Can AMD Ever Beat Intel?

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Let's be frank: AMD's processors aren't as good as Intel's, by and large. Intel's processors have offered better total performance and better performance-per-watt ever since the days of the Core 2 Duo, with few exceptions. If we set the way-back machine to 1999, the story is different. Intel's dominance was seriously challenged when AMD released the Athlon, which crushed the latest Intel chip (the Pentium III) in just about every performance test you could throw at it. This kicked off a major speed race, but AMD held its own and generally outperformed Intel through the introduction of the Athlon 64.

Now, AMD seems almost hopelessly behind. Don't get me wrong, Phenom II processors are by no means bad. They run all the apps people care about at a respectable speed, and AMD has really priced them aggressively. You get decent "bang for the buck" from the latest AMD stuff, but it still falls well short of Intel's current chips in overall performance, and performance-per-watt. AMD based laptops suffer considerably worse battery life than their Intel counterparts, especially if you compare against Intel chips that offer similar performance.

AMD has survived some serious upheaval in the last several years. Purchasing ATI was probably a smart move in the long run, but integrating the two companies is challenging to say the least. The logistics of spinning off AMD's chip manufacturing business into GlobalFoundries was another major undertaking. Then there are the high-profile executives that jumped ship in the last few years. Can a company "on the ropes" like AMD stand a chance of building a hands-down better processor than Intel again? Mind you, I'm not claiming that AMD can actually out-sell Intel. Intel can simply build far more chips than AMD or its manufacturing partners can, and it would take quite a few years (and many billions of dollars) to catch up to that capacity. What I'm talking about is whether AMD can build a better processor, not necessarily a better-selling one. I think it might, if the stars align just right.

Intel has major advantages in holding its dominant position. The company is more than a year ahead of everyone else in advanced manufacturing process technology. AMD is just about to bring to market its first processor built on a 32nm process, while Intel has been shipping them in volume since early 2010, and should start shipping 22nm processors in the next 8 or 9 months. Smaller and better manufacturing processes mean more transistors per chip, smaller and cooler chips, and faster-running chips; all serious advantages in delivering chips with great performance, energy efficiency, and price. Intel also has serious engineering chops. Naturally, some of the best CPU engineers work at Intel - this has been the case for decades. But in the last several years, Intel has increasingly hired top-tier talent to focus on graphics, video, and software.

Next: How AMD Can Compete

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