AMD vs. Intel

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

Ultimately 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 Quake vs. Unreal, 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.

AMD vs. Intel: Value

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, like the G3930 dual-core processor 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 new Ryzen 7 1800X sitting at the top of the consumer-focused end of AMD’s spectrum. It’s an eight-core behemoth with a turbo-clock of 4.0 GHz, and for $350, it’s among the least expensive eight-core processors on the market today. The eight-core Ryzen 7 1700 is even more affordable with a $290 price tag while Intel’s cheapest eight-core chip eats a bigger portion of your wallet at $600.

Meanwhile, last year’s Intel Core i9 and AMD Threadripper CPUs targeting enthusiasts and gamers offer even more performance and continue to shake up the processor market’s traditional bang-for-buck dynamic. Intel’s Core i9-7900X CPU, which doesn’t sit on a traditional Intel-based motherboard, offers 10 cores, 20 threads, a maximum peak speed of 4.3GHz, and a price tag currently set at $966.

For a lower price tag, AMD Threadripper processors have higher base speeds and larger amounts of shared cache. Meanwhile, they require more power than Intel’s X-Series chips, and have lower peak speeds. What does all that mean for you? In short, the age-old AMD vs Intel contest is much more competitive than it’s been in years and offers much more choice for the consumer… on the desktop front, that is.

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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. That said, laptop shoppers will likely choose Intel based on market saturation, advertisement, and word-of-mouth.

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 upcoming Predator Helios 500 notebook will sport up to an AMD Ryzen 7 2700 eight-core processor — and a discrete Radeon RX Vega 56 graphics chip. Hopefully it’s a big step into reclaiming a chunk of AMD’s lost laptop market from Intel.

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.

AMD vs. Intel: Gaming

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. In those scenarios, Intel tends to dominate in gaming performance because of the way the two chip giants build their processors. 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 Core i9 chips, Intel has a small edge. Still, we wouldn’t recommend either for a gaming system given that games don’t benefit from the extremely high core counts in these processors.

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 does offer processors that can be a great gaming value, such as the Ryzen 5 chips in particular. Check out our Ryzen processor buying guide for details, including benchmarks. If you are on an extreme budget too and simply can’t afford a dedicated graphics card, AMD’s Ryzen with Vega APUs do offer low-end 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 — if you can find one at a good price — will usually yield better results than doing so for a more powerful processor.

Finally, here’s an interesting tidbit that manifested in November last year and became full-blown products in early January: the Core i7-8809G and three other Core-branded modules. They’re not the result of pigs finally sprouting wings, but rather a surprise collaboration to cram a discrete Radeon graphics chip, HBM2 graphics memory, and an Intel processor into one, single-chip solution.

For the Core i7-8809G, Intel’s portion contains four 7th-gen cores, and an on-die HD Graphics 630 GPU component. Meanwhile, AMD supplies 1,536 “Vega” graphics cores (24 compute units), and dedicated HBM2 memory. The jury is still out on how these all-in-one chips perform in benchmarks, but one of the first products to rely on a Core i7 module is the “Hades Canyon” NUC. Intel’s three other modules are the Core i7-8709G, the Core i7-8705G, and the Core i7-8706G.

AMD vs. Intel: 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.

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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. Thanks to Ryzen’s leapfrogging of previous AMD chips in terms of power and value, the CPU market is now highly competitive after residing in a stagnant state for a number of years.

Arguably, Intel is still the safe bet, especially for gamers, but AMD’s alternatives are more viable than ever. For system builders with deep pockets, AMD’s Threadripper chips are incredibly powerful, so keep your eyes peeled on benchmarks. Gamers on the extreme budget-end of the spectrum may consider AMD’s Ryzen APUs, but if you can stretch your budget a little more, a CPU paired with a dedicated graphics card will offer much better performance.

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 pre-built desktop, you’ve probably only got one option to choose from — and it’s Intel.

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