Intel “x86” Family and the Microprocessor Wars

Xeon wafer

This 300 mm wafer holds 94 Xeon x86-compatible microprocessors. The Xeon processor was designed for server, workstation and embedded system markets.

Intel and the “x86” Microprocessor Family

More is never enough. As cheaper memory encouraged bigger programs, 8 bits became insufficient.

Intel developed the 16-bit 8086 as a stopgap while it worked on a more sophisticated chip. But after IBM adopted the 8088, a low-cost version of the 8086, the stopgap became an industry standard.

Intel’s 80386 later extended the architecture to 32 bits.

Generations of the Intel x86 Family

Shown below are generations of Intel microprocessors derived from the original 8086 architecture. As the number of bits in the CPU increased from 16 to 32 to 64, the number of input/output and power supply leads and the power consumption of the chip increased resulting in significant increases in the size and complexity of the packages.

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8086 microprocessor, Intel, 1976

Transistor count: 29,000. Minimum feature size: 3.2 µ (microns).

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80286 microprocessor, Intel, 1982

Transistor count: 134,000. Minimum feature size: 1.5 µ.

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80486 microprocessor, Intel, 1989

Transistor count: 1,200,000. Minimum feature size: 0.8 µ.

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Pentium Pro microprocessor, Intel, 1995

Transistor count: 3,100,000. Minimum feature size: 0.35 µ.

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Pentium 4 microprocessor, Intel, 2000

Transistor count: 42,000,000. Minimum feature size: 0.09 µ.

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8088 microprocessor, Intel, 1979

Low cost version of the 8086, with an external 8-bit data bus and internal 16-bit data paths.

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80386 microprocessor, Intel, 1985

Transistor count: 275,000. Minimum feature size: 1 µ.

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Pentium microprocessor, Intel, 1993

Transistor count: 3,100,000. Minimum feature size: 0.6 µ.

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Intel Pentium III microprocessor, 1999

Transistor count: 9,500,000. Minimum feature size: 0.13 µ.

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The Microprocessor Wars

Intel’s success inspired competitors. AMD, NEC, and Nexgen pursued variants of Intel’s x86 devices. Others, including Motorola, National, and Zilog, introduced competing architectures. Seeking higher performance and lower cost, large workstation manufacturers developed their own RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) chips.

Ultimately, the x86 architecture dominated the PC market.

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Microprocessor Forum '96 folder with embedded chips in cover

On the 25th anniversary of the microprocessor, the Microprocessor Forum Conference created this commemorative binder with then-current microprocessors. These were only some of the many chips vying for a slice of the Intel-dominated market.

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AM2901 “bit slice” microprocessor, AMD, 1975

Multiple 4-bit 2901s could be connected together to create a wide-word computer. It was the most successful high-performance microprocessor of its time.

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Z8000 microprocessor, Zilog, 1976

The Z8000 was an advanced 16-bit microprocessor with a segmented memory model, but it was overshadowed by Intel’s x86 family.

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Intel advertisement

Following the introduction of the sole-sourced 80386 microprocessor, Intel discouraged customers from continuing to use the older 80286 that was also being made by other manufacturers.

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M68000 microprocessor, Motorola, 1979

Intel’s most serious competitor for 16 and 32-bit applications found wide use in industrial computer and control markets.

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