CPU Year In Review 2021: Efficient Cores Are The New Bling
As far as most years ago, 2021 has been an up and down year when it comes to the desktop CPU market. At the beginning of the year, the best CPUs on the market were almost impossible to find, and when they were in stock, it was only above the suggested pricing. Now at the end of the year, processors are plentiful, but the needle has swung in the other direction when it comes to performance. Here’s a rundown of the fun year that 2021 has been.
Brief Recap: End of Year 2020
The rush at the end of Q4 in 2020 was quite substantial. In the space of those final three months, AMD went on a spree and launched the widest range of its 7nm products into the market. We’re talking graphics, mobile processors, ramping up enterprise CPUs, and for the purposes of this article, Zen 3-based Ryzen 5000 desktop processors. Ryzen 5000 took the crown as the best processor on the market, up to 16 cores, with a new high-performance microarchitecture. The problem was that they were hard to get hold of, for a long time.
AMD wasn’t the only one in this situation though. The global semiconductor shortages, which most were tied to packaging issues relating to high-performance films, meant that both Intel Comet Lake 10th Gen CPUs and AMD Ryzen 5000 CPUs and all the GPUs were gold dust. Looking for a CPU at the time meant being lucky at a store, or having watcher bots online.
Thankfully, the situation got better through 2021.
The Early Interviews from Intel and AMD
First up, the initial 2021 news for us at AnandTech was a pair of roundtable interviews. Between AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su and then-CEO of Intel Bob Swan, we had the opportunity to probe both about the future of each company as well as the situation of the semiconductor supply shortage.
Dr. Su reiterated AMD’s commitment to x86, along with investing in its own supply chain to ensure the future availability of all the 7nm products it had just released. There was also mention of the Xilinx deal, the large amount of design wins on Ryzen Mobile for notebooks and laptops, and also the enterprise EPYC platform.
With Swan, it was a different sort of interview – with hindsight Bob had a foot out of the door, but we didn’t know that at the time. He focused on Intel keeping its fabs, outsourcing chips, and sub-licensing process technology – basically an early version of new CEO Pat Gelsinger’s IDM 2.0 strategy.
While neither of those interviews are directly CPU news, it’s worth highlighting them.
2021 Q1: January through March
Sitting here at the end of 2021, with Intel’s 12th Generation sitting on my desk, it’s hard to believe that 12 months ago, Intel was still serving us their 10th Generation platform. The first CPU review out of the gate in the New Year was our review of Intel’s Core i9-10850K. This was a 10-core Comet Lake processor, built on the Skylake++++ platform, that Intel created because its Core i9-11900K was too high a frequency to bin enough hardware to provide the number of units demanded by the ecosystem (or at least that’s the common theory). The 10850K was similar to the 10900K but slightly lower frequency, for around the same power, and slightly cheaper. It became the preferred Intel CPU for a while, just because it was more widely available and Intel could make more of them. It still trailed behind AMD’s latest, but both were hard to acquire.
On the mobile side, we reviewed AMD’s Ryzen 9 5980HS. This is the flagship 35 W eight-core processor for the current generation of AMD’s thin-and-light but gaming-focused notebooks. We tested the ROG Flow X13, a 13-inch design paired with a GTX 1650 discrete graphics inside with a 3840×2400 display at 120 Hz and the premium of everything for that class of device. One of the criticisms of AMD’s mobile platform to this point was the lack of premium experiences for thin-and-light but powerful designs, and this sort of design was a strong design win for AMD. The question later down the line is if/when AMD could pair its own mobile CPUs to its own mobile GPUs.
As we crossed from February to March, more AMD news came virtue of the Threadripper Pro 3000 family, with up to Zen 2 cores coming to the workstation market. While it launched in mid-2020, Lenovo had the exclusive, and it was around this time they finally made it on shelves for everyone to use. We tested the Lenovo hardware with the big 64-core 3995WX, but more end-user hardware for the 32-core and 24-core parts. TR Pro offered the performance of Threadripper, but full 128 lanes of PCIe, eight lanes of memory, and ECC support.
Deeper into March, and Intel launches its new 11th Generation Rocket Lake processors. These were interesting parts for the industry, as Intel had retrofitted its 10nm processor cores for its latest generation 14nm, as the latter at the time was offering better frequency characteristics for a high-end platform. The response was lukewarm, given these processors were themselves quite power-hungry, and it was clear that in order to be competitive, Intel had pushed the frequency and power so far outside the optimization point it resulted in strong thermals. The introduction of AVX-512 to the platform, a technology that requires lots of power, did not help the situation. Not only this, but Intel was still behind AMD’s latest generation in performance.
