AMD vs. Intel

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

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 Apex Legends versus Fortnite, 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 the right choice 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 money, it does have several 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, however, both camps have amazingly capable $500 chips.

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

For the red team, AMD’s Ryzen 9 3950X is the current king with 16 cores and 32 threads. It pierces that $500 range with a suggested price of $749.

Meanwhile, Intel’s current top gamer chip, the 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 at $472.

For middle-ground options, our recommended Intel chips include the Core i5-9400F for $145 and the Core i7-9700K for $359.

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 $328. 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 and ninth-generation i9 CPUs offer between 10 and 18 cores and up to 36 threads thanks to hyperthreading. Prices can be sky-high, however, with the flagship Core i9-9980XE costing up to $2,199.

amd threadripper 3000 cpu demolishes competition chip

If you need lots of PCI Express lanes, AMD’s new generation of Ryzen 3000 CPUs can give those chips a run for their money in some workloads. But its first and second-generation Threadripper CPUs are still worth considering.

For example, Threadripper 2000-series CPUs offer between 12 and 32 cores and up to 64 threads with simultaneous multithreading. They are more expensive, ranging between $329 and $1,700. We recommend the Threadripper 2950x for around $329 if you want a high-end upgrade for a low cost.

If price isn’t an issue, AMD’s third-generation Threadripper chips are now 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. The company also has a 64-core chip in the works, the 3990X, slated to arrive in 2020 for an unknown price.

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 are 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 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 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. Progress on the mobile front will continue into 2020, though there’s a long road ahead.

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

For now, however, the market is 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 processors, which include a special six-core Core i7.

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. Until Ryzen 4000 mobile chips land in 2020, Intel has a serious lead in this category.

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 changes 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 or a discrete GPU rather than integrated graphics (these are the best ones). In those scenarios, Intel typically dominate in gaming performance due to how 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 — specifically its latest Ryzen CPUs — are excellent contenders, however. The  3900X and 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. Alongside our Ryzen 3900X review, look out for more coverage of AMD’s latest gaming chips in the months to come.

This makes recommending Intel for gaming harder now than in the past. If you only game, then Intel’s 9700K and 9900K are the best CPUs you can buy.

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 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 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 recently 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 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 will need to lower its 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, 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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