Choosing a Central Processing Unit (CPU) is perhaps the most significant decision you can make when purchasing a new laptop or PC. While you can quickly get lost in the technical details of CPU benchmarks, specifications, and architectures, your choice of manufacturers is a binary one: AMD vs Intel®.
Statistics show that AMD and Intel combine for effectively the entirety of the global x86 CPU market. The two companies have been locked in competition for so long that they have developed loyal fanbases online, the red team (AMD) and blue team (Intel) named after the colour of each company's logo.
However, the vast majority of us are not wedded to a particular CPU manufacturer. Therefore, choosing between AMD vs Intel comes down to our specific needs and budget. So, let's break down the key differences between AMD and Intel CPUs and help you find the best processor for you.
What is a CPU?
Before we go any further, though, let's quickly explain what a CPU is.
The CPU is the core component within the computer responsible for executing instructions. It is often referred to as the computer's brain, performing the actual computations to run all of its software and interact with hardware.
A CPU is a silicon chip built of billions and billions of tiny transistors rapidly flipping back and forth between 0 and 1, crunching the numbers to get a computer to respond to the user's input, output results, and write data to the computer's memory and storage. The calculations performed by the CPU translate into essentially everything you do with your device, whether it’s watching a video, writing an email or browsing the internet for a new CPU.
In all these instances, the CPU takes instructions from various pieces of software (video player, email client, web browser, etc.) and outputs the desired response. If you're on a windows laptop or desktop and want to know what your CPU is doing right now, press "CTRL" + "SHIFT" + "ESC" to open the task manager. You'll see a list of all the processes currently running along with their CPU usage (%).
The exact design of CPU chips defines how it operates. Both AMD and Intel's research and development teams are always looking for new and improved ways to pack more transistors into a smaller space and boost computation power.
Each CPU comprises multiple cores, allowing it to focus on more than one task at a time. Therefore the more cores a CPU has, the more powerful it is. In addition, many processors also utilise multithreading that further splits individual cores into virtual ones that can work on multiple processes simultaneously.
Nowadays, there are also different types of CPU cores, including E cores (efficiency) and P cores (Performance). CPUs require a lot of power to run. This eats into battery life and can cause overheating issues (no one like a loud fan). To better trade-off these factors against overall performance, modern CPUs can utilise E cores for low computing power, often background applications, and leave P cores for intensive processes.
The overall performance of a CPU is measured by "clock speed." This parameter measured in gigahertz (GHz) tells you how many operations, or calculations, a processor can perform each second.
Sometimes seen as the underdog in the industry, AMD began life as a licensed chip manufacturer for larger companies, including Intel. However, in the early 2000s, AMD started to make a name for itself by releasing its own CPUs and growing its market share, particularly with the RyzenTM range.
AMD Ryzen, based on its Zen architecture, was first released in 2017 and quickly became a popular CPU option. There are now four generations of Ryzen:
Ryzen 3 – AMD's most affordable range with up to 4-core processors
Ryzen 5 – a great trade-off between performance and price with up to 6-core processors
Ryzen 7 – high power CPUs with up to 8-core processors
Ryzen 9 – top of the range CPUs with up to 16-core processors
When comparing processors, the largest barrier is often getting your head around AMD and Intel's naming conventions. When purchasing one of the four Ryzen generations, you will also be met with a model number, for example, AMD Ryzen 9 5950X.
While it is a simplification, generally, the higher the model number, the faster the CPU is. The first digit of the model number corresponds with its series and the architecture it is based on:
2000 series Zen+ processors first released in 2018
3000 series Zen 2 processors first released in 2019
5000 series Zen 3 processors first released in 2020
Additional suffixes following the model number offer further information. For example, "G" means the CPU includes Vega video processing, and "X" means it is a slightly faster version of the model.
The Ryzen 9 generation is not the fastest AMD offers. They also have a line of AMD Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, which AMD calls the most powerful desktop processor in the world with 64 cores and 128 threads.
