(Credit: Tomekbudujedomek/Getty Images)One way the computer industry has slowly evolved in the past decade is a shift in where engineers are hunting for further performance and efficiency gains. The old focus on clock speed ended in 2004, when Intel canceled Tejas, Jayhawk, and the 4GHz Pentium 4. One could call 2004-2011 the first multi-core era. The median high-end enthusiast CPU core count rose between 4x and 6x in seven years. From 2011-2017, Intel held core counts steady and focused on improving power consumption at lower TDPs. In 2017, AMD effectively kicked the core count war off again.
The growth in six-core and eight-core CPUs has really been something to see. In July 2011, 43.3 percent of gamers had a quad-core CPU according to the Steam Hardware Survey and just 0.08 percent of the market had eight-core chips and 1.36 percent had a six-core CPU. In July 2017, 51.99 percent of gamers had quad-core CPUs, 1.48 percent had a six-core chip, and 0.49 percent of gamers had an eight-core chip. Today, 31.11 percent of gamers have six-core chips and 13.6 percent have an eight-core. That’s a 21x and 27x rise in popularity over just four years, and the renewed competition between Intel and AMD is to thank for it.
Unfortunately, ramping core counts also has its limits. In most cases, there is a diminishing marginal return from adding new CPU cores, and the market is still digesting the core count increases of 2017–2019.. Lithography no longer yields the performance improvements that it once did; the total cumulative improvement in performance and power consumption that TSMC is projecting from 7nm -> 5nm -> 3nm is approximately equal to the improvements it obtained from shrinking from 16nm -> 7nm. Intel and other semiconductor firms continue to research material engineering improvements, packaging improvements, and new interconnect methods that are more power-efficient or performant than what we have today, but one of the most effective ways to improve power efficiency in a modern system, it turns out, is to stop moving data all over the place.