Despite the unified front when discussing the Console War, PC users can be a contentious bunch. This is nothing new — for the past twenty years, there’s been a bitter cold war between adherents of the major hardware brands. Back in the day, it used to be ATI and Nvidia on the graphics side of things, and for CPUs, there were two major players: AMD and Intel.
It’s easy to see that the cold war still rages today, with AMD vs. Intel as the headlining fight. AMD’s acquisition of ATI in 2006 only added gasoline to the fire. For adherents on both sides, it’s not enough that we’re playing the same games. It’s how we play them that makes all the difference.
Let’s dig into the ongoing rivalry between AMD and Intel as we determine once and for all which chip manufacturer reigns supreme.
Perhaps you recall the Age of Athlon and Pentium. When graphics cards were shifting from optional to essential components, and average polygon counts for games were still in the hundreds. Our rivalry begins then, in the hazy twilight years before Far Cry would debut in 2004 and prove the power of the GPU. Many games of the late 90s still included software rendering options, where the game would be wholly drawn on the CPU. That took some muscle even then. So when the topic of AMD vs. Intel arose, there were plenty of heated discussions. Some things never change.
In the early 00s, the AMD Athlon and the Intel Pentium 4 fought on the frontlines for market share. Measuring clock speed in GHz was still relatively new, and DDR2 memory was blistering fast. Why does this matter? As we said, some things never change. Like war — specifically processor war.
When you needed to build a new rig for Counter-Strike or Return to Castle Wolfenstein, you took a trip to the nearest electronics superstore and browsed the shelves. There you’d find rows upon rows of CPUs in bright, shiny boxes, with AMD and Intel logos featured prominently. But to the discerning buyer, there was one key difference that set the two apart: AMD was cheaper than Intel.
Cheaper means slower, right? “You get what you pay for,” after all. And in 2004, you’d have been spot on the money. AMD chips were considered to be budget processors, offering a lower buy-in price and lower clock speeds in the bargain. Not to mention they tended to have thermal management issues (read: they got hot in a hurry). If you had the scratch to ante up, you’d spring for the Intel Pentium chip, and bask in the glory of maxing out Quake III Arena.
But then Far Cry showed up on the scene and changed everything overnight. Now the graphics card in your rig did more than add some frills to games that ran fine on your CPU. It became a true necessity.
Looking back, it was at this point when the CPU/GPU tag team became central in the fight for personal computing supremacy. For those paying attention, AMD’s acquisition of ATI made perfect sense. It was no longer a one-processor-show any longer.
But meanwhile, Intel still ruled the roost, so AMD bided their time. They researched, developed, and formed a robust ecosystem that included CPU and GPU in symbiosis. Now let’s catch up to the modern era and scout out the battle lines.
Same Stuff, Different Day
AMD announced their Ryzen line of CPUs on December 13th, 2016 — and for the first time, Intel’s smirk faded ever so slightly.
While AMD still offered the cheaper chips on the block, they were no longer the bargain bin write-off Intel and the rest of the PC world had… well, written them off as. Ryzen chips brought plenty of firepower, with more cores and higher clock speeds than AMD had ever fielded. Despite some compatibility issues with RAM early on, the Ryzen series can now stand toe-to-toe with Intel’s best on any given day. Thinking fast, Intel released their Intel Core i9 processor series in May of 2017, refusing to be outdone and asserting that they still had the most powerful chip on the market. But the damage was done, and AMD proved that there was plenty of fight left in them.
History lesson aside, the question remains: is AMD or Intel superior? The stats have the story.
Both AMD and Intel split their processor lines into four key tiers. For AMD, you have the Ryzen 3, the Ryzen 5, the Ryzen 7, and the recently released Ryzen 9, in escalating order of potency. Likewise, Intel offers the i3, i5, and i7, and the i9. An easy way to label these tiers is to consider them entry-level (3), mid-range (5), premium (7), and extreme (9).
AMD Ryzen Series
- Ryzen 3
- Ryzen 5
- Ryzen 7
- Ryzen 9
Each approximately equivalent chip would warrant its own benchmark and comparison score. Frankly, that’s out of the scope of this piece. So we’ll be making some broad generalizations from publicly available benchmarks and scoring metrics.
Just as before, across all tiers, AMD has the price advantage over Intel. And in case the top-tier stock coolers didn’t tip you off, AMD still runs hot relative to the competition. In terms of raw performance, Intel still offers you the best CPU for overclocking, as well as the highest framerates in modern games (when paired with a good GPU or playing CPU-intensive games).
That’s not the whole story, though.
The power gap between AMD and Intel has narrowed dramatically in recent years. The average performance across most games is tightly clustered, with the high-end Intel chips edging out the competition — but only just. They’re all firmly in the “playable” realm above 60 frames-per-second (again, when paired with a good GPU), and the 99th percentile shows that they even fall within just a few FPS of each other.
The story is the same across most modern games. And bear in mind: you could potentially save hundreds of dollars by opting for the AMD Ryzen chip instead of the equivalent Intel Core i-Series chip. Is an average gain of 10 FPS worth another $100 or so dollars when building your rig? Perhaps. It comes down to your budget, your preferred games, and whether you’d like to put more money into the rest of your rig (GPU or otherwise) instead of your CPU. Frankly, an extra $100 could go farther if invested into your GPU.
Why Not Both? Because Someone Has to Win
Unlike decades past, where there was a clear winner in the battle between AMD and Intel, the battle lines have grown hazy. PC builders today have more options than ever before. Now they have the freedom to choose whether they want cutting-edge performance or simply exceptional performance with a few extra dollars in their pocket. And in a market this competitive, the real winners are the end-users.
It’s clear that Intel still holds the lead, however slight, in raw performance. Cooling is a universal concern now as folks look to overclock and squeeze every last cycle out of their CPUs. While AMD may run hotter on average, Intel isn’t exempt from the need for thermal management. There’s even growing evidence that the latest Intel chips run as hot if not hotter than AMDs under load. Take from that what you will.
On price, AMD is the clear leader. They’ve always had the best budget CPUs, but now you get a lot more performance for your dollar. And when there’s so much going into a good computer build these days, every dollar counts. Your dollars may find a better return on investment elsewhere in your rig.
All things considered, and without the cheap cop-out of saying, “everyone wins,” who ends up on top in this era of computing — AMD or Intel?
For most users, the answer is clear: AMD. That’s not to say Intel doesn’t have its place. It may be the chip of choice for top-shelf computers to this day. But for the vast majority of gamers out there — especially players looking to pinch pennies — AMD is going to be the CPU to beat. And with every new generation of Ryzen processors continuing to push performance even further, they may own the title for years to come.
High Ground View
The power gap between AMD and Intel has narrowed in recent years. AMD remains the cheaper option, while Intel has the advantage (however slight) in performance under most circumstances. Heat is still a concern with AMD, but Intel isn’t putting out the coolest chips on the block anymore. All things considered, AMD is the winner in this era of desktop CPUs.
- Great price
- Performance better than ever
- Heat is still a concern
- Lower high-end performance
- Best CPUs on the market in terms of raw performance
- With the i9, you have more options to suit your specific build
- Price is still the highest
- Minimal performance advantage