Intel’s 8088 and 8086 chips were close relatives that came out in the late 1970s and became popular in the 1980s thanks to the IBM PC and its compatibles. The chips were very similar and used the same software, but there were some differences. Here’s a look at 8088 vs 8086.
8088 vs 8086: Lower was better
With Intel, we think of higher-number chips being better. The 8085 was better than the 8080, and the 8086 was better than the 8085, and then we stepped up the ladder to the 80186, 80286, 80386, and 80486 before the courts ruled that Intel couldn’t trademark numbers. You could tell the chips were related because the numbers were close. And the higher the number, the better the chip.
The 8088 was the odd duck in all of this. This even confused people in the 1980s, but the 8086 was better and faster than the 8088. The 8086 was a fully 16-bit chip. The 8088 was a 16-bit chip internally, with all the quirks of the 8086, but it had an 8-bit data bus. This made it cheaper to manufacture and allowed it to use cheaper support chips. But it was slower. Intel used this idea again with the 80386DX, which was a full 32-bit chip, and the 80386SX, which was 32-bit internally but had a 16-bit data bus.
IBM and the 8088 and 8086
IBM used the cheaper 8088 in its original IBM PC and its successor, the IBM PC/XT. These machines became widely popular and they spawned hundreds of clone workalike machines. Even though IBM discontinued both machines in April 1987, it was still possible to buy PC or XT clones in the early 1990s.
When IBM released its PS/2 line in 1987, the two cheapest models, the PS/2 Model 25 and Model 30, used 8086 CPUs and had a full 16-bit architecture. This made them a little bit faster than the PC and XT they replaced, but not as fast as a 286-based machine. The Model 25 and Model 30 sold relatively well because they were the most affordable machines in the line and they had enough power to handle mainstream computing tasks of the late 1980s.
8088 vs 8086: Popularity
A few clone makers, Tandy in particular, used the 8086 to get a performance edge, but most third-party XT-class clones stayed with some variant of the 8088. The 8086’s performance advantage wasn’t enough to get it widespread adoption as a PC processor. Notably, it wasn’t fast enough to run Windows. If you wanted performance, you paid a little bit more and got a 286-based PC/AT-class machine instead. By the late 1980s, the 8088 was the king of budget PCs, and people who wanted performance paid a premium for 286- and 386-based PCs. Even many computer enthusiasts couldn’t explain the advantage of the 8086 at the time. The 8086 just ended up being the odd one out.
The Intel 8088 started Intel on a phenomenal run. Intel introduced the first successful microprocessors in the early 1970s but by the end of the decade there were at least half a dozen compelling CPU architectures competing with Intel’s offerings. The 8088 started a domino effect that eventually knocked down those competitors. If you are reading this on something other than a smartphone or a tablet, you are reading it on a descendant of the 8088.
Intel had no way of knowing it when it released the two chips in 1978, but the 8088 changed the company forever.