Processors – the heart of any computer. The components that execute more than 1,000,000,000 actions per second. They are fast, small, and energy efficient, but this didn’t happen overnight; it took a long time to get to the stage they’re currently at. We’ve seen every iteration of CPUs. From the booming 70s with many small players, the 80s and the creation of the first Arm chip, and then onto the 90s which was fully dominated by Intel. The early 2000s brought competition, and AMD was bringing interesting CPUs to the market. The 2010s were mostly dominated by Intel until Ryzen came to the market. Now we are in the 2020s. The Arm is getting stronger, thanks to its Apple silicon chips, RISC-V is still far behind and the battle between Intel and AMD is mostly about core count.
Let’s go down memory lane and check out the most important processors of all time chronologically:
Intel 4004 (1971)
This processor was the first commercially available microprocessor. As the name suggests, it was a 4-bit processor initially designed for the Busicom 141-PF Calculator. It was then that Intel realized the future would be based on microprocessors.
Intel 4004 was used in some of the first data centers. Read more about the history of data centers.
Intel 8080 (1974)
Intel 4004 was the first, but a later model was, in fact, the popular one – the Intel 8080. It was an 8-bit CPU which was great for computers. The first to use it was the MITS Altair 8800. It was the beginning of Intel’s 80x series. Needless to say, the processor was copied by many. The most significant copy was Zilog Z80, which was cheaper and powered the Nintendo GameBoy.
Read about the first computer mouse!
Texas Instruments TMS1000 (1974)
Texas Instrument TMS1000 was one of the first microchips that integrated CPU, RAM, ROM, and I/O ports into one chip. The industry quite liked this chip and integrated it into multiple calculators and watches, bringing computing power to regular users.
MOS Technology 6502 (1975)
If you are an Apple fan, you know this one. Steve Wozniak was experimented with it, and later on, one variation of the design became the Apple II. The same processor powered many consoles such as Nintendo Entertainment System and Atari 2600.
RCA COSMAC CDP 1802 (1976)
This one has extraterrestrial fame. It was in NASA’s Voyager 1! The processor was in many different satellites and probes. Durable with low power consumption.
Zilog Z80 (1976)
The Zilog Z80 has won its place in the list of the most important processors of all time. This 8-bit processor started as an alternative to the Intel 8080 but was cheaper. Back in the day, this CPU powered hundreds of computer models during the 70s and early 80s, and was inside many portable consoles like Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Master System.
Intel 8086 (1978)
This processor marked the beginning of Intel’s 16-bit processors. Nno significant computers used this processor, but it’s earned its place on this list because it created the x86 standard; software specifically written for it can still be executed by a modern processor. Amazing, isn’t it?
Intel 8088 (1979)
Intel 8088 CPU came to the market in 1979. It was an 8-bit CPU, but many people counted it as a hybrid 16-bit/8-bit processor. It had 16-bit architecture, but an 8-bit data bus inside. Thanks to that mix, it could work with 16-bit operations. It was compatible with 8086, with minimal or no modification. Intel 8088 was the processor inside IBM’s first personal computer (PC) released in 1981.
Motorola 68000 (1980)
When Motorola introduced this processor, it was the most powerful chip on the market. People used it for workstations and servers. It was used in Apple Macintosh, and later in Atari ST, Amiga computers, and Sega Genesis.
Intel 80386 (1985) (also known as 386 and i386)
Intel 80386 was a 32-bit processor that supported backward compatibility. This was a key aspect that allowed developers to run their programs even if they were written for 16-bit.
Acorn Computers ARM2 (1986)
The interesting thing about this processor is its architecture. It is the ARM. This is the same as in almost all modern smartphones and even server processors. It was first used in 1987 on Acorn Archimedes, and it was a 32-bit RISC processor.
AIM PowerPC 601 (1992)
This processor was the birthchild of a very strange collaboration. Apple, IBM, and Motorola shook hands and created a chip that could combat the power position of the Intel and Microsoft duo. AIM PowerPC 601 was a 32-bit CPU with frequencies between 50MHz and 80MHz and used PowerPC architecture (RISC). This CPU found its place inside Apple Macintosh and its upgrades, and served Apple for many years.
Intel Pentium (1993)
If you are a millennial, you might regard the Pentium line as cheap, but back in the day, it was the best CPU out there. The first version had a frequency of just 60 MHz, but it was as fast as the AMD 486 at 100 MHz.
Learn more about Intel’s naming scheme.
AMD Athlon 1000 (2000)
AMD Athlon 1000 was the first to reach 1GHz! It was a great alternative at the time to Intel’s line of processors. It had a relatively low price, and this is why it was a great hit among PC enthusiasts.
Intel Pentium 4 (2000)
This processor used a new architecture called NetBurst which bragged about very high clock speeds. Back then, the CPU had one core and the race was to provide the highest possible clock, without thinking about the power used or the heat generated. What was worse about it was that even though it used so much power, in many cases, its competitor AMD Athlon still beat it.
Not one of the best processors, but at least, the failure of Intel’s Pentium 4 processors led to the creation of multi-core processors.
