The original IBM PC was launched in August 1981. That computer used the Intel 8088 processor, which ran at 4.77 MHz. In comparison, Intel’s latest CPU, the Core i9, runs at 5.2 GHz. That’s more than 1000 times faster than those original PCs. While Intel’s processors have come a long way over the last 40 years, it’s not the only company driving innovation. Let’s look at the computer chip companies that are pushing the industry forward.
Where PC Processors Started
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Up until it launched the original PC, IBM was well-known for its proprietary computers. Once you bought a computer from IBM, you had to depend on them for support, updates, and add-ons.
That changed with the PC. Instead of building their own technology, IBM used off-the-shelf parts — including Intel’s 8088 CPU.
Because the processor and many other components in the original IBM PC were available for any company to use, it didn’t take long for the PC clone market to spring up. Within a few years, there were a bunch of companies selling IBM-compatible PCs using that same 8088 processor or one of its descendants.
Intel’s First Major Rival in the Personal Computer CPU Business
Over the next decade, Intel updated its processors regularly. Chips like the 80286, 80386, and Pentium series got steadily faster and more powerful. But almost all PCs used an Intel chip of some kind.
That changed in 1996 when AMD launched its K5 series of processors. The K5 was known as an “x86 compatible” processor, meaning it was able to run the same software as Intel’s line of computer chips.
Over the last 25 years, AMD has given Intel a run for its money. With any particular generation of chips, one or the other would take the speed crown but they’ve been pushing each other ever since that original K5 CPU launched.
What About Motorola?
While Intel and AMD powered the Windows PC world, Motorola-designed chips were the foundation of Apple’s Mac series. The original Macs ran on the Motorola 68K series of chips.
Similar to Intel, Motorola updated its processors regularly, going from the 68000 to the 68020, 68030, and so on. Those chips eventually hit their limits though, and Motorola launched the Power PC series of chips.
While the Power PC chips had some technical advantages over Intel’s and AMD’s designs, they never managed to reach the same speeds. After more than 20 years of Motorola-based designs, Apple switched the Mac to Intel’s chips in 2006.
Low-Power Computer Chip Innovation
In the early days of the computer industry, chip innovation was all about performance. How much power those chips needed wasn’t a concern for a desktop PC that’s plugged in all day.
As laptop computers became more popular, the amount of power needed to run them became important. For anyone using a laptop on the go, the amount of time they can get from a single battery charge is a big deal.
Intel and other computer chip manufacturers started working on low-power versions of their chips. These processors weren’t as fast but they used much less power to operate — extending the time you could run from a battery.
Intel’s Atom series of processors launched in 2008. Originally called Centrino, it used the same instruction set as its more powerful desktop processors.
That meant Atom-based computers could run all the same software — just not as fast as their more powerful cousins.
Intel still makes the Atom series of processors but it’s rare to see them in consumer PCs these days. They’re mostly used for embedded systems that need to run as long as possible on battery power.
The other common type of processor that’s used in low-power applications is the ARM-based CPU. The original ARM chips used a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architecture that needed much less power than a typical desktop CPU.
In the early days of ARM processors, the company that owned the rights started licensing the technology for other companies to use. Today, there are many companies using the ARM architecture in their processors, including Intel.
The most well-known ARM-based processors are Apple’s A-series chips used in the iPhone. Apple has an impressive chip design team and they’ve made a lot of innovations with Apple’s chips but at their core, they’re still using ARM technology.
What is a System on a Chip?
One of the major computer chip innovations of the last several years is the move to System on a Chip (SoC) designs. These chips combine several components into a single die rather than having them all run independently.
SoC vs. Traditional Bus Architectures
With an SoC design, the chip packages features like the processor, RAM, and storage into a single bundle. In comparison, computers with a traditional bus architecture have separate components for each of them.
The CPU handles processing, RAM is on a separate card, and storage is connected through a separate cable as well.
While it only takes milliseconds, or even nanoseconds, for data to travel from one component to another across the bus, those fractions of a second add up. With an SoC design, the transfer times are even shorter, letting the chip companies squeeze every possible ounce of performance out of the computer.
SoC technology also uses less power since everything is packaged together. This is ideal for portable devices like laptops and smartphones, where every minute of extra battery life is important.
Several Companies Are Working on SoC Technology
Several well-known computer companies are working on system-on-a-chip designs. Some are farther ahead than others, however.
Apple has been designing its own SoC chips for over a decade. The first Apple-designed SoC was the A4 chip used in the original iPad and the iPhone 4. The company has been updating these chips every year since then, with the A15 being the latest version.
In 2020, Apple announced it was launching its own chips for the Mac platform as well. The M1 series of chips is based on the same technology as the A series that powers the iPhone but with more powerful components better-suited for use in PCs.
Qualcomm is Apple’s biggest competitor in the smartphone market. Its Snapdragon series of mobile processors are used in many Android-based smartphones.
These chips are also an SoC design, although they typically aren’t as fast as Apple’s A-series. Qualcomm is looking to change that though.
It recently announced it’s working on a next-generation CPU for PCs to take on Apple’s M series and Intel’s Core series of processors. Whether it can deliver on those promises remains to be seen but another company pushing computer chip innovation forward is a good thing.
Intel’s Evo Platform as an Alternative to SoC-Based Computers
Intel is likely working on its own system-on-a-chip designs but it has also designed a platform that combines the power of its latest generation of Core series processors with many of the advantages of an SoC design.
Evo-certified computers use Intel’s 11th generation Core processors along with Intel Iris X graphics chips and other high-end components. This offers many of the same integration advantages as the SoC designs we’ve already mentioned.
You can read more about the Intel Evo Platform at Lenovo.com.
Don’t Overlook Nvidia and Other Graphics Chip Manufacturers
Another type of computer chip that has seen huge innovations over the last 20 years is the graphics chip or GPU. These chips are more specialized since they’re designed for displaying 3D graphics like games and 3D renders.
Innovations in GPU design can make their way into future CPU designs though, helping push the overall chip industry forward.
Nvidia and AMD are the two major GPU manufacturers. Similar to Intel and AMD, they occasionally leapfrog one another with each new generation of graphics chip but Nvidia has held the performance crown for the last several years.
How the Global Supply Chain Problems Have Affected Computer Chip Companies
In the two years since the COVID pandemic spread across the world, the global supply chain has had some major challenges. These problems have affected the technology industry heavily, causing supply shortages and delays in getting new products to market.
This hasn’t necessarily slowed down chip innovation but it has meant new designs don’t reach users as quickly because they’re in such short supply.
Where the Industry Is Headed
Computer chip companies keep finding new ways to speed up computer processors. It’s hard to say if the pace of innovation will ever slow down but we’re over 40 years into the computer industry and so far, things just keep getting better.
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