To round out March, AMD launched its third generation EPYC enterprise processors. Featuring the same Zen 3 cores as the Ryzen 5000 family, the main plus point here was the new core design coupled with a slight uptick in frequency at the high-end and a re-arranging of the range of products to better fit AMD’s new market delineations. AMD went after the per-core performance with the F series in a big way. When we were able to test on retail systems, we saw an additional +10% performance, showcasing optimizations within the lifespan of the product. With the third generation EPYC, purely from a CPU performance perspective, AMD has been able to dictate where its processors go, rather than fit the mold of the market leaders.
2021 Q2: April through June
After a busy Q1, we saw the market quieten down in Q2. A lot of major processors had been launched, and the grip of the semiconductor space was taking hold. CPUs were one of the first to get to some normality in availability, at least for end-users, but it wouldn’t be until Q3 when everything was more or less available at any time. The issue here is that users rarely buy a CPU in isolation – it comes with a graphics card, memory, storage, a motherboard, and perhaps a display. Some of these markets, particularly graphics and displays, have had bigger issues than CPUs.
Nonetheless, Intel lifted the lid on its next-generation Xeon platform in April. The 3rd Generation Xeon Scalable platform was Intel’s first high-powered CPU product built on 10nm, offering up to 40 cores. The Ice Lake architecture itself was almost two years old, having been used in laptops, but here it was in big beefy silicon with lots of memory and available in systems with up to 2 sockets. Intel’s goal here with Xeon is to offer complete solutions – CPU, storage, networking, memory. Overall, we found the hardware generationally impressive, an uplift from 2nd Gen, with an increase in performance per watt and raw performance. The positives mirrored those we saw with Ice Lake laptops in August 2019. However the downsides were also there – they are power-hungry, even if performance per watt is higher. Beyond that, they also fall behind the competition in raw performance metrics – in order to push an Intel system ahead, software has to be optimized for it, or use dedicated onboard Intel accelerators. Intel piled this on, making sure lots of industry-standard software was optimized, but in Intel’s recent financial calls, the demand for the high-end 40 core parts wasn’t really there, with customers preferring to stay around the 28-core. There are suggestions that this might be because Intel’s yields on the 40-core are low, however it will be interesting to see how strong Intel will suggest its 2022 platform, 4th Gen Sapphire Rapids, as a direct replacement to those sticking on 1st/2nd gen hardware.
2021 Q3: July through September
Moving into the second half of the year, movement in the CPU space was slow. What was perhaps more active were rumors of upcoming processors. Big on the horizon was Intel’s Alder Lake desktop processors, teased in January, set to come end of the year. Just before Q3, AMD had previewed the performance of its upcoming V-Cache processors, promising more gaming performance. Then there was also talk of what Apple would be doing next beyond its new M1 silicon. The only real launch in Q3 was from AMD.
Following on from previous generations of Ryzen Mobile, the launch of the desktop-focused APUs came around nine months later. The Ryzen 5000G family of desktop processors were simply the mobile parts converted into the AM4 form factor, offering up to 8 cores and Vega 8 graphics. Aside from adjustments in frequency given that desktops are better for 65 W chips, the hardware inside is identical. A common thought is that AMD’s margins on desktop APUs is lower than most of its other products, and so there wasn’t a major rush to make these widely available – AMD didn’t even make the Ryzen 3 version for retail and only for system integrators. It wasn’t until a few weeks after launch that we were able to find the Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 easily for purchase at the regular retailers, but the 5700G offered a good intro into users building a new system without a graphics card yet, while the GPU hardware has been at a severe demand for the last 18 months.
2021 Q4: October through December
At the tail end of the year, we ramped up the launches again, with the rush to get something out into the market ahead of the holiday season. Trying to get a CPU launch to synchronize with a holiday season is witchcraft, let’s be clear.
In October, Apple launched new MacBook Pro laptops with its M1 Pro and M1 Max custom silicon. Extended from its first M1 chip in 2020, the M1 Pro and M1 Max extended the idea with more cores, more cache, more memory, more graphics, and higher power budgets for 14-inch and 16-inch laptops. Apple discontinued its relationship with Intel for this line of products to bring in its own silicon, giving it control of performance and acceleration features that Intel could not deliver in a timely manner. Losing the contract has been a blow to Intel, but for Apple customers that can use the features under the hood, the M1 Pro and M1 Max are blisteringly fast. In some cases, you have to bring out server hardware to beat them.
