C processors usually come from two sources - AMD and Intel - and all the major motherboards currently on the market are designed for the latest Athlon and Duron AMD chips or the P4 from Intel. It would be easy to come to the conclusion that the past 20 years of processors are a limited story and the real interest lies in looking at motherboards, where the past two decades have been dominated by the move towards greater functionality at lower costs and on a smaller scale.
But this would miss out some of the CPU milestones that have been produced by companies other than Intel and AMD. Names including Hitachi, TRON, Sun, Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard are among the others that have contributed to the CPU story in the past two decades.
The CPU highlights of the past two decades were produced by numerous companies, but all developed steps forward to increase performance. One of the first over the past 20 years was Intel's launch, in 1982, of the 80286 processor that was used in the IBM XT range. Intel had been given a company-changing boost the previous year when its 8086 processor was chosen by Big Blue for its PCs.
In the following year, 1983, Hitachi produced the 6301. The eight-bit CPU was designed with the aim of delivering the simpler design techniques of 16 and 32-bit CPUs down to the eight-bit level. A few years later, the floodgates opened and in the space of a couple of years, six CPUs were launched.
1985 saw the release of Intel's 386 32-bit processor, which was approximately twice as powerful as the 286.
1986 saw the release of the MIPS R2000, which was one of the first commercial RISC processors. It also saw the launch of Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC, designed to replace ageing 16-bit stack processors in the HP-2000 MPE minicomputers. It was also the year for the British to do a bit of flag-waving as ARM was served up by Acorn for use in its Archimedes PC.
A year later, in 1987, TRON, The Real-time Operating Nucleus devised by Professor Takeshi Sakamura of the University of Tokyo to deliver a unified architecture to work with numerous languages and systems, arrived. It failed to take off outside Japan. One of the more familiar names also arrived courtesy of Sun, the Sparc processor architecture that it designed for its own machines but licensed out. AMD was also busy and launched the 29000, which replaced its earlier 2900 series, which had been launched in 1981.
Just one year later, another of the big names in processors, Motorola, delivered its latest product, the 88000. The 32-bit processor was one of the first load-store CPUs to be based on the Harvard architecture. Highlights for 1988 also included the Motorola Mcore that was a low-cost CPU to compete at the low end of the market. Texas Instruments was also busy at the low-cost end of the market with its MSP430 series, but Intel was the one to catch and it kept the pace up by releasing the 860, which was quicker than almost anything else on the market.
1989 saw the release by Intel of the 80486DX, the 486, which had the same memory capacity at 32 bits as the 386, but offered twice the speed.
The start of a new decade saw some muscle-flexing by an old name and in 1990, IBM stepped forward with its RS/6000 Power chips. Although RS/6000 is a high-end product with a select market, the benefits of the chip became clear when IBM, Motorola and Apple formed a coalition to produce a microprocessor resulting in the PowerPC.
Hitachi continued to be a name to watch out for and in 1992 delivered the first of its SuperH series. The SH was designed for the embedded market, offering a 32-bit processor. The same year saw the release of the DEC Alpha architecture. The Alpha was a 64-bit architecture that did not support eight or six-bit operations, but could convert material on those formats.
One year that cannot be forgotten, because it spawned a processor that continues to live on in its latest version, is 1993, when Intel introduced its Pentium processor. It offered speeds of 60 and 66MHz.
The middle years of the 90s were busy ones for AMD, which released its AM486DX Series in 1994 and offered an alternative to Intel - finding a home in a large number of 486 compatibles. 1995 showed the AMD challenge was not going to disappear as it launched the AM5x86, which established AMD as the main competition Intel was facing in the PC processor market.
By 1995 Intel was into its sixth-generation processor and introduced the Pentium Pro, which ran at speeds of 166, 180 and 200MHz. Philips was also active with the launch of the Trimedia, which was designed to deliver good-quality performance for users with high video and audio demands. Cyrix launched the 6X86 series, which was designed to compete against the Intel Pentium processor.
Cyrix was active again a year later in 1996, trying to use its MediaGX processor to enter the low-cost market by cutting costs through using the common x86 processor core. The downside was that the chip required a specially designed motherboard and was not socket 7 compatible. AMD kept up the pressure on Intel with the release of the K5, which was meant to go head-to-head with the Pentium.
