The most important parts of a computer is the CPU, also known as processor. If the motherboard is the PC's skeleton, the CPU is the brains of the operation.
When you decide to build a PC for the first time, or the first time in a long time, you are embarking on an epic journey into the unknown. Finding the best processor for your needs is a straightforward process once you determine which brand suits you best: AMD or Intel? The answer isn't quite as simple as whether your prefer the color red or blue.
Like the war waging in the graphics cards space between Nvidia and AMD, the CPU market oversees the rivalry of AMD vs Intel. Less than a decade ago, Intel and AMD had the world at their feet. Intel's distinctive audio logo rang out wherever laptops were sold and AMD's future was bright thanks to its 2006 acquisition of graphics powerhouse ATI.
At the start of 2017 both Intel and AMD were in the process of releasing their latest generation of CPUs. Intel is now on its seventh generation of Core processors codenamed Kaby Lake and AMD appears to have a stormer on its hands in the form of Ryzen.
Intel's Kaby Lake range covers everything - desktops, laptops, tablets, 2-in-1s and servers. On the other hand, AMD is going after the resurgent PC gaming market. Its Ryzen chips are all overclockable and thanks to their many cores have matched or beaten Intel's equivalent chips.
One of these two companies, these two purveyors of finely-wafered silicon, will produce the beating heart of your new PC. Intel and AMD are just as different from one another as the products they produce. Despite biased hearsay, each company's chips have their own advantages and shortcomings. So let's dig into the details to find out which one would be the best choice for your new PC.
If you want the best of the best performance with little regard for price, then Intel is best for you. Not only does the Santa Clara chipmaker rank consistently better in CPU benchmarks, but Intel's processors draw less heat as well, blessing them with lower TDP ratings across the board.
Intel's implementation of hyperthreading, which keeps existing cores active rather than letting any of them remain unproductive. Even though AMD has implemented simultaneous multi-threading in its Ryzen processors, Intel has for the most part stayed on top in performance benches.
AMD has taken pride in its focus on increasing the number of cores in its chips. On paper, this would make AMD's chips faster than Intel's if it weren't for the negative impact on heat dissipation. Luckily, the newer Ryzen chips have mitigated a lot of the overheating concerns of the past, so long as you have a decent cooling rig attached.
Overall, Intel is still the better choice, but if you’re eyeing a Ryzen CPU for a gaming rig, it’s not going to slow you down as much as some of AMD’s lower-spec offerings might.
AMD's new Athlon 220 GE and 240GE chips offer a great blend of graphics and compute performance for the dollar. These chips broaden AMD's attack the sub-$100 (£100, $150 AU) market, and to great effect. Intel's competing Pentium lineup lacks the graphical horsepower to be serious contenders for the extreme low-end of the budget gaming market, and motherboard vendors continue to offer motherboard firmware that allows overclocking on the supposedly-locked Athlon chips.
Value for money
AMD’s chips are generally cheaper than comparable Intel chips. The least expensive AMD Sempron, Athlon, and A-series dual-core processors start at about $30, while Intel’s Celeron G1820 dual-core processor starts at about $45.
An Athlon X4 860K, for instance, that boasts a 3.7GHz frequency can be bought for only $50. The truth is that both Intel and AMD processors typically retail at about the same price; AMD is only known for being cheaper because its chips aren't nearly as commonplace once you hit that exorbitant $200 mark.
With that in mind, CPU pricing fluctuates constantly. Wait a few months after launch, and you'll quickly discover that the Ryzen 7 you were eyeing has dropped well below market value. Still, patience is a virtue easier.
When you buy a new computer or even just a CPU by itself, it's typically locked at a specific clock speed as indicated on the box. It’s a good metric to compare processors, but it’s important to keep in mind it’s not a fixed figure, especially given you can ramp up the clock speed on some chips if you have the right knowledge to overclocking and cooling hardware.
Luckily, both Intel and AMD offer unlocked CPUs at a variety of price points, but AMD is normally more generous than Intel in this regard. With an AMD system, you can get more juice out of a mid-range, A-series APU for a modest price. Pentium G3258, Intel's easily overclockable, unlocked configurations don't start until at least the $200 range, beginning with the Core i5-6600K.
The unlocked chips Intel does offer are pretty impressive, with the i7-7700K capable of maintaining a 4.5GHz turbo frequency in comparison to the 4.2GHz boost frequency of the Ryzen 7 1800X. If you know what you’re doing, you may be able to reach 5GHz on either chip.
If you're building a gaming PC, truthfully you should be using a discrete graphics card rather than relying on a CPU’s integrated graphics. But if you are a moderate gamer, then integrated graphics is ideal for you.
Here, AMD holds a more dominant position. Intel does produce 3D graphics chips, of course, but its expertise lies in integrated graphics. AMD offers many processors which are sold as APUs, which means they combine the processor with Radeon graphics on the same chip. These offer excellent value for low-end gaming. Intel also has on-die integrated graphics, but its performance isn’t up to the AMD’s Radeon.
On the high end, such as in cases where you'll be pairing your CPU with a powerful AMD or Nvidia GPU, an Intel processor is the better option. In this case, using an Intel Core i3 or i5 CPU rather than an AMD equivalent can make the difference between 15 and 30 frames per second.
While there is no clear winner in the graphics department, it shows that AMD is the better option for integrated graphics, while Intel works best when coupled with a GPU.
Availability and support
In the end, the biggest problem with AMD processors is the lack of compatibility with other components. Specifically, motherboard options are limited as a result of the differing sockets between AMD and Intel chips. Intel motherboards are slightly more commonplace. Intel motherboards seem to have a lower starting cost, too, as a result of the wide variety of kit to select from.
Intel processors offer a number of strengths, including power conservation, graphics performance, processing speed, and processing power.
As for Intel, it continues to struggle with 10nm production, which has seen its Cannon Lake processors pushed back again and again. We’re not sure when Cannon Lake is going to come out at all as Intel recently announced its 10nm Sunny Cove architecture, which will be behind whatever Ice Lake, Lakefield and a host of other chips we hope Intel will launch in 2019.
On the other hand, AMD has announced the Ryzen 3000 series of CPUs, based on the new Zen 2 architecture. And, while we don’t know any specifics beyond the nameless 8-core processor it showed off at CES 2019, there are plenty of rumors floating around.
Nevertheless, deciding on a CPU is ultimately up to personal preference. Where Intel processor shines most when married to one of the best graphics cards, and AMD chips are surprisingly capable without a discrete GPU.
So, which processor you're going to choose for your next PC or laptop? Let us know in the comments below.