China's great CPU hope – Loongson – may be only four years behind Intel
Mission not accomplished
Loongson Technology, the company leading China's charge to develop CPUs locally, claims its most recent desktop effort performs at a level comparable with Intel's tenth-generation Core family.
x86 watchers may recall those Intel processors bore the codenames Comet Lake and Ice Lake, were announced in 2019, and dribbled into the market across 2020 and 2021. Core counts reached ten, turbo-boosted clock speeds topped 5.0GHz, and demand was high as a viral pandemic that you may or may not recall sparked a boom in working-from-home and therefore also in PC purchases.
Intel has since released three further generations of silicon and stands on the threshold of delivering Meteor Lake, its 14th-gen architecture that will fully embrace chiplets and add a VPU (vision processing unit) to accelerate AI workloads.
In a post on Chinese social network QQ.com last week, Loongson shared the results of tests conducted by the China Electronics Standardization Institute on its 2.5GHz quad-core Loongson 3A6000 processor. The CPU cores use Loongson's homegrown RISC-y LoongArch architecture.
Those tests were run using the SPEC CPU 2006 benchmark – a test that stresses a system's processor, memory subsystem, and toolchain. The benchmark was retired in 2018 – two years before the debut of the Intel silicon with which Loongson claims parity, and five years before these tests.
Loongson's post stated that its silicon scored 43.1/54.6 points respectively on the SPEC CPU 2006 base single-thread fixed/floating point tests, 155/140 points respectively on multi-threaded fixed/floating point tests, and delivered 42GB/sec bandwidth over dual DDR4-3200 memory channels. Unixbench scores topped 7400 points.
Which is not unimpressive, given that Loongson's latest LoongArch architecture is younger than Intel's x64, and the fact that the 3A6000 is the first generation of the Chinese chip designer's new line of processors. It's typical for early silicon in a processor family to be slower – and feature fewer cores – than later releases.
So perhaps China and Loongson will soon have a client processor that's comparable with Intel's Core i9 screamers that topped the Meteor Lake cycle.
- AMD says it'll jump through Uncle Sam's hoops to sell AI chips to China
- Intel opens chip innovation hub in Nanshan, China
- Make chips, not trade wars, says Semiconductor Industry Association
- Intel woos China with nerfed Habana Gaudi2 AI chips
But even if Loongson gets its act together, it still faces a formidable obstacle: its LoongArch CPU architecture and instruction set are proprietary and RISC-V-slash-MIPS-ish. Regardless of how sophisticated its silicon becomes, Loongson therefore has an enormous job ahead to build a software ecosystem. Linux is yet to support LoongArch fully.
China's government has more than once signalled a shift to computers and operating systems that employ only homemade tech. That decision could catalyze an ecosystem at speed.
But these benchmark results show China has plenty of work left to create an indigenous PC ecosystem. Even if it does, that ecosystem would leave local knowledge workers with much less powerful machines than those available elsewhere, and therefore still dependent on imported tech that the USA is happy to deny the Middle Kingdom in the name of national security. ®