Sun was active again in 1997, updating its processor offerings to work with Java and releasing the picoJava. Elsewhere, the familiar pattern of catch-up was being played between Intel and AMD and the latter launched the K6, which matched the performance of the Pentium II Intel had released. Cyrix wasn't out of the running either and offered its own MMX processor, the 6x86MX.
Intel kept up the pressure with the arrival of the Celeron in 1998, which was a stripped down version of the PII for the home market. AMD concentrated on improving its K6, releasing the K6-2 and K6-3. The main innovation was to improve the graphical capability offered.
In the game of 'anything you can do, I can do better', AMD launched the Athlon in 1999, which is still widely used. Offering high clock speeds and good graphical support, the processor was a powerful step forward.
The year 2000 was busy, with Intel improving the Celeron with the release of mark II and giving AMD a challenge with the release of Pentium 4. Meanwhile, AMD delivered its Duron. Headlines were also grabbed by the launch of the Transmeta Crusoe, which encompassed the TM3200 and TM5400.
The period ended with Intel, which started the review, creating more headlines in 2001 with the co-development with HP of the IA-64, which was compatible with the 80x86 and PA-RISC.
Into the future
The next 20 years are likely to continue to be dominated by Intel and AMD, with other players coming in and out of the market delivering the steps forward that have moved the market from a 286 processor in 1981 to a Pentium 4 less than 20 years later.
The progress in processors has created a knock-on effect in motherboards and the changes there have also been substantial. The centre of the motherboard world is Taiwan and in the space of just a few years towards the end of the 1980s, some of the largest names in the business emerged to take advantage of the processors being produced by Intel, Cyrix and AMD.
The rate of development has been rapid, with large numbers of vendors trying to grab the attention of users by offering boards that can provide better overclocking, more slots and ports and compatibility with the latest and greatest processors.
A handful of UK distributors (see box) have specialised in selling components and ridden the rollercoaster of price fluctuations and demand drops. The key to success appears to be building relationships with AMD and Intel and nearly all manufacturers offer boards for both flavours of processor.
The drivers for change continue to be a desire to get more power out of motherboards and processors and exploit the performance of the boards to get greater performance out of graphic-intensive applications. That will only continue with a move towards broadband Internet and the launch of more demanding games.
For an industry that has marched forward relentlessly, the arrival of the P4 marked a watershed where the power the board could offer was not matched by the uses the average user could find for that power.
One PC manufacturer described the arrival of the last batch of processors from AMD and Intel as similar to providing the UK with an eight-lane motorway that linked all the major cities, but only providing users with clapped-out Citroen 2CVs to drive.
The challenge for the next 20 years to those operating in the components world is to encourage a more widespread appeal for their wares. The number of avid game-playing, PC-building users is increasing, but is not enough to sustain a business.
A broadband future, in which we are all driving BMWs, is the destination Intel, AMD, et al would like us to get to next.
The main players
The world of processors is dominated by two companies that had both established their roots long before the first MicroScope hit the desks of the most important players in distribution. Intel was founded in 1968 and, in a pattern that would continue for the next three-and-a-half decades, AMD set up a year later.
On the motherboard front, the most well known names emerged in the late 1980s. Gigabyte was established in 1986 along with MSI, with Elite Computer Systems set up a year later. 1989 was busy, with the foundation of Asus and ABit.
The total number of motherboard manufacturers is anything from 50 to 100, depending on which list you look at, but the majority take their lead from the processor manufacturers and then compete on price, functionality, and increasingly with their own patented software.
Leading UK distributors
Microtronica - Formed in the UK by Arrow in 1993 and sells across Europe
Avnet - The US distributor, which has a history stretching back to the 1930s, arrived in the UK after acquiring the Access Group, a semiconductor distributor
Actebis - Founded in 1986, the German components specialist opened its UK subsidiary in 1995
C2000 - Started in the UK in 1983 as First Software, then changed its name to Frontline Distribution in 1988, before becoming Computer 2000, which is owned by Tech Data