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Disruption is an overused term in tech circles, but we've seen true disruption in the processor market over the last two years as AMD reemerged as a potent foe to Intel. Intel, resigned to providing incremental updates with each new generation of processors, was suddenly faced with an agile competitor that brought processors with higher core counts and lower prices to market at a frightening pace. These advances came while Intel tripped over its shoelaces during its perennially-delayed transition to smaller 10nm processors, which opened a big window of opportunity for AMD.
The resulting changes have reinvigorated the processor landscape, and now we enjoy the benefits of faster and cheaper processors across the board. But the fight has only just begun, and the coming year presents the possibility of even more drastic changes as Intel cedes the process leadership position to AMD. As a result, 2019 is sure to be a year of even more explosive changes, let's take a look at what we expect to see.
For Intel, A Whole Lotta 14nm
Intel announced this year that its 10nm processors wouldn't be available until the end of 2019, so after a four-year delay, we can expect those processors on shelves in time for the holidays. In the meantime, the company plans to keep chugging along with 14nm processors even as it faces severe shortages due to unanticipated demand. These shortages are predicted to last into next year, with more conservative estimates pegging the end in Q1, while more dire predictions stretch into Q3. In either case, that means we won't see big price drops from Intel until its 10nm chips come to market.
Intel brought out its third-gen 14nm Coffee Lake processors earlier this year to help plug the gap, but we expect yet more new 14nm products to come to market in the early part of next year. That includes the rumored Comet Lake-S processors. Those chips are said to come with up to 10 cores and a dual-ring bus.
Intel also purportedly has its new "HK" chips in the hopper. These chips are based on the existing Coffee Lake processors but come without integrated graphics. That should allow the company to harvest more chips due to the ability to sell chips with defects in the graphics unit, while also possibly providing more thermal headroom for longer turbo boosts and higher overclocking capabilities.
Meanwhile, AMD Goes Full 7nm
AMD's Lisa Su recently announced its Zen 2 microarchitecture paired with the 7nm process in the EPYC server chips. Those chips will start shipping in early 2019, giving the company the first process lead over Intel in its history. That means the company designed its Zen 2 architecture around its 7nm process, so we can fully expect the Ryzen 3000 series to land with the smallest process on the market at some point next year, likely in the Q2 timeframe.
There is plenty of speculation about the new Ryzen 3000 series chips, but few concrete details. We've covered those topics here. The benefits of the smaller process node could bring chips with higher core counts, or at the very least, processors that suck less power and generate less heat. Oh, and lower prices per core, which is always the most welcome feature.
The HEDT Showdown
AMD's Threadripper lineup will also receive a 7nm makeover in 2019, but we're not sure if the company will scale up to 64 cores and 128 threads like it did with its EPYC Rome processors. AMD did use the same 32-core 64-thread EPYC Naples design for its current Threadripper lineup, so it's a strong possibility. In either case, the company has laid the architectural foundations for such a feat, which would radically alter the face of the high end desktop.
How could Intel respond? Intel recently introduced its 48-core 96-thread Xeon Cascade Lake-AP (Advanced Performance) processors that support 12 channels of DDR4 memory. We're not sure of the pricing of these high-end chips, but we're sure they'll never come to the high end desktop, despite rampant speculation.
Intel also released its new 28-core 56-thread Xeon W-3275X processors for professional users, but the ~$4,000 price tag will dissuade enthusiasts. That's the type of pricing model Intel is stuck with for its 14nm processors, so we don't expect more exotic designs like the Cascade Lake-AP to come to the enthusiast space.
We Will See Intel's 10nm, Eventually
Intel does have a solid plan to right the ship in the wake of its delayed 10nm process, but the types of adjustments the company outlined at its recent Architecture Day will take quite a while to make it to market.
Intel's 10nm processors would arrive at the end of 2019, but whether they will come in any significant volume remains an open question. Intel announced earlier this year that systems will be on shelves for the holidays in 2019, implying that the company will bring mainstream 10nm processors to market first. Those Ice Lake processors will likely come with the Sunny Cove core architecture, which we've outlined here. A few scattered benchmarks have popped up in online databases, revealing that the processors will come with a new cache hierarchy that features larger 48KB L1 and 256K L2 caches. We've also seen recent documents that claim these chips will come as MCMs (Multi-Chip Modules), implying that Intel might be using multiple chips together in a single processor package. These listings could also indicate a new Kaby Lake-G generation that comes with a separate graphics unit.
Intel also purportedly has 10nm Tiger Lake chips further out on the roadmap, but those likely won't debut until early 2020.
AMD Keeps Climbing
Intel has an overwhelming share of both the desktop PC and server markets, but with market shares of 83% and ~95%, respectively, it's a virtual impossibility that the company won't lose more market share over the coming year. Intel is plagued with a nagging manufacturing capacity shortage due to record demand while AMD has plenty of capacity with its 12nm and 14nm processors being fabbed at Global Foundries. AMD also has a fresh production line being spun up at TSMC, so it isn't likely to face the same shortages.
Whip in AMD's lead to the 7nm era and Intel faces a tremendous challenge. AMD could possibly bring cheaper and denser chips to market well ahead of Intel, giving it a tangible advantage that spans all facets of the desktop and notebook markets to the data center.
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