Of all the components that a modern computer has, perhaps none is as interesting as the processor. Also called CPU -by the acronym in English Central Processing Unit or Central Processing Unit- It is in charge of handling all the calls of the programs that are executed, in addition to handling issues such as memory performance and distributing tasks through all the components.

It is undoubtedly one of the components that have the greatest impact on the performance of a computer, and its development over the decades has been quite accelerated. It had rudimentary beginnings, with tubes that were in charge of handling operations on analog computers, and today they handle the most advanced applications on today's servers.

Trends for 2020 in processors

2019 was a fairly busy year in the processor market. As part of the fight between Intel and AMD we have seen a change of market leader. For the first time in over 12 years, AMD not only caught up with Intel on performance, it surpassed it on some metrics And now you have some of the most powerful processors on the market. In reviews of your 3970X processor, AMD proved to be above almost all tests in desktop environments.

AMD Intel Blender
Processor results in Blender. Review complete by AnandTech

The third generation of AMD Ryzen is founded on TSMC's 7nm technology. Intel, meanwhile, still has its Coffee Lake line running at 14nm. In addition to the difference in size, AMD's processors have a thermal and power consumption advantage that make them superior to Intel's.

During 2020, it is expected that Intel will be able to make the leap towards 10nm, which technically should bring them to a level similar to that of AMD. Despite this, AMD is already planning the fourth generation of Ryzen, which in addition to introducing improvements in energy consumption and performance, will also be based on the 7nm + platform.

Speaking of transistor density, Intel's 10nm technology is comparable to AMD's 7nm despite the difference in size. In the same way, a smaller platform means more efficiency in energy consumption. Finally, it is also expected that with the jump to 10nm, Intel will increase its cache and improve performance in intensive tasks such as rendering and video creation.

To make matters worse, AMD also plans to launch its most powerful processor: the Ryzen Threadripper 3990X. Not only does it have 64 cores and 124 threads running simultaneously, but it has PCI Express 4.0 and support up to 4TB of RAM. With this launch, AMD aims to gain market share in the server and data center market.

If AMD continues at the pace it has followed in 2019, it should enjoy the same advantage it has gained, and even get to double your market share of processors.

AMD Intel Market Share
Intel vs. AMD through the years. Table thanks to PassMark Software.

On the other hand, the mobile processor market seems to be having one of its busiest years. The introduction of the new 5G networks in countries like China and the United States means big changes for Qualcomm and MediaTek.

Qualcomm 865
Qualcomm 865

Qualcomm has already announced its new Snapdragon 865, which will feature a 5G modem and another 4G modem. There are concerns that this implementation may result in accelerated battery consumption. Already exist synthetic tests showing performance improvement.

MediaTek also announced the Dimensional 1000, which kicks off the line of 5G dedicated SoCs. In preliminary results, the Dimensional 1000 would be above the Snapdragon 855+ and the Kirin 990. It remains to be seen how it will be compared to the 865, although in terms of specifications the variation is not too much. During CES 2020, MediaTek also announced Dimensional 800, its new mid-range 5G chip that also represents one of its strongest bets.

With this entry, MediaTek seeks to go through the high-end market that has always been dominated by Qualcomm. Because of this, the Dimensional name is intended to replace Helium and usher in the 5G era within the company. On the other hand, we cannot forget Samsung with Exynos, Huawei with Kirin and Apple with its A12. Everyone will also enter the market offering 5G solutions.

With so many developments, the fight for the processors is closer than ever. We expect MediaTek to greatly reduce Qualcomm's advantage, while we anticipate Intel's response to the momentum AMD has gained.

Mobile CPU Market
Market distribution for mobile CPUs. Chart by Strategy Analyics.

Small history of the CPU

The history of the CPU begins in 1926, when Physicist Julius Edgar Lillienfield proposed the concept of a transistor based on magnetic fields and properties of copper. However, due to the lag in the industry at the time, it was not possible to build such an apparatus.

