AMD vs Intel: which chipmaker does processors better?

Now that both Coffee Lake and AMD Ryzen have been out for the while, the hype has finally died down a bit – it’s time to dive into that perennial deathmatch: AMD vs Intel.

AMD released its Ryzen processors about a year ago now, and as the AMD Ryzen 2nd Generation CPUs get ready for their likely release on April 19, Intel and AMD are battling it out for CPU supremacy. But, in the perennial battle of AMD vs Intel is there a clear winner? Well, let’s find out.

Essentially the brain of your PC, the best processors are behind everything your computer does, from complex and intense tasks like rendering video or playing games, to more elementary, simple tasks like simply powering on or launching your web browser. It’s due to the critical importance of your CPU that it’s essential to make sure that the manufacturer you’re buying from actually serves your own needs. You don’t want to pay for features you’re not going to use just as much as you don’t want a CPU that’s not going to have the features you need.

If you’ve been following this continuing war between AMD and Intel as faithfully as we have over the last few years, you probably already know that Intel and AMD focus their efforts on different segments of the CPU market. Intel focuses almost entirely on high clock speeds and hyper-threading while keeping core counts low. AMD, however, flips that around and focuses on having as many CPU cores as possible while maintaining more modest clock speeds.

It shouldn’t surprise you then, that AMD had a great year in 2017 with its Ryzen processors, particularly with the high-end Threadripper CPUs that have been especially popular with gamers. And it doesn’t look like AMD is going to be slowing down any time soon as we’re starting to see leaks show up for their anticipated Ryzen 2nd Generation CPUs – they even plan to support Threadripper until at least 2020.

Even in the shadow of the devastating Meltdown and Spectre exploits in Intel’s CPUs, Intel is still enjoying huge growth in every category outside of desktop processors – which just goes to show how much of an impact AMD Ryzen CPUs have had on the market.

Luckily, Intel has released fixes for its CPUs affected by the infamous Spectre and Meltdown exploits, from Broadwell to Coffee Lake, with only Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge still awaiting fixes. 

Unfortunately, AMD now has its own exploits to deal with, as Israeli security firm CTS labs has released a white paper to the press detailing vulnerabilities in AMD’s current CPUs. However, AMD has followed this up by promising that it will fix these issues as soon as possible. 

However, it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities to say that AMD and Intel can coexist while catering to wholly different audiences, with some room for direct competition in the middle. But, if you’re not quite sure where your loyalties lie just yet, continue to the next slide for a constantly updated look at the AMD vs Intel battle.

Gary Marshall originally contributed to this article

For bargain shoppers on the prowl for the next hottest deal, it used to be assumed that AMD’s processors were cheaper, but that was only because the Red Team did its best work at the entry level.

Now that Ryzen processors have proven AMD’s worth on the high-end, the tide has ostensibly turned. Now Intel reigns supreme in the budget CPU space, with its $64 (about £46, AU$82) MSRP Pentium G4560 offering far better performance than AMD’s $110 (about £80, AU$140) MSRP A12-9800.

Much of this is due to the Advanced Micro Device company’s reluctance to move beyond simply iterating on its antiquated Bulldozer architecture and onto adopting the current-generation ‘Zen’ standard it’s already introduced with pricier CPUs. 

Still, on the low end, Intel and AMD processors typically retail at about the same price. It’s once you hit that exorbitant $200 (around £142, AU$252) mark where things get trickier. High-end Intel chips now range from 4 up to 18 cores, while AMD chips can now be found with up to 16 cores.

While it was long-rumored that AMD’s Ryzen chips would offer cutting-edge performance at a lower price, benchmarks have demonstrated that Intel is remaining strongly competitive. 

If you can get your hands on one, the Core i7-8700K is $359 (about £260, AU$420) MSRP, while the still less-capable Ryzen 7 1800X is priced at $299 (about £215, AU$380) MSRP.

With that in mind, CPU pricing fluctuates constantly. Wait a few months, and you'll soon discover that the Ryzen 5 1600X you were eyeing has dropped well below market value. However, we wouldn’t blame you if you can’t wait and bought one right now.  

If you want the best-of-the-best performance with little regard for price, then turn your head towards Intel. 

Not only does the Santa Clara chipmaker rank consistently (albeit only slightly) better in CPU benchmarks, but Intel's processors draw less heat as well, blessing them with lower TDP (thermal design point) ratings – and thus power consumption – across the board.

Much of this is owed to Intel's implementation of hyper-threading, which has been incorporated in its CPUs since 2002. Hyper-threading keeps existing cores active rather than letting any of them remain unproductive. 

Although AMD’s simultaneous multithreading (SMT) featured in Ryzen is generally similar to hyper-threading, Intel remains on top when it comes to sheer clock speeds. AMD, on the other hand, has been keen on adding more cores to its chips as opposed to boosting frequencies. 

Unfortunately, software has to be written with this multi-core advantage in mind, which explains why Intel maintains a steady lead in real-world applications.

Luckily, despite AMD’s reputation for overheating processors, the newer Ryzen chips have lower TDP (thermal design point) ratings than the AMD FX CPUs and APUs of the past. As long as you have a decent cooler, you shouldn’t have to fret about your Ryzen-laden PC ever catching fire.

