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50 Billion Transistors in 50 Years

November 16, 2021

Author: Aakash Jani

Fifty years of microprocessor history are upon us, inaugurated by the birth of the Intel 4004. Almost no field has advanced as quickly as microprocessors, improving seven orders of magnitude—from 2,300 to 54 billion transistors—in only five decades. The original 4-bit single-ALU design has morphed into manycore behemoths, and these advancements power almost every facet of our lives.

To illustrate these changes, we highlight a handful industry-defining products, including the Intel 8088, MIPS R2000, DEC Alpha 21164, Intel Core Duo, IBM Power8, and Nvidia A100. Each also showcases growing performance through frequency and microarchitecture upgrades.

Over the past 50 years, the rise in transistor count has stayed amazingly consistent with Gordon Moore’s prediction (Moore’s Law), which states that the number of transistors will double every two years. Applying this doubling rate to 4004’s transistor predicts a 54 billion transistor processor in 2020, and Nvidia delivered with the A100. Although transistor count remains closely linked with performance, companies also boosted performance during this period through structural and microarchitectural innovations.

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