Intel's 10 most important CPU launches

The chip maker has been a dominant force in PCs since the very beginning, but these microprocessors in particular had a big impact.

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Shaking things up since 1971

In the 45 years since Intel released the world’s first commercial single-chip CPU, Intel has consistently raised the bar on microprocessor architecture, giving birth to the entire PC industry and nurturing it along the way. With that sort of resume, it’s hard to pinpoint just 10 Intel CPU launches that shook things up the most, but with the help of a few friends and PCWorld editors, I believe I’ve narrowed things down to a nice crop of contenders.

The 10 microprocessors you will see ahead innovated with technical triumphs, marketing coups, or both. They kept Intel competitive and pushed the PC industry forward. If you disagree with these choices, that’s just fine—in fact, that makes this subject more fun to talk about, and I hope you will join in the comments when you’re done reading.

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Intel 4004

Introduced: November 15, 1971

How it shook things up: It’s hard to overstate the importance of the world’s first commercial single-chip microprocessor, the 4004. While Intel created it for use in a desktop calculator, its mere existence showed it was possible to cram the functions of an entire computer’s central processing unit—which until then had consisted of numerous discrete components—onto a single piece of silicon. That achievement seemed almost miraculous for the time, and it paved the way for the PC revolution that would play out over the next decade.

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Intel 8008

Introduced: April 1972

How it shook things up: While the 4004 was a 4-bit chip designed for a calculator, the 8008 was the world’s first 8-bit microprocessor, one powerful enough to run the earliest personal computer kits. The 8008, while very primitive by today's standards, laid the groundwork that would later be expanded upon with Intel’s 8080, 8085, 8086 CPUs that powered much of the early PC industry.

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Intel 8080

Introduced: April 1974

How it shook things up: If you’ve heard of the MITS Altair 8800, the computer kit that effectively launched the personal computer industry, then you know why the 8080 was important. The Intel 8080 powered the Altair and dozens of other early PCs. It also served as the technological basis of the non-Intel Zilog Z80 CPU, a low-cost chip that created a huge early standard based on the CP/M operating system. Of course, what Intel came up with next played off of the 8080 as well.

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Intel 8086/8088

Introduced: June 8 1978 (8086), June 1979 (8088)

How it shook things up: The 8086 was Intel’s first 16-bit CPU, and as such, it represented the dawn of a new era in microprocessor computing power. It also marked the birth of a new standard that we now call “x86,” which would not have happened without the 8086’s little brother, the 8088. The 8088 was essentially an 8086 equipped with an 8-bit data bus so it could work with less expensive chipsets. And as you may know, IBM chose the 8088 as the CPU for its monumentally influential Personal Computer in 1981. The rest is history.

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Intel 80386

Introduced: June 1986

How it shook things up: Sure, the 80286 was a very important addition to the Intel family, but the 80386, Intel’s first 32-bit x86 CPU, absolutely rocked the PC market upon its release in 1986. It was an astoundingly powerful CPU, and the first company to utilize the 386 in a PC, Compaq, beat IBM in IBM-compatible market innovation for the first time, effectively launching the golden age of clone PCs. So powerful was the cachet surrounding this processor that well into the early 1990s, many clone PCs were simply referred to as “386s.”

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Intel Pentium

Introduced: March 22, 1993

How it shook things up: After a U.S. court decided that numbers like “80386” could not be trademarked, x86 knock-off competitors during the 486 era, such as Cyrix and AMD, flourished by undercutting Intel with less-expensive chips that were often branded as “486” chips too. So Intel took its x86 CPU series in a new branding direction. By christening its new processor “Pentium,” Intel could create an Intel-exclusive brand that clone chip makers could not legally impinge upon. The maneuver worked, turning “Pentium” into a must-have status symbol of PC authenticity and allowing Intel to solidify its hold on the PC marketplace once again.

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Intel Xeon 64-Bit (Nocona)

Introduced: June 2004

How it shook things up: After the rise of Pentium, Intel dominated the market for some time. The Pentium II especially extended Intel’s success, although AMD began to catch up to Intel’s technological lead and market share around the time of the Pentium III and Pentium IV families. AMD scored an embarrassing breakthrough for Intel in 2003 when it released its Opteron, the first commercial CPU to extend the x86 instruction set to 64-bits. Intel responded by fast-tracking its own version of the AMD64 instruction set, called EM64T (later Intel 64), and including it for the first time in a Nocona family Xeon processor released in 2004. That marked the beginning of Intel’s 64-bit x86 CPUs that continues to this day.

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Intel Core 2 Duo

Introduced: July 27, 2006

How it shook things up: The Core 2 Duo firmly and decisively marked the end of an era of perceived technological stagnation for Intel. During that period, AMD grabbed a significant portion of the PC microprocessor market share with powerful chips that often cost less and put off less heat than Intel’s offerings (AMD also released the first x86-64 CPU, as we just saw). The Core series, with its impressive performance-per-watt ratio, changed the competitive balance dramatically, and the affordably dual-core Core 2 Duo series once again made Intel the must-have PC CPU vendor in a big way.

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Intel Atom

Introduced: April 2, 2008

How it shook things up: Since its introduction (with the Silverthorne Z500), the Intel Atom series has specialized in low-power needs and a small-footprint while maintaining respectable (albeit diminished) performance. Designed for embedded and ultra-mobile markets, the Atom allowed the once-trendy Netbook form factor to flourish in a big way. As tablets began to take over the ultra-mobile space, Atom processors began to shrink to where few x86 CPUs had gone before, powering Android tablets and a few smartphones. The future of the Atom line is in question these days, but there should be no doubt about its important legacy so far.

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Intel Core with HD Graphics

Introduced: January 7, 2010

How it shook things up: During the past decade, when microprocessor competition seemed to endlessly revolve around how many CPU cores a vendor could fit on a silicon die, Intel shook things up in a significant way by including a graphics processing unit (GPU) along with a CPU in the same IC package for the first time. That happened in 2010 with its Clarksdale family of Core CPUs. Since then, Intel has improved the performance of its integrated GPUs dramatically; in early 2016, it declared that its built-in CPU graphics performance matched discrete GPU cards for the first time. Integration has always been the rule rather than the exception in the electronics industry, and as the future extends out ahead of us, we may find that Intel has found a dominating competitive approach when it comes to PC graphics. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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