AMD vs. Intel

AMD or Intel? We take a look at the pros and cons of both processors

At the heart of your quest for a new or upgraded PC lies an important decision: AMD or Intel? Like Apple versus Microsoft or Fortnite versus Apex Legends, the AMD vs. Intel rivalry is one of the great debates for PC enthusiasts. Both are just as different from one another as the products they produce.

Yet one of these two purveyors of finely-wafered silicon will produce the beating heart of your PC. Which CPU is the right choice for you? We dig into the details to find out.

Desktop CPUs

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/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. Typically AMD chips cost less and perform worse, but that’s not the case with the latest generation of CPUs. While AMD still represents great value for money, it does have some costly options which 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 though, both camps have $500 chips which are amazingly capable. For the red team, AMD’s Ryzen 3900X is king, with 12 cores, 24-threads, and a price tag around $500. Intel’s current top gamer chip, the 9900K, comes with eight cores and 16 threads, but it is clocked a little higher, with a 5GHz single-core boost, versus the 3900X’s 4.6GHz. It is priced a little less too, at $485.

For more middle-ground options, our recommended Intel chips include the Core i5-9400F for $160 and the Core i7-9700K for $380. On the AMD front, the 3700X is a fantastic option, with eight-cores and 16-threads, and a big boost to instructions per clock of its 2700X predecessor, all for $330. It’s a killer chip that gives Intel 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 and ninth-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.

While AMD’s new-generation of Ryzen 3000 CPUs can give those chips a run for their money in some workloads if you need lots of PCI Express lanes, its first and second-generation Threadripper CPUs are still worth considering. Threadripper 2000-series CPUs offer between 12 and 32 cores and up to 64 threads with simultaneous multithreading. They are more expensive, ranging between $580 and $1,700. We recommend the Threadripper 2950x for around $650 if you want one of these high-end upgrades for a really top-line PC setup.

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.

Do bear in mind, however, that a third-generation of Threadripper CPUs will likely launch before the end of the year, and Intel is expected to launch its next-generation, 14nm Comet Lake desktop CPUs in early 2020.

Laptop CPUs

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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 last 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.”

AMD is set to have its hardware at the heart of a number of laptops by the end of 2019, and has a few offerings out there already, like the new Acer Swift 3, but for now, the market is mostly dominated by Intel. You can pick from a wide range of configurations too, including eighth and ninth-generation CPUs. The latest range, though, sports Intel Ice Lake 10th-generation processors with 11th-generation onboard graphics. They represent some of the most capable and efficient laptops available and include the likes of the new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. There are also upcoming Comet Lake mobile CPUs to consider.

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 are producing 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 is compensating with more cores at a given price and better onboard graphics.

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, most of AMD’s desktop processors do not include integrated graphics. Some of them do and those are called AMD APUs, combining a Ryzen CPU core with a Radeon graphics core on the same die. They tend to have better graphics capabilities than Intel’s onboard cores, but weaker general processing. Ice Lake may change that typical paradigm, however.

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.

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 arguably 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 contenders, however, giving the 9900K a run for its money in most games with the 3900X and 3800X. They also decimate Intel in more multi-threaded scenarios and are great at running applications that support multiple cores. Alongside our Ryzen 3900X review, look out for more coverage of AMD’s latest gaming chips in the months to come.

This makes it much harder to simply recommend Intel for gaming than it used to. If you only game, then the 9700K and 9900K are the best CPUs you can buy, but Ryzen 3000 CPUs at similar prices will deliver comparable performance in games and offer much better performance elsewhere. If you do anything alongside or when you aren’t gaming, Ryzen 3000 chips are a better bet.

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 with Vega APUs 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 1080Pp, 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. 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 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, its newest Ryzen 3000 models, offer amazing value and performance throughout the whole range. From the modest 3600 right up to the 3900X, the bang for 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 is going to need to lower prices — which might be worth holding out for if you’re only interested in buying Intel.

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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 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 have given us in 2019.

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