AMD vs. Intel

In 2018, the rivalry between AMD and Intel has become more interesting than ever

At the heart of your quest for a new or upgraded PC lies the single most important decision you can make: AMD or Intel? Like Apple vs. Microsoft or Fortnite vs. PUBG, AMD vs. Intel is one of the great debates for PC users. One of these two purveyors of finely-wafered silicon will produce the beating heart of your new PC. AMD and Intel are just as different from one another as the products they produce.

That said, let’s dig into the details to find out which one would be the best choice for your new PC.

Value comparison

AMD Ryzen 5 2400G & Ryzen 3 2200G Review fingers motherboard
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

With cost serving as a major factor in building, upgrading, or purchasing a PC, choosing the right CPU often comes down to finding the one that offers the best bang for your buck. In just price alone, AMD’s chips are generally cheaper than comparable Intel chips. Low-end, dual-core AMD Sempron, Athlon, or A-series dual-core processors start at about $30. In comparison, a low-end Intel chip will cost around $40. That said, you’ll find similar pricing as you climb the performance ladder, with Intel’s offerings almost always coming in a little higher than AMD’s chips.

For the better part of a decade, this was the typical pricing scenario endured by most PC enthusiasts until the arrival of AMD’s new Ryzen CPUs. Their debut in early 2017 shook up that long-standing formula, with the Ryzen 7 1800X sitting at the top of the consumer-focused end of AMD’s spectrum at that time. Today the second-generation 2700X is the king of that pile, with eight cores, 16 threads and a price tag around $300. Intel’s current top consumer chip, the 9900K, comes with eight cores and 16 threads of its own, but its price is far higher, at $570.

Meanwhile, Intel Core i9 and AMD Threadripper CPUs targeting enthusiasts and prosumers offer even more multithreaded performance and continue to expand the kind of core and thread counts that anyone can enjoy in a home-built system. Intel’s seventh-generation i9 CPUs offer between 10 and 18 cores and thanks to hyperthreading, up to 36 threads. Prices can be sky-high though, with the flagship 9980XE costing as much as $2,000.

AMD’s chips, on the other hand, offer larger core counts, lower price points, and more uniform specifications throughout the range. The first-generation Threadripper CPUs have been heavily discounted as of late, with some of the eight and 12 core options costing just a few hundred dollars. However, the new-generation Threadripper 2000-series CPUs offer between 12 and 32 cores and up to 64 threads with simultaneous multithreading. They are more expensive options too, ranging between $650 and $1,800.

All Threadripper chips support 64 PCI Express lanes, which is a big advantage over the Intel range’s maximum of 44. They are more power-hungry though, thanks to all those additional cores.

All of this means that the competition at the top end of the desktop CPU market is hotter than ever with plenty of choice for consumers, no matter their budget.

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Intel

The laptop market is a different story. Most of what you’ll find are based on Intel processors of various generations and integrated graphics. As a Dell representative pointed out earlier this year, Intel’s portfolio is simply huge compared to AMD: The gap between the two companies is substantial in terms of market share and “use cases.”

We can’t know for sure, but the problem could be that AMD spent too many years focusing on all-in-one chips that sip power. AMD’s desktop processors typically don’t include integrated graphics, thus the Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) designed for mobile crams CPU cores and GPU cores into one chip that draws very little power. They’re typically associated with low-end laptops promising long battery life, like the 7th-generation A-Series slurping around 15 watts of power. AMD’s recent Ryzen-branded all-in-one chips consume the same 15 watts.

Meanwhile, Intel’s portfolio puts CPU processing power first and graphics second regardless of the form factor. Technically you could say they’re all-in-one chips too, but the CPU cores are at the heart of the Intel package. Sure, the four-core i7-8550U sucks slightly more power than AMD’s recent Ryzen 7 2700U four-core all-in-one chip, but you get higher base and boost speeds with the Intel model.

AMD’s argument is performance per watt, and we get that. But laptop manufacturers apparently aren’t falling for the hype and seemingly prefer Intel’s portfolio, even more so when they build laptops with discrete graphics. Don’t get us wrong: There are laptops with AMD all-in-one chips on the market, they’re just not in abundance like the Intel-based variants.

But times could be changing for AMD. Acer recently introduced a gaming laptop that relies on AMD hardware, but it’s not an all-in-one chip. Instead, the Predator Helios 500 offers up to an AMD Ryzen 7 2700 eight-core processor and a discrete Radeon RX Vega 56 graphics chip alongside more commonplace Intel/Nvidia build options.

