Pure 64-bit AMD/Intel x64 CPU? Ever?

The big CPU wars seem to be over. Itanium is sinking. Alpha is since long abandoned. Power is IBM only, PowerPC is barely a niche product. Sparc is never going to be what it was.

We are left with MIPS (the Chinese seem to believe in it, and it is a good architecture, so lets have some more patience before we consider it dead).

We are left with ARM – the lightest and most simple architecture of them all. And ARM is about to be 64 bit (but very likely, ARM will most of all remain relevant and dominant in devices where 32 bit is very much enough).

And we are left with x86 (32-bit) and amd64/x86-64 (AMDs original branding, and Intels branding of the same thing after they licensed it).

From an architectural perspective, x86 is the worst of all the CPUs, and for rational reasons it was thought by many to one day be defeated by RISC (PowerPC, MIPS) or Itanium. But x86 persisted because Intel (and AMD) were good at manufacturing fast units at a good price, driven by an enourmous demand for CPUs running Windows and Windows applications.

Now, finally, x86 is getting less relevant more than 25 years after its first 32-bit incarnation: the 386 in 1986 (followed by 486, Pentium, Pentium MMX, Pentium Pro, Pentium II, Pentium III, Pentium 4… and then it just gets too complicated. Of course AMD K5, K6 and Athlon deserves to be mentioned as well, and there was also Cyrix in the beginning, and later Via). x86 is now losing, but not to anything less than its own successor x86-64.

I read there are those who want to drop x86 support (in Linux distributions), and as I have written about elsewhere support for pure x86 is limited in Ubuntu (requiring PAE). I believe x86 is there to stay – indefinitely (well not really). There is always the legacy and embedded market, and there will be a need for it.

But is there really a need for amd64/x86-64 to retain 32-bit backwards compability (and 16 bit)? I hear Windows 9 is going to be 64-bit only.

Of course there are always legacy 32-bit applications to run on 64-bit Windows – those will be fewer and fewer, and those can be emulated. Perhaps not a good idea today – but in a few years. But I guess Intel will not repeat the mistake of Itanium (where x86 was only software supported).

Of course there will always be the need to run a few old 32-bit OS, but there can be x86-boards built and sold for that purpose.

My idea is of course that a Pure 64 bit Intel i7 or Xeon would be able to use its silicon more efficiently, than a CPU that also has 32-bit compability in hardware. However the first Pentium had a little more than 3M transistors, while todays i7 have more than 2G transistors. So, including an entire Pentium processor (scaled down to modern process size) in a modern CPU costs… virtually nothing. At least not when it comes to transistor count, but perhaps there is complexity/legacy cost?

BIOS is not needed to boot a PC anymore.

So, when will Apple (of course, Apple will do it first, if anyone ever will) ship the first Pure 64-bit Mac OS X machine, with no 32-bit or 16-bit CPU or hardware modes?

Well, I am not going to mourn all those lost architectures. I was mourning Alpha and PowerPC, but it is over now. And Itanium – the world could have seen the ITER fusion reactor being built for the money Intel and HP spent to replace the superiour Alpha – what a shame for mankind.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert, and I have just been writing down my thoughts here. Feel free to comment or to correct me – be careful using this post as a source of knowledge.

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