This looks to remain the case on the mobile (laptops) front as well, wherein AMD has only recently brought forth its contributions. The flagship Ryzen 7 2700U (quad-core, 2.2GHz – 3.8GHz) will be most compared to the Intel Core i7-8550U (quad-core, 1.8GHz – 4.0GHz) and seems promising based on those numbers alone.

And, now that we’ve seen some leaked reviews of the Ryzen 7 2700X, AMD might become more compelling when it comes to raw performance. But probably not enough to dethrone Intel’s real-world dominance.

With AMD’s RX Vega GL and GH graphics helping power Intel’s ‘H-series’ laptop and NUC chips, the AMD vs Intel rivalry is coming to a standstill. At this point in time, we’re seeing the two companies collaborate as we’ve never seen them do before. What’s more, they’re both benefiting from the partnership. 

It’s unclear how long the friendliness will last, however. Because AMD recently launched its Ryzen 3 2200G and Ryzen 5 2400G APUs, you can now get ‘discrete-class’ graphics from an AMD chip alone, an effort that will inevitably translate to an increased volume of Ryzen-based laptops as well. 

If you're building a gaming PC, truthfully you should be using a discrete graphics card, or GPU (graphics processing unit), rather than relying on a CPU’s integrated graphics to run games as demanding as Middle Earth: Shadow of War.

Still, it’s possible to run less graphically intense games on an integrated GPU if your processor has one. In this area, AMD is the clear winner, thanks to the release of the Ryzen 5 2400G that packs powerful discrete Vega graphics that outperforms Intel’s onboard graphic technology by leaps and bounds. 

Yet, as we mentioned before, Intel has officially started shipping its high-end H-series mobile CPU chips with AMD graphics on board. In turn, this means that hardier laptops powered by Intel can now be thinner and their accompanying silicon footprints will be over 50% smaller, according to Intel client computing group vice president Christopher Walker.

All of this is accomplished using Embedded Multi-Die Interconnect Bridge (EMIB) technology, along with a newly contrived framework that enables power sharing between Intel’s first-party processors and third-party graphics chips with dedicated graphics memory. Even so, it’s too early to tell whether this is a better solution than the purebred AMD notebooks slated for the end of this year.

Still, if all you're looking to do is play League of Legends at modest settings or relive your childhood with a hard drive full of emulators (it's okay, we won't tell), the latest Intel Kaby Lake, Coffee Lake or AMD A-Series APU processors for desktops will likely fare just as well as any forthcoming portable graphics solution.

On the high end, such as in cases where you'll be pairing your CPU with a powerful AMD or Nvidia GPU, Intel’s processors are typically better for gaming due to their higher base and boost clock speeds. At the same time, though, AMD provides better CPUs for multi-tasking as a result of their higher core and thread counts.

While there is no clear winner in the graphics department, survey says AMD is the better option for integrated graphics, while hardcore gamers who don’t mind shelling out the extra cash for a GPU will find that Intel is better for gaming alone. Meanwhile, AMD is superior for carrying out numerous tasks at once.

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. Some processors ship unlocked, allowing for higher clock speeds than recommended by the manufacturer, giving users more control over how they use their components (though, it does require you know how to overclock).

AMD is normally more generous than Intel in this regard. With an AMD system, you can expect overclocking capabilities from even the $129 (about £110, AU$172) Ryzen 3 1300X. Meanwhile, you can only overclock an Intel processor if it's graced with the “K” series stamp of approval. Then again, the cheapest of these is the $149 (£133, AU$195) Intel Core i3-7350K.

Both companies will void your warranty if you brick your processor as the result of overclocking, though, so it’s important to watch out for that. Excessive amounts of heat can be generated if you’re not careful, thereby neutralizing the CPU as a result. With that in mind, you’ll be missing out on a few hundred stock megahertz if you skip out on one of the K models.

Intel’s more extravagant K-stamped chips are pretty impressive, too. The i7-8700K, for instance, is capable of maintaining a 4.7GHz turbo frequency in comparison to the 4.2GHz boost frequency of the Ryzen 7 1800X. If you’ve access to liquid nitrogen cooling, you may even be able to reach upwards of 6.1GHz using Intel’s monstrous, 18-core i9-7980XE. 

In the end, the biggest problem with AMD’s desktop processors is the lack of compatibility with other components. Specifically, motherboard (mobo) and cooler options are limited as a result of the differing sockets between AMD and Intel chips.

While a lot of CPU coolers demand that you special order an AM4 bracket to be used with Ryzen, only a handful of the best motherboards are compatible with the AM4 chipset. In that regard, Intel parts are slightly more commonplace and are often accompanied by lower starting costs, too, as a result of the wide variety of kit to choose from.

That said, AMD's chips make a little more sense from a hardware design perspective. With an AMD motherboard, rather than having metal connector pins on the CPU socket, you'll notice those pins are instead on the underside of the CPU itself. In turn, the mobo is less likely to malfunction due to its own faulty pins.

As for availability, four months after the release date of Intel’s 8th-generation processors, both Intel Coffee Lake and AMD Ryzen processors are widely purchasable from major retailers. Whereas there’s a shortage on graphics cards due to the cryptocurrency surge, most CPUs can be found at or below their sticker price.

That includes everything from the Intel Core i7-8700K to the freshly released AMD Ryzen 3 2200G and Ryzen 5 2400G. Sadly, as the result of the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities affecting just about every processor on the market right now, it would be a safe bet to hold off for Intel’s Cannonlake and AMD’s Zen 2 processors slated for late 2018.