Today’s computer chips are fiendishly complicated, containing billions of transistors and requiring years of design and testing to create.
That incontrovertible reality helps explain why recently hired Intel CEO Bob Swan had so little new to offer at this year’s CES tech trade show in Las Vegas, while the keynote by his rival, Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su, was packed with new chips offering faster performance across an array of categories. If 2019 was the year AMD caught up to some of Intel’s best chips, it’s starting to look like 2020 may be the year it pulls decisively in front.
That’s not to say that surging AMD, with its $7 billion of revenue last year, will soon match Intel’s financial performance; Intel has 10 times AMD’s annual sales. And even after AMD’s stock gained almost 150% last year, crushing Intel’s 28% gain, Su’s company has a market capitalization that is only one-fifth of Intel’s.
Five years ago, Su started AMD on a path to developing a strong family of chips for PCs, servers, and graphics cards. Swan has only been running Intel for a few months and got the job after his predecessor, Brian Krzanich, failed to manage the transition to more efficient manufacturing technologies.
To put it bluntly, the stark contrast on stage at CES in 2020 was years in the making.
Intel’s CES show
The first outsider to run Intel in its 51-year history, Swan, who previously worked at GE and eBay, projects a calm and steady approach. He was a surprise pick as CEO last year, seven months after Krzanich lost the confidence of the board and was ousted for having a consensual relationship with an employee. Taking the stage in Las Vegas on Monday, Swan started off on a humbler note than many of his peers: “My name is Bob Swan. It’s a pleasure for me to be here.”
Once Swan finished his introduction, however, the razzle-dazzle began. The crowd filling a cavernous auditorium at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on Monday was treated to football highlights with zooming digital camera effects, high-definition video of a prancing elephant, and a cool looking 17-inch tablet that folds into the size of a 12-inch laptop. There was also a dazzling—and hilarious—demonstration of Adobe Photoshop’s A.I.-driven editing features.
Most mind-bending of all was a sky viewpoint video of an autonomous car using Intel’s Mobileye sensors to navigate a busy intersection in Jerusalem. After some hesitation, and to the crowd’s great relief, the car eventually made it through despite irregular waves of pedestrians and other vehicles darting in and out of view.
“They told me I was going to get in this car, and I said, ‘Not on your life,'” Swan explained, adding that eventually he did get in and had a successful trip.
Somewhat less visible were new product announcements about anything Intel plans to sell to its customers anytime soon. Just one chipset got a mention— the previously announced Tiger Lake processor for thin and light laptops. Laptops with the chips are “coming soon,” Intel said without giving a date. Intel also briefly showed off a laptop running a new graphics chip called the DG1, but it didn’t offer any details about when it might come to market.
That’s in stark contrast to last year’s CES presentation when then-CEO Kraznich unveiled a half-dozen new chips for desktops and laptops featuring the company’s ninth and 10th generation Core designs that were ready to hit the market.
The lack of new products reflected Intel’s slipping position in the processor market. Beset by manufacturing difficulties and shortages over the last few years, Krzanich and now Swan have instituted a reboot to get Intel back on track. Part of the problem was Intel engineers getting too ambitious and trying to stuff too many improvements into upcoming designs, Swan has said. But even after curtailing its ambitions, it’s likely to take another year or more before the revamped strategy pays off.
AMD’s CES celebration
Meanwhile, AMD is reaping the benefits of Su’s reboot that started five years ago. The chip engineer with three degrees from MIT didn’t have any Olympic athletes or NFL football games in her company’s CES keynote. She didn’t need them.
Su started by showing off some of her company’s big wins in high-profile new computers, including supplying the graphics card in Apple’s new Mac Pro, custom processors powering the upcoming Microsoft XBox Series X and Sony Playstation 5, as well as server chips for Twitter and graphics chips for Google’s Stadia cloud gaming service.
Then came the new products for consumers. A new line of chips for thin and light laptops, called the Ryzen 4000 mobile series, will be included in a dozen laptops starting in the next few weeks and over 100 this year, Su said. The chips have up to eight individual computing cores, the most ever for the category, and run at speeds up to 4.2 GHz. The performance makes them “the best laptop processor ever built,” Su bragged. Outsiders will have to test the boast, as previous AMD mobile chips have lagged Intel’s best.
Next, following up on new high-end graphics chip sets released last year, AMD debuted a less expensive chip called the RX 5600 XT. It goes on sale in two weeks for under $300.
Finally, came the pièce de résistance. “I have one more product to share,” Su said, channeling the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
One of Su’s strategies has been to offer performance once reserved for elite corporate workstations in chips aimed at typical creative professionals like photo editors and software developers, or even home enthusiast videographers and gamers. At CES, Su unveiled a third version of the leading player in that strategy, the Threadripper line of chips. The new Threadripper 3990X has 64 individual cores, double the previous high, and goes on sale Feb. 7 for $4,000.
Su then showed a special effects scene rendering from Hollywood shop Blur Studios for the movie Terminator: Dark Fate running on a Threadripper chip that outperformed by 33% the same task running on a $20,000 system that had two of Intel’s Xeon Platinum chips. “Just imagine what that can do for your productivity,” she said. “It might also be slightly cheaper.”
As the presentation wrapped up, attendees rushed the stage to snap photos and selfies with Su. As long time tech industry analyst Bob O’Donnell noted, “she has really become a rock star in the tech industry and a great example of female leadership in tech.”