Intel Finally Takes on Arm with x86

Posted on August 20, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 11 with 31 Comments

At its virtual Architecture Day 2021, Intel announced a number of new initiatives, key among them an Arm-like future for its x86 chipsets.

“At Architecture Day 2021, Intel detailed the company’s architectural innovations to meet this exploding demand, setting the stage for new generations of leadership products,” Intel notes. “Intel architects provided details on two new x86 central processing unit architectures; Intel’s first performance hybrid architecture and Intel Thread Director; Intel’s next-generation data center processors; infrastructure processing unit architectures; and upcoming graphics architectures.”

Let’s focus on the most important of those new x86 architectures, shall we?

More specifically, the bit where Intel is (and not for the first time) adopting an Arm-like architecture for its Core processors. The key advance here will come in a coming Intel Core chipset generation that’s codenamed “Alder Lake.” This next-generation client architecture is described as “Intel’s first performance hybrid architecture, with “performance” being the key differentiator with previous Arm-like big.Little core configurations, which were decidedly underwhelming.

“Alder Lake integrates a Performance-core and an Efficient-core to provide significant performance across all workload types,” the processor giant explains. “For the cores to work seamlessly with the operating system, Intel developed Intel Thread Director. Built directly into the core, Thread Director empowers the operating system to place the right thread on the right core at the right time. Alder Lake will deliver performance that scales to support all client segments from ultra-portable laptops to enthusiast and commercial desktops.”

For this processor evolution to work well, of course, it needs support from OS platform makers like Microsoft. And as it promised at the June Windows 11 reveal, Microsoft will only optimize its latest client OS, and not Windows 10, for this new architecture.

“Throughout the Windows 11 development cycle, my team has been working with our colleagues at Intel to enlighten and optimize our upcoming OS to take full advantage of the Performance Hybrid architecture and Thread Director in particular,” Microsoft’s Mehmet Iyigun noted during Intel’s Architecture Day 2021 event. “With Thread Director feedback, the Windows 11 thread scheduler is much smarter about dynamically picking the most appropriate core based on the workload to achieve the best power and performance.”

Alder Lake will ship as the 12th-generation Intel Core processor family, with the first 10-nm chipsets expected in the final quarter of 2021.

Join the discussion!


Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Comments (31)

31 responses to “Intel Finally Takes on Arm with x86”

  1. north of 49th

    The more we learn about the thread scheduler, the more convinced I am that this was the main cause of the increment of Windows 10 to 11. Yes there are a lot of UI changes, but with Intel's (and AMD apparently) new hardware the software changes necessary to make this work were significant enough that the version had to change.

    I wish there was more detail on the underlying software logic of the scheduler.

    • Username

      > main cause of the increment of Windows 10 to 11

      Windows 10 and 11 use same NT Kernel. The main difference is that 11 is x64 only.

  2. rosyna

    Note: Arm has moved beyond the old big.LITTLE architecture and now uses DynamIQ. This architecture is used in the Smapdragon 888 and similar SoCs with one Cortex X1 core, 3 Cortex A78 cores, and 4 Cortex A55 cores.

    Intel can’t catch up by moving slower.

    • chanms

      PT is simply using "big.Little" as a generic term of combining high performance + energy efficient cores rather than a specific implementation method.

  3. melinau

    The proof of the pudding...

    Call me a cynic, but this sort of pre-announcement "game" where there's lots of Jam tomorrow, but not even a smidge of butter today rarely convinces. IBM were past masters of what was known as "Fear Uncertainty & Doubt" FUD). They were constantly suggesting great things to come thereby discouraging the purchase of existing superior products from their competitors.

  4. geoff

    big.Little makes sense, and ARM has been doing it successfully for years now.

    The main issue for Intel is that they simply don't have a "Little" core in their spare-parts bin to pair with their 'big' cores, so they're going with the Atom core to serve that role. Atom absolutely wasn't power efficient, and wasn't processing powerful either. Atom is a dog.

    I'll take a wait and see approach with this.

    • wright_is

      I had an Atom powered tablet (Samsung ATIV), it could go for 2 days between charges and it was just about fast enough for an Office application - running multiple applications with large documents open was too much for it. But we are talking 2012-13. Likewise, we used Atom based industrial PCs for our touch terminals for production lines, they were more than fast enough for that task.

      If we are talking low power cores to "wait" for user input or play media in the background, the Atom would be more than good enough, especially if it is quad-core. If Atom cores have kept track with the efficiency and performance of the Core i cores between 2012 and now, they should more than powerful and efficient enough for those "background" or idle tasks. Don't forget, the "real" Core i cores will still be doing the donkey work.

      The real question is, how efficient are those little cores now?

  5. ghostrider

    AMD have been eating Intel's breakfast for a few CPU generations now, and they won't sit back and watch. If Alder Lake can't even beat Zen3, then Intel are in trouble. Many now see Intel as considerably behind AMD in price/performance/power and Zen4/5 will only increase that difference. The fact Intel are now having to get TSMC to make some of their chips just says how far behind their in house fabs are. Early reports are that Alder Lake still isn't getting it's power/heat envelope under control either, but that's another problem.... for Intel.

