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AMD vs. Intel

At the heart of your pursuit for a new or upgraded PC beats an important decision: Use an AMD or Intel CPU? Like MacOS versus Windows or Star Trek versus Star Wars, the AMD vs. Intel rivalry is one of the greatest debates for PC enthusiasts.

Yet one of these two purveyors of finely-wafered silicon will deliver the intellectual horsepower behind your PC. Which CPU is right for you? We dig into the details to find out.

Desktop processors

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 the past, AMD CPUs offered lower prices paired with lower performance. That’s not the case with its latest generation of CPUs. While AMD still represents great value for the money, it does have several costly options that are even more powerful than the Intel alternative in some cases.

At the very low-end of the scale, AMD and Intel chips cost between $40 and $60 for a couple of cores and energy-efficient clock speeds. At the top of the scale, however, both camps have amazingly capable $500 chips.

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

With AMD, the Ryzen 9 3950X is the current king with 16 cores and 32 threads. It pierces that $500 range with a suggested price of $722.

Intel’s former top gamer chip, the Core i9-9900K, comes with eight cores and 16 threads. It’s clocked a little higher with a 5GHz single-core boost versus AMD’s 3950X at 4.7GHz. It is priced around $510, depending on where you buy the chip

Intel announced the “world’s fastest” gaming processor on April 30, 2020, the Core i9-10900K for a suggested price of $488. The unlocked tenth-generation “Comet Lake-S” chip sports 10 cores,20 threads, and boasts a maximum clock of 5.3GHz on a single core using its new Velocity boost algorithm. It can hit a maximum of 4.8GHz across all cores simultaneously.

That highest clock is powered by artificial intelligence, which opportunistically raises the frequency when the chip remains below a specific temperature threshold. This higher clock and core count comes at the cost of power and thermal demands too, with this 10th-generation chip (and all other K-series models) having a 125w TDP.

Intel introduced 11 new desktop processors with Comet Lake, ranging from the 10-core flagship to the four-core i3-10100. Half are unlocked “K” variants, such as the i7-10700 and an unlocked i7-10700K version. All desktop parts remain on Intel’s 14nm process node and support PCI Express 3.0, unlike AMD’s latest CPUs.

For middle-ground options, our recommended Intel chips include the Core i5-9400F for $150 and the Core i7-9700K for $380, though that may change once we’ve had a chance to test the offerings.

On the AMD front, the Ryzen 7 3700X is a fantastic option, with eight-cores and 16-threads, and a big boost to instructions-per-clock compared to its 2700X predecessor — all for $299. It’s a killer chip that gives Intel’s i7-9700K a run for its money in gaming and dominates it in multithreaded workloads.

Intel Core i9 and AMD Threadripper CPUs targeting enthusiasts and prosumers offer even more multithreaded performance and continue to expand core and thread counts. Intel’s seventh, ninth, and tenth-generation i9 CPUs offer between 10 and 18 cores and up to 36 threads thanks to hyperthreading.

The i9-10980XE currently leads the enthusiast pack with 18 cores and 36 threads for a suggested price of $979. That is significantly lower than the $1,999 price its ninth-generation predecessor debuted at, while increasing the maximum boost to 4.8GHz and the PCI Express lane count to 48. The lineup, launched in November 2019, features three additional chips, including the 10-core i9-10900XE for $590.

Threadripper 2000-series are worth considering at the right price, too, as though they aren’t as fast as third-generation options, they do still pack a lot of cores under the hood, making them great for multi-threaded workloads. They’re a lot cheaper too.

CPUs offer between 12 and 32 cores and up to 64 threads with simultaneous multithreading. We recommend the Threadripper 2950x for around $640 if you want a high-end upgrade for a low cost.

If price isn’t an issue, AMD’s third-generation Threadripper chips are also available. The 3960X packs 24 cores and 48 threads for $1,399 while the 3970X model offers 32 cores and 64 threads for $1,999. If that’s not enough cores, the new Threadripper 3990X packs 64 and 128 threads for a hefty $3,700. That’s far more cores than anything Intel has to offer outside of its server space, and even then it’s more cost-effective.

The first- and second-generation Threadripper chips support 64 PCI Express lanes, which is a big advantage over the maximum of 44 seen in Intel’s range. The third-generation CPUs increase that number to 72 usable lanes (88 total). Threadripper chips can be more power-hungry, however, thanks to all those additional cores.

Laptop processors

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 once indicated, 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.”

AMD set out to have its hardware at the heart of many laptops by the end of 2019, however. It’s already included in a few new offerings, like the new Acer Swift 3 or the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3.

AMD’s progress on the mobile front continues in 2020, though there’s a long road ahead. The Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 serves as the launchpad for AMD’s new Ryzen 4000 chips for laptops. Specifically, this model packs the Ryzen 9 4900HS eight-core chip (16 threads) with a base speed at 3GHz and a maximum single core boost clock of 4.3GHz.

In our review of the G14, we discovered that Intel’s Core i7-9750H six-core chip used in other gaming laptops just couldn’t keep up. It even outperformed Intel’s Core i9-9880HK eight-core chip. However, thermal issues surrounding an eight-core chip residing in a thin form factor translates to loud fans continuously running in the background.

Still, the G14 is just a taste of what’s to come from AMD and its partners in 2020. Other laptops packing a Ryzen 4000 CPU include two more G14 models featuring the Ryzen 9 4900H, and the Asus TUF Gaming A17 (FA706IU) with AMD’s Ryzen 7 4800H, among others.

