True to form, Intel and AMD have both unveiled new PC CPU lines at CES 2021, while also sharing a detail or two about upcoming offerings.
Intel unveiled its first Core H-series notebook processor line -- it features powerful and relatively power-hungry chips aimed at gamers and content creators -- to rely on its 10nm manufacturing process node. Also launching: Versions of its existing Tiger Lake notebook CPUs (they launched in September) that support its vPro management/security platform for business PCs.
Intel also previewed Rocket Lake, the next and thankfully last Core desktop CPU platform to rely on Intel's age-old 14nm process node, as well as Alder Lake, a 10nm platform for desktops and notebooks that's due in the second half of 2021. Rocket Lake, which launches later in Q1, will compete against AMD's Ryzen 5000 desktop CPU line, which launched in November.
AMD unveiled its Ryzen 5000 Mobile notebook processor line -- as expected, it relies on AMD's new Zen 3 CPU core microarchitecture and includes both U-series parts that compete against Intel's existing Tiger Lake-U processor line and more power-hungry chips that will compete against Intel's new Core H-series offerings.
AMD also previewed its Zen 3-based Epyc server CPU line (Milan), which will formally launch in Q1, and promised to roll out notebook GPUs and cheaper desktop GPUs based on its new RDNA 2 architecture in the first half of the year.
Broadly speaking, we're at a juncture in the PC CPU wars where Intel is fairly competitive with AMD (though usually not blowing it away) when it comes to gaming and other workloads for which single-threaded performance matters a lot, while AMD is comfortably ahead when it comes to running content-creation apps and other workloads for which multi-threaded performance matters more.
AMD claims its 15-watt Ryzen 7 5800U processor strongly outperforms Intel's most powerful Tiger Lake-U notebook processor in many multi-thread tests. Source: AMD.
Intel's issues with multi-threaded performance stem from both its continued dependence (for now) on its 14nm node for desktop CPU production and the technical trade-offs it's apparently forced to make with 10nm CPUs between high core counts, high clock speeds and reasonable power consumption (effectively, it has to choose between 2 of the 3). The former problem will go away with Alder Lake's arrival, but -- with Alder Lake only boosting core counts by pairing high-performance CPU cores with low-power cores -- it doesn't look as if the latter will.
Whereas both AMD's Ryzen 4000 Mobile and 5000 Mobile lines feature 8-core CPUs with 15-watt and 35-watt thermal envelopes (TDPs) to go with top-of-the-line chips sporting 45-watt TDPs, for now the only 10nm Intel notebook CPU to pack more than 4 cores will carry a 45-watt TDP. That naturally helps give AMD a large multi-threaded performance edge for mass-market, thin-and-light notebooks.
Meanwhile, the most powerful CPUs in the 14nm-based Rocket Lake line will have just 8 cores -- respectively 4 and 8 less than AMD's Zen 3-based Ryzen 9 5900X and 5950X desktop CPUs. And in spite of this, the most powerful Rocket Lake chips will sport TDPs of 125 watts, 20 watts higher than both the 5900X and 5950X.
Intel did admittedly reveal some interesting security tech for its new vPro processors. In particular, a hardware-based malware-prevention solution known as Control-Flow Enforcement Technology (CET) could go over well with businesses on edge over the SolarWinds hack (AMD, it should be noted, offers CPU lines with management/security features for businesses as well).
Also, unlike in the past, when AMD's integrated GPUs (iGPUs) tended to soundly outperform Intel's, the iGPUs baked into the newest Intel processors are pretty competitive. Notably, neither AMD's CES keynote nor its Ryzen 5000 Mobile press release made any mention of the performance of the Ryzen 5000 line's iGPUs, which are based on AMD's older Vega GPU architecture rather than RDNA or RDNA 2.
But while Intel has erased AMD's traditional iGPU performance lead, AMD has largely done the same to Intel's traditional battery life lead. AMD claims a reference notebook sporting its 8-core, 15-watt, Ryzen 7 5800U processor delivered 17.5 hours of general-usage battery life and 21 hours of movie-playback battery life.
If I had to summarize how Intel and AMD respectively stack up in the PC CPU market, I'd say that Intel has a solid value proposition for certain types of users, such as gamers who aren't often running demanding multi-threaded workloads (and for whom power consumption isn't a major concern) or enterprises committed to vPro, while AMD has a stronger value proposition for those who care more about multi-threaded performance, as well as PC buyers who don't want to make a large trade-off between single-threaded performance, multi-threaded performance and/or power consumption.
And at a time when AMD's PC CPU share is (in spite of the share gains seen over the last 3 years) still only around 20%, that's not a bad place to be.