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August 11, 2017

AMD vs Intel: Does Threadripper mean it’s time to root for the underdog?

by John_A

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?

Yes,  like Apple vs Microsoft or Quake vs Unreal Tournament, AMD vs Intel is one of the great debates for PC users. 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.

Intel vs AMD: Value

With cost being such a major factor in PC building, choosing the right CPU often comes down to finding the one that offers the best bang for your buck. Just looking at price, AMD’s chips are generally cheaper than comparable Intel chips. Low-end, dual-core AMD Sempron, Athlon, or A-series dual-core processors start at about $30. In comparison, a low-end Intel chip, like the G3930 dual-core processor will cost around $40.

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.

This is the typical scenario that most PC enthusiasts have been used to for the better part of a decade, but AMD’s new Ryzen CPUs shook up that formula when they debuted early in 2017. At the top of the consumer-focused end of AMD’s spectrum, the new Ryzen 7 1800X stands out. It’s an eight-core behemoth with a turbo-clock of 4.0 GHz, and even for $460, it’s among the least expensive eight-core processors on the market today. The Ryzen 7 1700 is even more affordable, at $300. In comparison, Intel’s most affordable octo-core costs $600.

Although not aimed at most consumers, new Intel Core i9 and AMD Threadripper CPUs offer even more performance and continue to shake up the traditional bang for buck dynamic of the processor market. Intel’s currently available i9-7900X offers 10 cores, with 20 threads, and a boosted core clock that maxes out at 4.3GHz. Its price tag is set at $1,000.

In comparison, AMD’s previewed Threadripper 1950X has 16 cores with 32 threads and a boosted core clock that reaches 4.2GHz with extended frequency range (XFR) overclocking. Its price is also $1,000. More cores at the same price gives AMD the edge in most scenarios.

What does all that mean for you? In short, it means that the age old Intel vs AMD contest is much more competitive than it’s been in years and offers much more choice for the consumer. Both companies are producing processors that are 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 is compensating with more cores at a given price.

Intel vs AMD: Gaming

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 video cards in that respect.

That said, those who take their gaming seriously don’t tend to use on integrated graphics, they use an add-in graphics card. In those scenarios, Intel tends to win out in gaming performance because of the way the two chip giants build their processors. AMD’s chips, and specifically its latest Ryzen CPUs, are excellent at multi-threaded scenarios and good at running applications that support multiple cores. Intel’s chips almost offer the reverse of that, losing out in heavy multi-threaded settings, but excelling in more restricted thread settings.

Games, although much more multi-threaded today than they were in the past, still rarely use more than two to four threads, which typically gives Intel the edge — even with Ryzen’s optimizations.

That gap is less pronounced than it used to be thanks to improvements in the new Ryzen architecture though. 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 Core i7 averaged 110 FPS.

As for Threadripper and Core i9 — there, too, Intel has a small edge. With that said, we wouldn’t recommend either for a gaming system. Games don’t benefit from the extremely high core counts in these processors.

Ultimately, Intel chips tend to be better for gaming of today. That doesn’t mean you should count AMD out, though. It does have processors that can be a great gaming value. The Ryzen 5 chips stand out, in particular. Check out our Ryzen processor buying guide for details, including benchmarks.

Remember, though — the CPU is rarely the limiting factor in games. Springing out for a more powerful graphics card — if you can find one at a good price — will usually yield better results than doing so for a more powerful processor.

Intel vs AMD: Overclocking

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. Boost clocks offer temporary performance gains under specific scenarios, but if you delve into the realm of manual ‘overclocking’ you can net yourself a nice bump in performance, too.

Overclocking a processor is straightforward, depending on your chosen method, but not every processor can do it. 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. If you opt for an Intel CPU, look out for those with a “K” or “X” after their name. In comparison, all of AMD’s Ryzen chips support it — though not all have full support for the automated overclocking, XFR feature.

Overclocking, in general, is very much dependent on the chips themselves . 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 octo-core processor. The more mid-range 1700 and 1700X chips, however, are said to be much better overclockers.

Intel’s latest generation chips that do allow overclocking are a little more even in their potential, though their maximum is very much down to luck, as some chips can go further than others. You’ll also need decent cooling for most overclocking scenarios.

If you’re buying a chip exclusively to overclock it, then Intel’s higher-end solutions have a more established overclocking scene. Ryzen and Threadripper chips have strong potential too, though, and with a host of new memory options, may be more suited for those looking to deep dive into pushing their chip to its maximum. And you can overclock affordable AMD chips, while most affordable Intel chips don’t offer that option.

AMD vs Intel: 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 at the mid-range and lower-end of the spectrum, do tend to offer slightly better value than Intel’s. Conversely, Intel chips have stronger single core and gaming performance than even AMD’s best Threadripper CPUs. In return, those looking to use applications with a heavier multi-threaded focus, should derive more benefit from a modern AMD CPU.

When it comes to choosing your next upgrade, looking at the individual performance numbers of the chip you have your eye on is still your best bet, but considering these general guidelines will give you a good foundation of where to start. Thanks to Ryzen’s leapfrogging of previous AMD chips in terms of power and value, this is the most competitive the CPU market has been in years.

Arguably, Intel is still the safe bet, especially for gamers, but AMD’s alternatives are more viable than ever. If you’ve got deep pockets too, its Threadripper chips are incredibly powerful, so keep your eyes peeled on upcoming benchmarks.

AMD’s older FX and A-Series chips, meanwhile, are not competitive with Intel, and at this point never will be. So if you’re looking to older generations of hardware for whatever reason, our Intel recommendation is far more firm.




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