Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
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. There are hundreds, even thousands, of different components to choose from, but the first and most important question you should ask yourself is a simple one: AMD or Intel?
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, however, so let’s dig into the details to find out which one would be the best choice for your new PC.
Okay, which company is going to give you the best bang for your buck? Well, that depends on how you look at it. Just looking at price, 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.
You’ll find similar pricing as you climb the performance ladder, with Intel’s offerings almost always coming in a little higher than AMD’s — and providing a bit of extra power.
So what about the new Ryzen chips? That’s where things get interesting — the typical Intel-AMD dynamic flips around. At the top-end of the AMD spectrum, the new Ryzen 7 1800X stands out. It’s an eight-core behemoth clocked at 3.6 GHz, and even for $500, it’s among the least expensive eight-core processors on the market today. The Ryzen 7 1700 is even more affordable, at $329.
By comparison, Intel’s octa-cores typically retail for upwards of $1,000, but the direct competition to the Ryzen lineup is Intel’s 7th-generation Core i7 lineup. The Intel Core i7-7700K is a quad-core processor clocked at 4.2 GHz, with a retail price of around $350. Nonetheless, it keeps up with the Ryzen 7 1800X in most of our tests.
Looking at single-core performance, the i7-7700K scored 5482 on Geekbench while the Ryzen 7 1800X scored 4289. Multi-core performance is a slightly different story, with the Ryzen 7 1800X scoring 20,385, to the i7-7700K’s 17,782.
What does that mean for you? In short, it means AMD and Intel are relatively competitive for the first time in several years, which is great news for users. Both companies are producing processors that are within striking distance of one another on nearly every front — price, power, and performance.
Gaming is one area where picking a CPU can get tricky. 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 par with AMD’s Radeon.
But here’s the catch — AMD chips aren’t as quick as Intel’s, and that can drag high-end gaming down. Intel’s i5 and i7 CPUs can take significantly better advantage of a high-end graphics card if you’re working with a bigger budget. The difference between an AMD processor and a similarly priced Intel Core i3 or i5 can be as high as 30 or 40 frames per second if you have a very high-end graphics card.
AMD’s Ryzen processors soften that blow somewhat, according to our tests, but the Intel Core i7-7700K still outperforms the Ryzen 7 1800X even when paired with the same exact graphics cards. We saw a net loss of about 10 FPS when running Civilization VI‘s internal benchmark on the Ryzen 7 1800X, compared to the i7-7700K. The gap narrowed when running a more graphically-demanding game like For Honor, with the Ryzen CPU providing an average of 109 FPS, while the Intel i7 averaged 110 FPS.
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.
More than gaming
Anyone looking to pick one of the two brands is, more than likely, building a gaming PC. But there’s a lot more to choosing a processor than just fun and games, and overclocking is one of the big features that come with enthusiast CPUs.
One of the first figures you might look at to compare one processor to another is its clock speed — 2.7GHz, 4.5GHz, etc. 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 knowhow and cooling hardware.
Users looking to get more performance out of their CPU sometimes perform a tweak to the processor known as “overclocking,” which increases the CPU’s clock speed above the base rate.
Overclocking a processor is pretty straightforward, if tedious, but first you need a processor capable of being overclocked. Most CPUs ship with “locked” multipliers, which prevent users from overclocking them.
Luckily, both Intel and AMD offer unlocked CPUs at a variety of price points, but AMD has a reputation for being more overclock-friendly. AMD offers more mid-range chips capable of being overclocked than Intel does, which reserves its unlocked chips for the higher-end of the price spectrum.
Here, again, Ryzen flips the typical Intel-AMD dynamic. In our tests, the Ryzen 7 1800X performed well after an overclock, but we weren’t able to squeeze too much extra power out of AMD’s latest octa-core processor.
Still, all Ryzen processors are unlocked. Those looking to overclock merely need to buy a enthusiast-grade X370 chipset. That provides a broader range of options for overclockers than you’ll find with Intel, even if it seems Ryzen chips have less overclocking headroom.
The bottom line
Let’s be honest. During an everyday workload, a top-end AMD chip and a top-end Intel chip won’t produce radically different outcomes. There will be some variation in gaming performance, and overall performance, but not enough of a margin that you’d notice while you’re surfing the web or doing day-to-day tasks — and that’s kind of a big deal.
There’s a tremendous gulf between Intel and AMD, and it’s most abundantly clear in each company’s respective research and development budget. Intel’s R&D budget is around $3.28 billion per quarter, while AMD’s is around $264 million per quarter. So, over the course of a year, AMD will spend around one third of what Intel spends in a single quarter on CPU development.
Despite this disparity, however, AMD’s Ryzen chips and Intel’s 7th-generation Kaby Lake chips are on a fairly even playing field for the first time in a long time. In the past few years, it’s been easy to point at Intel’s offerings and say that they’re the better value, because they were. But now that’s not so certain, and both chipmakers are offering really comparable, compelling products.
With AMD’s Ryzen chips, we finally have a real competition on our hands, and even Intel would seem to agree. Shortly after news of Ryzen’s impending release, Intel slashed prices up and down its processor lineup. It’s just an early example of how competition between AMD and Intel is a good thing for users, no matter which company you happen to prefer.
So the bottom line is this: Intel is still the safe bet, but if you’re feeling adventurous, AMD’s latest Ryzen chips are an appealing choice, and they are of particular use to people who want an affordable, octo-core processor for workstation work.
AMD’s older FX and A-Series chips, meanwhile, are not competitive with Intel, and never will be. AMD plans to replace those chips with more affordable versions of Ryzen.