A transistor is a semiconductor device that amplifies or works as an electrical switch for the electricity it receives. In other words, it is capable of receiving constant energy but emitting binary 0 or 1 signals depending on the instruction.

IBM vacuum tube processor
IBM vacuum tube processor

Before the era of transistors, processing units were performed in an analog way, using punch cards or vacuum tubes for the most powerful computers. This would change in 1947, when Bell Labs would create the first transistor in history, completely changing the advance of computing. The participating scientists would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.

From that point on, processors should no longer be based on analog forms, but instead became entirely electronic devices. It was in the 60s that two of the companies that are still the benchmarks in processors were founded: Intel and AMD. 

Intel -Integrated Electronics— was founded in 1968 in Mountain View, California. It is thanks to Intel engineering that the world was able to see for the first time in history a modern microprocessor: the Intel 4004.

Intel 4004
Intel 4004

In addition to being the size of a thumbnail, it had the same processing capacity as the most powerful 1946 computer that took up an entire room. Inside the processor were 2.300 transistors that powered the entire computer.

For its part, AMD was founded a year later, in 1969, in Sunny Vale, California. Although AMD did not have the same engineering capabilities as Intel at their disposal, the two companies have become the two biggest rivals in the microprocessor market.

Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, explained what is now known as Moore's Law. This law is that approximately every two years the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double.

Moore's Law
Moore's Law

Although the Law was published by Moore in 1965, even today it remains relevant. Not only that, but today we also have circuits that double the number of transistors and reduce their size. The Intel 4004 was 10.000nm in size. Today, AMD has on the market 7nm processors with approximately 19.000 billion of transistors.

Mobile processors and SoC

And although all the development of processors in computers was designed for desktop applications, towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s Apple presented a device that would change the way we communicate: the iPhone.

As smartphones gained relevance, they also needed high processing capacity. Although Qualcomm and MediaTek (two the two biggest competitors in processors for phones) were founded as cellular companies, they changed their model in the first decade of the millennium.

Moore's Law also applies to mobile processors and, in fact, the same manufacturing models are used as in the desktop computer market. However, the architectures on which they are designed are different. It is for this reason that a computer cannot run mobile applications natively and vice versa.

Today, the most powerful mobile processor is the Qualcomm 855+, which has 8 cores and can have up to 16GB of RAM.

It should be noted, however, that it is much more common to see the term SoC to refer to the central unit of telephones. SoC —System On Chip in English or system on a chip— means not only the CPU of the phone, but also the RAM modules, the 4G or 5G modem that comes integrated and the GPU that is in charge of the graphic applications.

Unlike desktop computers, it is much more common to see that a complete package is offered on the phone market that already includes all the basic operating components.

Processors evolution

Manufacturer Model Frequency Number of transistors Year Relevance
Intel 4004 740 kHz 2.300 1971 First microprocessor
intel 8080 3,125 MHz 6.000 1974 The standard of the time, base of the 8086
Motorola 68000 25 MHz 68.000 1979 Integrated into Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga
Intel i860 40 MHz 1'000.000 1989 First with a million transistors
AMD AM386 40 MHz 275.000 1991 Positioned AMD as a direct competitor to Intel
intel Pentium 60 MHz 3'100.000 1993 First of the Pentium line, still existing in 2019
AMD K5 133 MHz 4'300.000 1996 First developed entirely by AMD
AMD Athlon 1 GHz 22'000.000 1999 First processor to break the 1 GHz barrier
AMD Athlon 64 1 GHz 105'900.000 2003 First processor based on 64-bit technology
Intel Xeon 7400 2.13 GHz 1.900'000.000 2008 Break the billion-transistor barrier
AMD Epyc Rome 3.35 GHz 39.540'000.000 2019 Largest number of cores on the market (64 cores and 124 threads)

Main Image: Brian Kostiuk on Unsplash.