Meanwhile, HP will include Ryzen 4000 chips in the upcoming Envy x360 13 and 15 2-in-1s while the Omen 15 gaming laptop will supposedly have a Ryzen 4000 chip paired with an RTX 2060 GPU. Lenovo’s new Legion 5 gaming laptop, arriving in May, uses the Ryzen 7 4800H.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

For now, the market remains mostly dominated by Intel.  You can pick from a wide range of configurations, including 8th, 9th, and 10th-gen CPUs. The latest range sports Intel Ice Lake 10th-generation processors with 11th-generation onboard graphics. They represent some of the most capable and efficient laptops available, like the new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1.

As an alternative to Ice Lake, Intel also offers 10th-gen Comet Lake-H processors. The company introduced six new chips in April aimed to bring desktop-like performance to laptops. At the forefront is the Core i9-10980HK packing eight cores, 16 threads, a base clock speed of 2.4GHz, and a maximum single-core turbo speed of 5.3GHz via Thermal Velocity Boost. The other five chips range from the eight-core i7-10875H to the four-core i5-10300H.

Typically if you’re looking for good, all-round power in a laptop, Intel Core i5 processors from one of the recent generations are a great bet. Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs offer much more general computing performance, but unless you’re performing some heavy workloads, a Core i5 is going to be more than enough in most cases.

Overall, both companies produce processors 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 compensates with more cores at a given price and better onboard graphics.

Gaming

Gaming is one area where picking a CPU can get tricky. Every Intel processor includes on-die integrated graphics, but the performance isn’t up to par with discrete, stand-alone graphics chips or add-in graphics cards.

Meanwhile, most AMD desktop processors do not include integrated graphics. Those that do are called Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs. These chips combine Ryzen CPU cores with Radeon graphics cores on the same die. They typically have better graphics capabilities than Intel’s onboard GPU cores, but weaker general processing. Intel’s Ice Lake changed that paradigm, however, with its new Iris Plus graphics.

Whether you go Intel or AMD, you can expect to spend between $200 and $350 for mid-level gaming processors and $500+ if you need a top-tier chip for high frame rates, or streaming and gaming at the same time.

2019 Razer Blade Pro 17
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Serious gamers use an add-in graphics card (these are the best ones) or a discrete GPU rather than integrated graphics. In those scenarios, Intel typically dominates in gaming performance due to how the two chip giants build their processors. Its 9900K is arguably the most powerful gaming CPU available for the moment — even if early benchmarks were a bit suspicious.

AMD’s chips — specifically its latest Ryzen CPUs — are excellent contenders, however. The Ryzen 9 3900X and Ryzen 7 3800X give the 9900K a run for its money in most games. They also decimate Intel in more multi-threaded scenarios and are great at running applications that support multiple cores.

AMD introduced the Ryzen 9 3950X 16-core processor for $749 in November 2019. AMD’s chip outperforms every Core i9 CPU in multi-core workloads and is the best gaming CPU AMD has ever made, even if it’s only by a percent point or two. That’s not really its focus, as it acts as an HEDT-lite chip, but it’s still an amazing achievement to pack so many cores in a single die, but not lose any single-threaded performance.

AMD’s CPU momentum makes recommending Intel for gaming harder now than in the past. If you only game, then Intel’s 9700K, 9900K, and 9900KS are currently the best CPUs you can buy until we see how the new Comet Lake-S chips perform. If you do anything alongside or when you aren’t gaming, however, Ryzen 3000 chips are a better bet. They’re sold at similar prices, deliver comparable performance in games, and offer much better performance elsewhere.

best graphics card for gaming
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Mid-range Ryzen processors are well worth considering too. The Ryzen 3600 and 3600X offer incredible value while being very capable gaming chips. Even at the very low end, AMD’s Ryzen APUs with Vega graphics offer decent gaming performance that’s worth considering. But their weaker processing capabilities mean they aren’t the best value long term unless you plan to upgrade down the line.

Unless you’re trying to play at very high frame rates or are locked to lower resolutions, like 1080p, the CPU is rarely the limiting factor in games. Springing for a more powerful graphics card will usually yield better results than shelling out cash for a more powerful processor.

And don’t forget that syncing technology like FreeSync and G-Sync can also make a big difference in gaming appearance, with or without optimizing your processor.

In some cases, you can opt for the best of both worlds. Intel and AMD partnered to create combination chips with Intel CPU cores and AMD GPU cores 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 its newest Ryzen 3000 models, offer amazing value and performance throughout the whole range. From the modest 3600 right up to the 3950X, the bang for the buck is arguably much better with AMD CPUs, even if you’re mostly a gamer.

Intel CPUs are still great, but if they are to remain hotly competitive with AMD, Intel will need to lower its prices — which might be worth holding out for if you’re only interested in buying Intel.

When it comes to choosing your next upgrade, your best bet is to look at the individual performance numbers of the chip you want to buy. You should also consider these general guidelines to give you a good foundation of where to start.

AMD Ryzen 3000 processors offer the best bang for buck throughout almost the entire value range. Intel does hold a slight edge in gaming at the very top end, but even then, the benefits of AMD CPUs outside of that easily outweigh such a slight lead. They have a better upgrade path too, as AMD promises existing motherboards will continue to work with new AMD chips in 2020.

If you can find Intel chips at a great price, you’re still getting great performance for your money, but know that you could be leaving some performance on the table if you ignore the new landscape that AMD processors gave us in 2019.

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