled out the K5, AMD’s first completely home-built x86 processor, in 1996. The “K” was chosen as being representative of Kryptonite, the only substance able to bring down Superman. The battle was on.

Fast Forward

As a continuous game of leapfrog and court battles unfolds, the competition heats up between the former partners. It is during this period that Intel makes several decisions concerning their Netburst architecture, which eventually leaves them unable to compete on a performance basis.

AMD’s x64 dual core architecture is firmly in the lead. The resulting Opteron sales and performance are so good that AMD must limit availability. Suddenly Dual Core Opterons are available only for OEM use. For the moment anyway, AMD seems in full control of its destiny.

That small miss-step by Intel was not easily corrected. It took some quick fab work and the release of Intel’s Core architecture to flip the crown back on to the King.

This time Intel is making the most of it while it can. There has been no moss growing on Intel products this year. Core duo, Core 2 Duo, and Quad Core hit the streets like a Swat Team. They rounded up AMD users like they were bad guys and for the moment the streets are quiet.

Like a never-ending adventure series, AMD is due to release its K10 processor before the end of this year. On paper it looks to have what will be needed to go head-to-head with Core 2. AMD is predicting that K10 will be out-performing the Intel offerings, so there is a high level of anticipation as the release day nears. Soon the NDAs will be lifted allowing hands-on reviews to finally be published.

Intel is hoping to spoil K10’s coming-out party by releasing their next series of processors, which will be produced using a 45nm process. This means less power and less heat. Will it be enough to allow Intel to hang on the performance crown? At this point no one knows, but the suspense is what makes it all fun.

Who is the Winner?

YOU, you the consumer are the most consistent and biggest winner.

Thanks to Intel for providing both the original x86 microcode and the original impetus for AMD to produce their own design of microprocessor.

Thanks to AMD for having the moxie to move in a different direction than Intel. The recent years of AMD performance domination has kept Intel prices lower, making them the obvious price per performance choice. AMD’s performance advantage also helped to spur the advances we are now enjoying from the latest Intel processors. Without the pressure and competition from AMD, it is doubtful that Intel would have provided the products or the pricing in the timeframes we’ve seen.

Traditionally, marketing and manufacturing have given Intel a distinct advantage over AMD. Today those strongholds are slipping away, further tightening the competition between the two.

AMD has positioned its products with builders such as Dell, who were previously supplying consumers with computers equipped predominately with Intel CPUs. In 2006 AMD acquired ATI to not only increase its manufacturing capacity, but to also open the door for AMD to begin producing its own chipsets, something Intel has been doing for years.

Will Intel soon be in the discrete graphics card business themselves to counter AMD? That’s the rumor. Will the engineers and designers keep coming up with more performance leaps? We sure hope so.

For those of us that lay down our hard-earned cash in pursuit of performance, the future looks bright.

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