Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Building a PC can be a complicated process, especially if you’re inexperienced, considering that there are an endless combination of parts that you could use to put a system together. There’s the issue of picking a set of components that are all compatible with one another, along with other factors that you need to weigh, including price, needs and more.
When it comes to CPUs, you have one of two firms to choose from: AMD and Intel. These companies make virtually all of the world’s desktop PC CPUs, but that’s where the similarities between the two firms end, for the most part. So, should you go for an AMD or Intel CPU when building your PC?
Here, we’ll shed some light on the differences between Intel’s and AMD’s CPU offerings, which will help you make an informed decision when it comes to picking out a processor.
Both companies offer processors at a wide range of price points, but AMD chips are available for less. The least expensive AMD Sempron, Athlon, and A-Series dual-core processors sell start at $30. Intel’s Celeron G1820 dual-core is $45. That doesn’t necessarily mean AMD chips are a better value, however. Reviewers have generally found that Intel provides superior compute performance per dollar, even at the low end of the market. You’ll generally receive a better processor for your money buy purchasing a Celeron, Pentium or Core product.
There two important exceptions to this. AMD sells quads for far less than Intel — you can pick up an A6-5400K with four cores for just $45. In theory, you might be better off with AMD if you use software that benefits from many cores, but can’t afford a $180 Core i5 quad.
AMD chips also tend to offer better integrated graphics at any given price point. The AMD A10-7870K, for example, can play most games at low to medium detail and 1080p resolution. It’s no gaming powerhouse, but it greatly exceeds the performance of any Intel HD Graphics solution, so you might be better off with AMD if you need to play League of Legends on a budget.
Most CPUs have a fixed clock speed, and they’re typically set at a level which ensures that they’ll remain stable while performing optimally. 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.
AMD supports overclocking most consistently than Intel. AMD A-Series APUs offer the feature for as little as $45, and there are multiple AMD chips with an unlocked multiplier under $100. Intel offers only one budget overclocking option, the Pentium G3258, at $70. It’s well-equipped for the task though, as many samples overclock from the base clock of 3.2GHz up to around 4.5GHz.
Intel doesn’t really offer overclocking in mid-range chips, while AMD does. Whether that makes AMD the better choice if you’re willing to overclock is arguable, and depends both on how much effort you’re willing to put into overclocking, and the workload your system will run.
There are several high-end Intel chips with overclocking, some offering eight or ten physical cores. These chips are quicker than anything AMD can offer at stock clocks, so when overclocked they indisputably dominate. You can’t buy anything quicker for home use.
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.
As such, we don’t recommend buying an AMD processor if high-end gaming is your goal.
AMD’s struggle to keep up with Intel is actually worse than it first appears. The company has managed to stay somewhat competitive, but to do so its processors must consume far more power.
Intel’s Pentiun G3258, for example, is rated with a Thermal Design Power of 53 watts. AMD’s A6-7400K, which is priced similarly, has 65-watt TDP. Even so, reviews have found the Pentium chip is quicker by most performance metrics, and sometimes by a substantial margin.
With a desktop, this means the Intel chip will perform better while using less power. This is unlikely to have be noticeable on your power bill, but the AMD desktop will produce more noise and heat.
If you’re looking at a laptop, the efficiency gap is important because it will impact battery life. Intel-powered systems tend to last far longer on a charge. This weakness has nearly pushed AMD out of the laptop market altogether. The company’s APUs are rarely found in systems sold above $500, and we wouldn’t recommend buying an expensive AMD-powered laptop if you find one.
The bottom line
AMD and Intel have battled for two decades, but in recent years the battle has become a bit one-sided. New Pentium and Core chips have slowly edged out AMD at a variety of price points.
If you have a high budget, then Intel is obviously the way to go. This remains true until your budget falls low enough that the cheapest Core i5 quad is no longer an option for you. AMD just can’t compete with Intel’s best.
Those on a budget should give AMD’s chips a look. They offer more cores and better integrated graphics for those who have less than $180 to spend on a processor. These traits can make up for AMD’s inferior per-core performance in certain workloads. For example, the A10-7870K tends to encode video faster than similarly priced Intel Core i3 chips. It also offers far superior graphics performance if a discrete video card is not a possibility.
Intel chips are far more power efficient, so they tend to produce less noise and heat. Those traits can be important for a family PC, and if you’re looking at a laptop, Intel’s greater efficiency means better battery life.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel for AMD fans. The company’s new Zen architecture is expected in early 2017, and the information we know so far seems promising. If you prefer to buy AMD, it’s worth waiting to see how Zen performs.
So, the bottom line is this: Intel is generally superior. There are situations where AMD makes sense, but the company has been reduced to depending on niche scenarios. If you can’t make up your mind, go Intel. It’s likely the better choice for you.