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Can Zen Microarchitecture Close the Performance Gap between AMD and Intel?

AMD just revealed Zen, their new architecture design at the core of their new processor lineup. The real question is, will this CPU be able to compete against Intel?

AMD's Best Bet: Zen Architecture-Based Desktop Processors

The Zen microarchitecture will finally be replacing its predecessor, Bulldozer, which was released in 2011. Yes, five years have passed since we have seen any updates on what AMD has been working on.
AMD's CEO, Dr. Lisa Su, announced at CES 2016 that Zen CPUs will be available to consumers by the end of 2016. With such a large timeframe since the release of Bulldozer, as well as the rehiring of Jim Keller, we hope to see huge improvements in AMD's new microarchitecture.


An Orochi die shot based on Bulldozer microarchitecture. Image courtesy of AMD.

Keller was the genius chip architect responsible for the development of projects such as AMD's K8 microarchitecture (aka Sledgehammer) and Apple's 32 bit chip, A5, that's found in devices such as the iPhone 4S, Apple TV, and the fifth generation iPod Touch. With such a strong portfolio under his belt, surely AMD's latest Zen architecture-based CPUs will be astonishing, right?

It was in 2012 that Keller and his team started the development of AMD's latest x86 microarchitecture that was given the codename Zen. It wasn't until 2014, at a technology conference held in Las Vegas by Deutsche Bank, that the chip was revealed to the public. However, AMD announced that Keller would be leaving the company in September of 2015 to "pursue other opportunities." Despite this setback, an AMD spokesperson still assured that nearly all the development and tests of Zen has already been completed.

Performance over Predecessors

While AMD has been known to be just behind Intel in terms of performance per clock cycle, Zen will have 40% more instructions per clock compared to Excavator. With this large increase of IPC, AMD might be able to be pull up to Intel's level of performance.


This IPC increase is not the only upgrade in AMD's line of CPU cores either; a new high-bandwidth, low-latency cache system is utilized in Zen as well. This new cache system is replacing their old system that was found in the Bulldozer microarchitecture because of its lack of performance. Zen is the first CPU core design from scratch since the Bulldozer core was designed, which will be AMD's first core design to utilize simultaneous multithreading (SMT). Prior to SMT, AMD's cores used cluster multithreading, which might have restricted them from competing with Intel's CPU designs.


Can Zen Compete with Intel?

With AMD stepping up its CPU game with Zen's SMT, cache system, and all new from scratch design, the question is: Will AMD be able to compete with Intel's CPUs?

There is no doubt that AMD has made tremendous strides with Jim Keller as the chip designer. Even with a 40% increase in IPC, AMD might have a hard time competing with Intel's Skylake performance. However, AMD will be offering an 8 core and 16 thread CPU that will attract attention from Intel. With this kind of attention, Intel might be forced to lower their expensive 8 core CPUs to stay ahead in sales.


Even if AMD isn't able to surpass Intel's IPC performance this year, Intel's architecture has slightly improved over the years while AMD created a completely new architecture design from scratch! Regardless of comparison, next-generation CPUs that are Zen-based will see an incredible increase in performance and will drive the price of 8 core-based Intel CPUs down drastically.

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