  6. blue77star

    This will work so good or it is going to be a major flop due scheduling mess between big and little cores. Time will tell.

  7. DBSync

    So they copied ARM’s design. Where is the innovation?

    • blue77star

      Intel did not copy anything here. This is x86 architecture.

    • digiguy

      They don't need to innovate, they need to stay relevant and the world is moving to a better performance per watt ratio, so they are moving the x86 line in that direction too, which is a good (and necessary) thing....

  8. prof dr jan onderwater

    Intel is and always has been really really good...

    At hype, press releases, marketing, promises.

    But at delivering, naaaaaaah

  9. winner

    Intel, while being spanked for a number of years in the market, is announcing up the wazoo this year. All nice PowerPoints. But have they actually come out with any hardware? Otherwise it's vapor until it's real.

  10. JH_Radio

    So what your teling me is once all of my Windows 10 PCs won't be supported anymore, that it'll be worth a look at Intel again. This will be sometimes in 2025. I think a lot could happen between now and then.

  11. bluvg

    AMD probably will maintain their lead for a while. Alder Lake won't quite catch up. Raptor Lake is estimated to be competitive, but Zen 4 will likely beat it and Meteor Lake. Arrow Lake (late 2023) is estimated to catch AMD for perf, but not Apple for efficiency. Lunar Lake (late 2024 range) is where estimates are for Intel to surpass both AMD and Apple.

    Lunar Lake (or its successor, Nova Lake) are where Jim Keller's "Royal Core" are expected to come to fruition, with estimates of 2x IPC over Golden Cove.

  12. Shel Dyck

    Zen 5 will take the crown back again for AMD

  13. bart

    All this talk about optimisation for Windows 11 is nice, but I'm wondering what its real world effects will be when using Windows 11. Till then it's all marketing speak to me.

  14. ringofvoid

    I'm interested on how these processors are going to be supported on Chromebooks (there are already several in development). I'd assume that ChromeOS is getting a similar feature to schedule processes on the appropriate core?

    • jimchamplin

      I believe Linux has supported big.Little style scheduling since 5.0. Whether that works out of the box with these new chips I’m not sure, but the capability exists.

  15. behindmyscreen

    But no dedicated hardware for AI, image, or video processing. I think there will be noticeable battery killing cycles going on for those tasks.

  16. brandonmills

    We've heard Intel try to spin a tale of more power efficient x86 before in order to compete with ARM, and every time thus far we're left with underpower, hot processors. It'd be nice for this one to be different, but I'm not holding my breath.

  17. nbplopes

    Let’s just wait to check how this one goes.

    This is the thing that annoys me amongst tech reviewers. No one new any details about the M1. Some details were provided in the presentations … some tech reviewers thought emit was snake oil talk. Even after testing some …

    Intel simply says … this is it … and here we go … shall we?

  18. crunchyfrog

    Many have predicted Intel's doom and written the company off as a has-been corporation. While I see this as a short sighted viewpoint, I cannot deny that the competition has and still is gnawing away at Intel's dominance in the CPU market. AMD, Nvidia, ARM and others have really come from behind to steal the crown that Intel wore with pride and arrogance for so many years, that it is difficult to imagine that they can really come through to dominate again as they once did.

    It's still a very big and powerful company and while I don't see them going out of business, I do see a future where they are regarded more like an IBM that once owned the PC industry but could not maintain control of it.

    • Oreo

      In what way is nVidia coming from behind? They arguably make the fastest GPUs and GPU processing cards, and have done so for the majority of the last decade+. AMD has been sometimes more or less competitive with nVidia in the GPU space. Intel is just entering the discrete GPU market, hoping it will compete in the future with nVidia and AMD. nVidia also has been successful in areas where Intel‘s marketshare is literally 0, e. g. in the automotive sector where GPUs are used to process sensor data necessary to enable modern driving aids.

      I know that you probably focussed on CPUs, but that isn‘t the only business in town.

  19. trparky

    I'm just looking forward to the idea of having actual and tangible performance increases year after year unlike back before AMD really stepped up their game and Intel was for all intents, simply throwing us a bone and telling us to like it.

  20. obarthelemy

    I'm a bit doubtful about adding more complexity to counter efficient simplicity. I'll wait for the actual review, both top perf and perf/watt and perf/$$.

    • bluvg

      Alder Lake apparently will only narrow the gap, but it's an important transition for Intel for the bigger jumps they have planned later.

    • bettyblue

      This! A year from now let’s see some benchmarks.

      Will Intel ship on time? Will this make a “real” difference are two big questions.

      Then of course a year from now Apple will almost done with Intel Mac’s and probably have 1-3 more, bigger/better M series chips.

  21. jbl0

    Having switched to an M1 Macbook, I can say that for me battery life is the big win with this type of design.