In our performance tests, the M1 Pro and M1 Max change the narrative completely regarding custom silicon and vertical integration with the OS. This hardware was built with power users in mind, and the updated MBP with lots of ports reflects that Apple understands it has a market here that it can own. For those that have the workflow, Apple’s hardware works – the biggest barrier though is (a) the price, and (b) a number of enthusiasts are reluctant to be sucked into the Apple ecosystem, especially if their workflow doesn’t benefit. Gaming is also an afterthought really, until Apple designs its own discrete GPUs.
At the end of October, we participated in a group roundtable interview of Intel CEO, Pat Gelsinger.
Back in the world of desktop silicon, Intel launched its 12th Generation Alder Lake processors in November, marking the first time in a long while that Intel has launched two generations in the same year. Alder Lake marked several significant shifts in Intel’s strategy: the use of its Intel 7 process node (renamed from 10ESF), but also a hybrid architecture combining performance cores and efficiency cores, much like smartphone chips and those from Apple in the M1 family. The idea here is to offer performance when needed, and high efficiency for background operations. This requires strong collaboration with Microsoft as well, as this hybrid design is tightly coupled to the operating system – this is a collaboration that requires long-term management and expertise.
Intel has only launched the high-performance parts so far, the i9-K, i7-K, and i5-K, with the rest to come in early 2022. Alder Lake also brings Intel to DDR5, PCIe 5.0, and the new technologies that will dominate desktop computing for the rest of the decade. The hardware pulled ahead of AMD’s Zen 3 processors on single-threaded and gaming tasks, although lagged behind in throughput. Alder Lake is also suffering from a limited DDR5 market, making it difficult for end-users to buy the latest memory, instead having to rely on the DDR4 market given the platform can support both.
Alder Lake was seen as a win for new Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, offering key performance in more realistic scenarios than AMD, at a similar or better price point – at least for the CPU. The only thorn in Intel’s side is that the 12th Gen platform is more expensive to AMD, and some reviews pointed to prosumer workload power as something that Intel needs to work on. The big excitement is going to come when Intel showcases the rest of the Alder Lake family in the New Year
2021 Q5: Next Generations
Aka 2022 Q1
As we look into the New Year, we start with the annual CES show, where AMD, Intel, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm have keynote presentations, all on January 4th. We know somewhat of what we should be expecting.
AMD: The first question on everyone’s lips is asking where the Zen 3 processors with V-Cache are. AMD already announced EPYC with V-Cache to come later in 2022, but it was always expected that the desktop processors would come first, so that’s what everyone wants to hear about. As Intel has taken the gaming crown, enthusiasts are interested to see if AMD can take it back with this new stacking technology.
Beyond V-Cache, CEO Dr. Lisa Su has already stated that we should be expecting Zen 4 in 2022, although most people are putting that towards the end of the year, coupled with the EPYC Zen 4 release which has already been announced as being in the second half. We’re not sure if AMD will address anything regarding Zen 4, but fingers crossed.
The other piece of the puzzle is what AMD is doing with Threadripper. We’re six months from when we thought a Zen 3 based Threadripper would have been launched, so we’re hoping that something is mentioned. Even if it’s to say that Threadripper has been put to pasture and Threadripper Pro is the future, then a Zen 3 based Threadripper Pro announcement would be welcome.
Intel: As previously mentioned, we should see the rest of Intel’s Alder Lake desktop platform be discussed, perhaps announced, and we get to see the cheaper offerings for the 12th Gen platform. Beyond the desktop, we’re also looking forward to the notebook processors, to date discussed in unconfirmed leaks as Alder Lake-P. Intel has already discussed the silicon that will go into the laptops from a high-level core count overview, but exact speeds, feeds, core counts, graphics, and pricing are still waiting to be filled in.
While not CPU-related, Intel has promised to bring its own GPUs to market in Q1. In a sufficient quantity, and at the right price, this could accelerate the sales of the CPUs currently in the market. There have been suggestions that Intel has lots of quantity, despite manufacturing on TSMC N6, but there is a question mark over how the drivers will be on day one, along with exactly when they will launch. Here’s hoping for more detail at CES.
Longer-term in 2022, next-gen Intel desktop CPUs have been rumored for the end of the year – Raptor Lake as a minor update to Alder Lake, before we finally move onto Intel 4 and an EUV manufacturing process in 2023. I’m not sure if Intel will mention any of these at CES though.