The chips are also much larger in size to pack the extra power in. Ryzen Threadripper chips are only really for creative professionals who need tremendous power for high-core count applications, like video editing and rendering.
The older and larger company of the two, Intel has been around since 1968 and is the largest semiconductor company in the world by revenue. While Intel has been making processors for over 50 years, its range now comes down to four main brands:
Core i3 – a significant step up from previous Pentium processors. Core i3 processors offer a great mix of price and performance with between 2 and 4 cores.
Core i5 – a jump in quality that allows users to dip their toes into intensive processes, such as photo or video editing. Available with up to 6 cores.
Core i7 – high-performance processors for intensive workloads. Available with up to 10 cores.
Core i9 – Intel's top processor range, generally meant for specialist machines required to perform challenging tasks. Available with up to 16 cores.
Again, to know what you're looking at, you need to go beyond the brand and learn the naming conventions for the specific series and models.
Intel processor names look something like "Core i5-1145G7." The first two digits after the hyphen are the generation number. Therefore, the example above is the 11th generation. Each generation also has a codename. The latest 12th generation chips are known as "Alder Lake."
The following two digits are the position in the range, and bigger is better. Finally, the suffix tells you additional information. For example, the "G7" from above means that the processor has a built-in graphics chip. However, there are a range of other suffixes corresponding to different capabilities, such as "T" for smaller chips with slightly lower clock speeds and "K" for higher performance with a small increase in clock speed.
Comparing processors – AMD vs Intel
In the 2010s, Intel's Core series became the dominant CPUs on the market. However, AMD has made an impressive comeback with Ryzen. The best AMD Ryzen processors could go head-to-head with Intel, often coming out on top.
But a company as big as Intel isn't going to stay quiet for long, recently releasing the new Alder Lake 12th generation CPUs. So now the question remains AMD Ryzen or Intel, which is better?
Looking at pure processing power, Intel's Alder Lake now sets the standard. However, the top-end clock speeds are only relevant for people needing the best performance possible, regardless of price. The question of Ryzen vs Intel is more nuanced and depends on user requirements, budget and value for money.
When you compare CPU ranges, AMD has had a strong case for offering the best value at budget-friendly prices. AMD also has advantages with respect to overclocking its models and board compatibility. AMD’s chips come with the AM4 CPU socket, which is compatible with most motherboards.
In comparison, many Intel CPUs require purchasing newer, more expensive motherboards in order to overclock, which can increase your outlay significantly.
When you look through the two companies' CPU ranges and compare equivalent chips, generally speaking, the AMD Ryzen comes at a slightly lower price. However, this gap has narrowed considerably, and prices vary greatly depending on the seller. As a result, it is now not unusual to also see an AMD chip going for more than the Intel equivalent.
Going back to the top end, even if you consider the cost of a new motherboard, Intel’s Alder Lake CPUs still outperform the best Ryzen chips on value (performance per £).
For laptop CPUs, Intel has a significant lead compared to AMD. While you can find AMD laptops, given Intel’s more extensive portfolio, it is more common to find laptops with Intel processors of various generations, often combined with integrated graphics.
So which processor is best for laptops in terms of performance?
Again, the 12th generation Alder Lake Intel CPUs take the prize. Looking at CPU benchmark tests, the best processor for laptops are currently:
Intel Core i7-12800HX
Intel Core i9-12900HX
Intel Core i9-12950HX
While Intel currently has the most powerful CPUs, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many great AMD options. Both companies have an excellent range of laptop options, and it is essential to look into the specifications you need to handle your specific needs.
Until you get to the high end, many AMD and Intel chips have equivalent performance for the same price.
Both Intel and AMD have been doing this for a long time, and with a little bit of investigation, you can find the perfect CPU for your needs at a reasonable price point. However, if you're looking for the best performance available, Intel currently holds the crown.
But the CPU market is never static, and both companies are continually working on their next-generation chips. The Intel Raptor Lake and AMD Zen 4 processors are set to launch in 2022, ensuring that the AMD vs Intel battle will likely continue.
About the Author: Arthur Smalley is a science and technology writer based in the UK.
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