AMD Athlon 64 3000+ (2003)
Just looking at the name you can spot what was so special about the AMD Athlon 64 3000+. It was a 3GHz, 64-bit processor for the masses! It was the start of the 64-bit revolution. Today, you can’t find any PC processor that is not 64-bit.
AMD Opteron 240 (2003)
AMD Opteron 240 was a 64-bit processor that could handle 32-bit software without severe performance costs. It worked with x84-64 instructions, and those instructions were established as a standard that are still used in today’s desktop computers.
Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 (2006)
As the name indicated, the Core 2 Duo, was a dual-core, 64-bit CPU with overall decent performance. Its secret was its overclocking capability. The stock clock was 1.86GHz, but often overclocked it to over 2.5GHz! That way it was beating the competitor’s Athlon FX-62 in almost all benchmarks.
Learn how to overclock here.
Intel Core i5-2500K (2011)
Intel Core i5-2500K was a massive upgrade over the 1st gen CPU. The results were 10% to 50% higher! With all that power, it was one of the best options for many PC enthusiasts. It was easily beating the AMD chips of the time.
AMD Ryzen 7 1700 (2017)
In 2017 AMD Ryzen was born. It brought Zen architecture and finally, it could compete with Intel. Honestly, it not only started to compete, but it started to beat the competition in its price segment.
It was the first to include a CPU, built on a 14nm manufacturing node, with a clock speed of up to 4GHz. One of the most well-known of them was the Ryzen 7 1700. It became popular among gamers and overclockers. It had an 8-core, 16-thread processor, and a very attractive price.
Intel Core i7-8700K (2017)
This was a 6-core, 12 threads, 14nm CPU that had a maximum frequency of up to 4.7GHz. Although the 7th gen was not a huge architectural improvement over the 6th gen, this chip has a spot among the most important processors of all time. It was a big jump for Intel, after a long period with processors, with up to 4 cores maximum. It was a change of model. No more tick-tock model. Intel started to increase the core count far more often to catch up with the Ryzen CPUs.
AMD Ryzen 9 3950X (2019)
AMD Ryzen 9 3950X was a proper flagship processor. Built on a 7nm die, it had 16 cores (32 threads) based on the Zen 2, and a clock speed between 3.5 GHz and 4.7 GHz.
It had a great performance per watt, and it still had a competitive price which made it a desired CPU.
The processor is still very potent and can be easily used for different work like video editions, CAD software, 3D rendering, and more.
Apple M1 (2020)
Was Apple M1 the first ARM chip in a laptop? No! Was it something new that nobody could imagine? No! But it is one of the most influential CPUs of all time because it marked a radical change for Apple. After the introduction of Apple M1, the company decided to completely abandon Intel’s chips and bet 100% on ARM architecture. Apple was not satisfied with the performance of Intel’s chips at the time, and it also wanted to control the release cycle of the CPUs. The company jumped on the ARM wagon and started designing its chips. Since then, we have already seen impressive M1, M2, and M3 chips. They are so influential that they can revive Windows on an Arm movement and we can have a real change in the CPU market. The x86 architecture might be counting its last years.
Esperanto ET-SoC-1 RISC-V (2021)
This processor is one of the most commercially available RISC-V chips. It is made on TSMC 7-nm and contains 24 billion transistors. It has one 120W accelerator card and 6 Esperanto chips and can deliver 59 times the performance and 123 times the energy efficiency of a popular Intel 250W Xeon (source RISC-V.org).
RISC-V is an open-source architecture. It has a royalty-free instruction set that makes it really interesting. It may become the biggest competition of x86 and ARM in the future. It is already in use in many small devices and it could potentially replace ARM in the future, but it is still too early to tell.
Intel Core i9-12900K (2021)
Intel Core i9-12900K was a comeback. It was a 10nm, Alder Lake CPU with big-little architecture. This was nothing new when it comes to the CPU industry, but it was the first Desktop processor from Intel that used it. For those of you who don’t know what big-little architecture is, we are talking about two clusters of cores. One cluster is created with only big cores, which are more powerful and power-hungry. Their other cluster is low power and economic. The idea is when there is a need for more processing power, the computer uses all of the cores or only the big cluster. When the task is less demanding, it only uses the little cluster.
Snapdragon X Elite (*2024)
We have seen Windows on Arm for several years already. Sadly, so far all the devices have had mediocre performance. Great battery life, but the lack of performance and app compatibility have still been the factors that were stopping Arm chips.
But don’t get upset. There could be a light at the end of the tunnel. Snapdragon announced Snapdragon X Elite chips in 2023. The first processors will come in the middle of 2024, with performance matching and even beating most of the competitors thanks to the 12x Oryon prime cores. And all the results at a fraction of the electric power.
What Snapdragon is promising is outstanding battery life, excellent performance, and AI integration.
So far, we have seen impressive benchmarks, but until we get the product in our hands, we can’t be certain that this processor will stay on the list.
So, what will the future bring us? Are we going to adopt the quantum or continue using the x86 architecture?
Will the mobile ARM architecture take over the market? Or maybe the RISC-V will be the new key player. What will the next big innovation be?
It is good to know where it all started. We will continue to update our list of the most important processors of all time. This will be a historic list of CPUs, that tells a story of an industry.