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Zhaoxin KaiXian x86 CPU Tested: The Rise of China's Chips

It's clear from our tests today that Zhaoxin still lags the leaders of the processor market, which comes as a side effect of both lagging process technology and architecture. The Zhaoxin KX-U6780A suffered at the hands of its relatively tame 2.7 GHz clock speed throughout our test suite, and we don't think the flagship's extra 300 MHz would significantly change the overall outcome. 

AMD and Intel have the advantage of decades of research and development, not to mention pioneering roles in the evolution of the x86 instruction set. That makes it extremely hard for any newcomer, x86 or otherwise, to establish a competitive product. We've often heard comparisons of the KX-6000 series to Intel's seventh-gen Core i5 series, but those are obviously borne of a very narrow selection of tests, if not a single test, used as a comparison point.

It's safe to say that Intel doesn't have to worry about meaningful competition from Zhaoxin yet, and the same goes for AMD. Even AMD's outdated Bristol Ridge chips with Excavator v2 cores were enough to stave off the challenger – we didn't even have to bring a Zen 2 processor into the test pool for AMD to enjoy a healthy performance lead. 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

However, Intel's historical advantage of being an integrated device manufacturer (IDM) has become a liability as the company struggles to economically mass-produce its 10nm node. Now TSMC serves as the great equalizer in the processor market because nearly any chip designer can simply adopt its 7nm node and have a leading edge process that's competitive with Intel's 10nm. That's an advantage that bodes well for future Zhaoxin chips if it continues to leverage the Taiwanese foundry. The picture gets a bit murkier if Zhaoxin goes with Chinese fab SMIC for its 7nm KX-7000 processors, but that seems unlikely in the near term given the easy access to TSMC's mature nodes. However, anything is possible given the Chinese government's desire for a completely homegrown chip.

Zhaoxin plans to adopt the PCIe 4.0 and DDR5 interfaces with its next chips, but as we observed throughout our testing, the company will have to pair those features with other meaningful advances to make real headway. The higher clock speeds, lower power consumption, and increased density of the 7nm node will yield improvements, no doubt, but Zhaoxin needs to improve its microarchitecture.

The company has made alterations to Centaur's Isaiah architecture for its previous chips, but even though we don't know the finer details, Zhaoxin may need a clean-sheet design moving forward. Centaur, which largely operates independently inside of Via, does have a new incredibly promising CNS core architecture in the works. It's possible that Zhaoxin will adopt this architecture, or a derivative, for its KX-7000 series [EDIT: Zhaoxin later clarified that it will not use a CNS derivative]. 

For now, the Zhaoxin line of chips are unimpressive compared to AMD and Intel in the global market, but given the Chinese government's overriding desire to free itself from western influences on its economy, not to mention its chip-powered military endeavors, that might not mean much. China's sprawling initiative to rid its government offices of foreign software, hardware and encryption by the end of 2022 is an incredibly ambitious goal, and that means it will adopt and incentivize nearly any indigenous logic, regardless of performance. There are other alternatives: Huawei is adopting ARM architectures for a new line of desktop PC motherboards, but the ubiquity of the x86 instruction set is hard to ignore. 

As we've often seen, 'cheap and good-enough' almost always wins the bulk of the market. If Zhaoxin gets pricing right, it should be able to carve out a nice chunk of a suddenly larger Chinese PC market.

China's 3-5-2 initiative only applies to its governmental pursuits, though, so Intel and AMD will still be available to everyday Chinese consumers. At least for now. We're sure that the majority of enthusiasts and professionals will stick with Intel and AMD hardware given they offer more performance and efficiency, but Zhaoxin has backing that assures its future architectures will become more competitive. Some of the lackluster performance we recorded today could also be reminiscent of the challenges AMD faced with its new architectures, so broader adoption could yield some performance uplift via software optimizations.

Remember AMD's Phoenix-like rise from the relative ashes of the semiconductor market to the value and performance leader? I do. It only took one daring new architecture with a massive 52% IPC gain paired with a good-enough 14nm GlobalFoundries process, and perhaps a little bit of luck with Intel's delays on the 10nm node, to upset both the desktop PC and data center markets. 

That begs the question: Is Zhaoxin just one microarchitecture away from becoming a serious contender on the global stage, granting China success with its chip initiatives at the same time? Only time will tell, but it all starts with achieving process node parity. Zhaoxin plans to achieve that mark in 2021.  

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Paul Alcorn

Paul Alcorn is the Deputy Managing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage and enterprise hardware.