Overall, both companies are producing processors that are within striking distance of one another on nearly every front — price, power, and performance. Intel chips tend to offer better performance per core, but AMD is compensating with more cores at a given price.

Gaming

Dell G3 Gaming Laptop Review | Fortnite close up
Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

Gaming is one area where picking a CPU can get tricky. All of Intel’s processors include on-die integrated graphics, but the performance isn’t up to par with discrete, stand-alone graphics chips or add-in graphics cards. Meanwhile, AMD’s desktop processors do not include integrated graphics. Instead, AMD combines its processor cores and its Radeon-branded graphics cores into one package/chip called an APU. Although those tend to offer better performance than Intel’s on-die graphics solutions — especially with the new-generation Vega-powered models — they still don’t hold a candle to add-in graphics solutions that are only a little more expensive.

Those who take their gaming seriously use an add-in graphics card or a discrete GPU rather than integrated graphics (these are the best ones). In those scenarios, Intel tends to dominate in gaming performance because of the way the two chip giants build their processors. Its 9900K is inarguably the most powerful gaming CPU available at this time — even if early benchmarks were a bit suspicious.

AMD’s chips, and specifically its latest Ryzen CPUs, are excellent at multi-threaded scenarios and good at running applications that support multiple cores. Intel’s chips almost offer the reverse of that, losing out in heavy multi-threaded settings, but excelling in more restricted thread settings.

Games, although much more multi-threaded today than they were in the past, still rarely use more than two to four threads, which typically gives Intel the edge — even with Ryzen’s optimizations.

That gap is less pronounced than it used to be thanks to improvements in the new “Zen” architecture used in AMD’s Ryzen processor cores. We saw a net loss of about 10 FPS when running Civilization VI‘s internal benchmark on the Ryzen 7 1800X, compared to the i7-7700K. The gap narrowed when running a more graphically-demanding game like For Honor, with the Ryzen CPU providing an average of 109 FPS, while the Intel Core i7 averaged 110 FPS.

As for Threadripper versus extreme Core i9 chips, Intel still has the edge, especially with the Core i9-9900K. 

best graphics card for gaming
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Ultimately, Intel chips tend to be better for gaming of today, but that doesn’t mean you should count AMD out. Intel’s rival offers processors that can be a great gaming value, such as the Ryzen 5 chips in particular. In fact, AMD chips are our recommendation for those on entry-level and medium budgets as they are so much more affordable while being comparable on performance to their Intel counterparts. Even at the very low-end, AMD’s Ryzen with Vega APUs offer decent gaming performance so could be worth considering, but their weaker processing capabilities mean they aren’t the best value long term when upgrades are factored in.

The CPU is rarely the limiting factor in games. Springing for a more powerful graphics card will usually yield better results than doing so for a more powerful processor.

In some cases, you can opt for the best of both worlds though. Intel and AMD recently partnered to create combination chips with Intel CPUs and AMD graphics on the same die with the likes of the Core i7-8809G. In our testing of the 8809G-equipped “Hades Canyon” NUC, we found it to be a solid gaming machine, so it could be that this partnership leads to much greater hardware options in the future.

Who wins?

During an everyday workload, a top-end AMD chip and a top-end Intel chip won’t produce radically different outcomes. There are clear distinctions in specific scenarios and benchmarks, but the CPU isn’t the keystone of PC performance that it once was.

That said, AMD’s CPUs, especially at the mid-range and lower-end of the spectrum, do tend to offer slightly better value than Intel’s chips. Conversely, Intel CPUs have stronger single-core and gaming performance than even AMD’s best Threadripper CPUs. In return, those looking to use applications with a heavier multi-threaded focus should derive more benefit from a modern AMD CPU, especially with some of the big price cuts on first-generation Threadripper chips we’ve seen as of late.

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When it comes to choosing your next upgrade, looking at the individual performance numbers of the chip you want to buy is still your best bet, but considering these general guidelines will give you a good foundation of where to start. AMD’s chips offer better bang for the buck for most users in the entry-level and midrange, even for gaming where the more expensive Intel chips are slightly better performers. That’s not the case once you get into 9900K territory at over $500, but AMD’s Threadripper chips are still a worthy consideration at that price point, especially if your CPU is going to be doing more working than playing.

AMD’s older FX and A-Series chips, meanwhile, are not competitive with Intel, and at this point never will be. So, if you’re looking to older generations of hardware for whatever reason, our Intel recommendation is far more firm. Most importantly, if you’re looking at a laptop or prebuilt desktop, you’ve probably only got one option to choose from — and it’s Intel.

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