Intel vs AMD: which chipmaker does processors better?

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to PC upkeep, and it only gets more onerous once you’ve reached the point where it’s time for an upgrade.

On the bright side, building and maintaining a PC comes down to little more than a basic understanding of how one works. Among the most important parts of a computer is the CPU, otherwise known as the processor.

If the motherboard is the PC’s skeleton, the CPU is the brains of the operation. Finding the best processor for your needs is a bit tougher than simply declaring you’re a fan of Intel or AMD.

Because there are stark differences in the chips produced by these two companies, whose efforts combined would dominate the entire computer processor market, it’s important to be aware of the nuances each brings to the table. 

Like the war waging in the graphics cards space between Nvidia and AMD, the rivalry of AMD vs Intel is a ruthless competition between two brands that quite honestly have an equal number of perks and disadvantages. It’s just that AMD is playing catch up to Intel – a name that went virtually unchallenged for years.

So, while Kaby Lake processors are thriving in the laptop space, AMD is only getting started. Vice versa, AMD’s Ryzen chips are experiencing overwhelming success, both commercially and critically, in high-performance desktop PCs. For those readers curious as to why that is, keep reading to find out the differences between AMD and Intel.

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Gary Marshall originally contributed to this article

For bargain shoppers on the prowl for the next hottest deal, it used to be a widely debatable misconception 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 $97 (£80, AU$75) Pentium G4560 offering far better performance than AMD’s $94 (£85, £148) 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 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 (£265, AU$450), while the still-less capable Ryzen 7 1800X is priced at $499 (about £391, AU$662).

With that in mind, CPU pricing fluctuates constantly. Wait a few months, and you'll soon discover that the Ryzen 5 1600X – which is mysteriously showing up in 8-core variants now – you were eyeing has dropped well below market value. However, we understand patience is a virtue easier said than followed, so we wouldn’t blame you for procuring 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. Even though AMD has implemented simultaneous multi-threading (SMT) in its Ryzen processors, Intel has – for the most part – stayed on top in performance benches.

Historically, however, 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.

While it’s not hard to keep an Intel processor cool, because AMD likes to shove as many cores as possible into a single processing unit, its chips tend to run hotter, meaning you’ll probably have to invest in one of the best CPU coolers to avoid throttling. 

Still, $249 (about £194, $330) for a six-core processor is unparalleled, even if the extra cores are only really beneficial in multi-tasking scenarios like streaming gameplay on Twitch. There’s a huge pool of Twitch broadcasters alone that might find AMD’s Ryzen-series processors more appealing than Intel’s Kaby Lake, although Coffee Lake presents a compelling counterpoint.

Now that its consumer-focused desktop range of Core i processors start out with four cores and go all the way up to six, fluent mega-taskers might be drawn back to Intel. While it and AMD have effectively reached loose parity in terms of performance, the battle is now ostensibly over whose chips can achieve more at once rather than who can do one thing the fastest.

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.

Even though it’s possible to run less intense games along the lines of Overwatch without a dedicated graphics card, there’s no denying the wide-open space for improvement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear likely to happen, especially with AMD’s entire range of Ryzen processors requiring that you also buy a graphics card.

Be that as it may, 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 will likely fare just as well as any top-end graphics card. 

At one time, for low to mid-tier gaming, AMD's Radeon chips were far superior to anything offered by Intel. With the arrival of Intel's Iris Pro graphics, however, that sentiment is becoming more and more refutable. This position is only legitimized by AMD’s Ryzen chips, which don’t bear integrated graphics at all.

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 (for now), while hardcore gamers who don’t mind shelling out the extra cash for a GPU will find that Intel is better for gaming alone, whereas 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 $149 (about £100, AU$160) 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 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 processor availability, AMD’s latest are much easier to come by right now than Intel’s, likely because of a manufacturing shortage. The Coffee Lake-S chips that released on October 5 can only be widely found on backorder, as of this writing. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers like Micro Center are notoriously selling the chips for substantially more than the manufacturer suggests.

Nevertheless, deciding on a CPU is ultimately up to personal preference. Where an Intel processor shines most when married to a graphics card, AMD's chips are surprisingly capable without a discrete GPU. Well, that’s at least the case when we’re referring to its APUs, not the ones called Ryzen.