Article note: Oh, shit, now that there are independent numbers, looks like Apple wasn't cooking the results via thermal throttling the competition as much as I thought. That's a genuinely impressive part.
Original story 9:00am EST: There's a lot of understandable excitement around Apple's ARM-powered devices right now. And we've got traditional reviews of those devices and their ecosystems, for Apple fans and the Apple-curious. This is not one of those reviews—though reviews are coming imminently for some of the new Macs. Instead, we're going to take a closer look at the raw performance of the new M1 in comparison to more traditional x86 systems.
The M1's CPU is a 5nm octa-core big/little design, with four performance cores and four efficiency cores. The idea is that user-focused foreground tasks, which demand low latency, will be run on the performance cores—but less latency-sensitive background tasks can run slower and lower on the four less-powerful but less power-consumptive efficiency cores.
In addition to the eight CPU cores, the version of the M1 in the Mac mini has eight GPU cores, with a total of 128 Execution Units. Although it's extremely difficult to get accurate Apples-to-non-Apples benchmarks on this new architecture, I feel confident in saying that this truly is a world-leading design—you can get faster raw CPU performance, but only on power-is-no-object desktop or server CPUs. Similarly, you can beat the M1's GPU with high-end Nvidia or Radeon desktop cards—but only at a massive disparity in power, physical size, and heat.
Article note: Wow. There are some choices in that chart people will argue with, but it's a great presentation.
I've been comparing the current situation to that era in the 2000s when Netburst was failing and AMD hired the old Alpha folks resulting in the early Athlon 64 parts, but AMD actually pulled harder this time.
The comment wars between Intel and AMD fans have been hot for the last few release cycles, with a lot of digital ink spilled about which company has—or has not—improved significantly over the years. There's been no shortage of opinions about the current raw performance of each company's fastest processors, either. We thought it would be interesting to dive into archived performance benchmarks of the fastest desktop/enthusiast CPUs for each company to get a good overview of how each has really done over the years—and perhaps to even see if there are patterns to be gleaned or to make some bets about the future.
Before we dive into charts, let's start out with some tables—that way, you can see which CPUs we're using as milestones for each year. While we're at it, there are a couple of irregularities in the data; we'll discuss those also and talk about the things that a simple chart won't show you.
Twenty years of enthusiast computing
Pentium 4 2.0GHz (1c/1t)
Athlon XP 1900+ (1c/1t)
Pentium 4 2.8GHz (1c/2t)
Athlon XP 2800+ (1c/1t)
Intel introduces hyperthreading
Pentium 4 Extreme 3.2GHz (1c/2t)
Athlon XP 3200+ (1c/1t)
Pentium 4 3.4GHz (1c/2t)
Athlon 64 FX-55 (1c/1t)
Pentium 4 3.8GHz (1c/2t)
Athlon 64 X2 4800+ (2c/2t)
Pentium Extreme 965 (2c/4t)
Athlon 64 X2 5000+ (2c/2t)
Intel takes the undisputed performance lead here—and keeps it for a decade straight.
Core 2 Extreme QX6800 (4c/4t)
Phenom X4 9600 (4c/4t)
Intel and AMD both launch the first true quad-core desktop CPUs
Core 2 Extreme X9650 (4c/4t)
Phenom X4 9950 (4c/4t)
Core i7-960 (4c/8t)
Phenom II X4 965 (4c/4t)
Core i7-980X (6c/12t)
Phenom II X6 1100T (6c/6t)
Intel and AMD both introduce hex-core desktop CPUs
Core i7-990X (6c/12t)
Core i7-3770K (4c/8t)
Intel abandons hex-core desktop CPUs—but few miss them, due to large single-threaded gains
Core i7-4770K (4c/8t)
AMD's underwhelming FX-9590 launches—and it's Team Red's last enthusiast CPU for four long years
Core i7-4790K (4c/8t)
Intel's 5th generation Core dies stillborn. AMD releases low-power APUs, but no successor to FX-9590
Core i7-6700K (4c/8t)
Core i7-7700K (4c/8t)
Strictly speaking, 2016 was an Intel whiff—Kaby Lake didn't actually launch until January 2017
Core i7-8700K (6c/12t)
Ryzen 7 1800X (8c/16t)
Launch of AMD's Zen architecture, return of the Intel hex-core desktop CPU
Core i9-9900K (8c/16t)
Ryzen 7 2700X (8c/16t)
Core i9-9900KS (8c/16t)
Ryzen 9 3950X (16c/32t)
AMD's Zen 2 architecture launches, Intel whiffs hard in the performance segment
Core i9-10900K (10c/20t)
Ryzen 9 5950X (16c/32t)
AMD's Zen 3 finally crushes Intel's long-held single-threaded performance record
Although both Intel and AMD obviously launch a wide array of processors for different price points and target markets each year, we're limiting ourselves to the fastest desktop or "enthusiast" processor from each year. That means no server processors and no High-End Desktop (HEDT) processors either—so we won't be looking at either Threadrippers or the late model XE series Intel parts.
Structural engineering is the art of molding materials we don’t wholly understand, into shapes we can’t fully analyze, so as to withstand forces we can’t really assess, in such a way that the community at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance.