Intel vs AMD: which processor is best?

29th Sep 2014 | 15:20

Intel vs AMD: which processor is best?

Your CPU is your PC's brain, so make sure you choose the right processor

Buying a desktop computer can be a lengthy process involving many complex decisions, but none come with quite as much jargon as figuring out the best CPU.

Before you know it, you're drowning in talk of cores and clock speeds, socket types and chipsets, Piledriver, Steamroller and more.

While you'll need to consider at least some of these issues, there's an easier way to approach your purchasing problems. And that's to ignore the technical detail, just for the moment, and focus first on a more fundamental question: Intel vs AMD, which processors are the best for you?

You'll probably find that answering this question is much more straightforward. And once you've made your choice, many other decisions about your new PC will fall into place, saving you plenty of time.

Intel vs AMD: Intel CPUs

If performance is top of your priorities (and you can afford the price tag) then Intel processors are a good choice. Don't take our word for it, just check out high-end systems like the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro, Palicomp Hydro-780 or Dell's monster Precision T7610: it's almost always Intel inside.

The difference can be marginal, though, depending on what you're trying to do. You may struggle to notice much difference in gaming performance, and if you're planning to overclock your chosen CPU – and your target applications make good use of multiple cores – then AMD may sometimes offer equivalent or better speeds for much less cash.

Intel's Core M (or "Broadwell") family isn't expected to bring any major changes in single core performance, either. If anything, it could deliver less than the move to Haswell, with a barely noticeable 5% speed increase.

The real gain this time will come from the move to a 14nm manufacturing process, cutting power requirements by as much as 30%, allowing for fanless tablets less than 8mm thick and yet another leap in battery life.

Fanless PC reference

The major performance increase could be in graphics, thanks to 20% more execution units (although new 4K support will probably soak up most of that). We'll find out for sure as the various Broadwell CPUs arrive throughout the first half of 2015 (see: Broadwell vs Haswell: What's New?).

Core M

Intel's latest technologies could make a real difference to mobile devices, then. But if you're looking for a desktop solution which delivers great performance, without having to face the massive price premium of Intel's high-end chips, then the company's Core i5 products are still where some of its best deals are to be found.

Intel vs AMD: the AMD competition

While Intel hopes to see big gains from the move to a 14nm process, AMD (still at 28nm, with 20nm cores likely in 2015) is taking an entirely different path, reworking their CPUs to deliver something new: Kaveri.

Kaveri

The big change is support for Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA for short), which is all about more tightly integrating CPU and GPU cores. In particular, the old division of memory – CPUs had one block, GPUs another, and they were handled in very different ways – is replaced by a tidy new scheme (hUMA) where everyone shares the same RAM access, queuing and execution rights.

HSA

What this means is that each CPU and graphics core in a Kaveri chip can now be running a separate process, in its own memory space, independent from the others. It's a new way of doing things which AMD says requires a brand new term, "compute cores", to help compare them properly. Kaveri's A10-7850K with 4 CPU and 8 GPU cores can now be considered to have twelve "compute cores", for example (an AMD white paper [PDF] explains more).

Kaveri 2

But this is just the start. Kaveri's Steamroller CPU cores are 10% faster for single-threaded tasks, maybe twice that when multi-threading, enhanced GCN (Graphics Core Next) cores deliver even better graphics performance, and support for AMD's Mantle (a faster alternative to DirectX for GCN adapters) should accelerate your gaming even more.

It's not yet clear how this will play out. HSA in particular shows real potential, but it doesn't just "work". Software needs to be written to take full advantage of it. That's going to take time – and even then, HSA isn't just an AMD technology, there's nothing to stop Intel adding HSA support to its own products.

Still, Kaveri is a notable step forward for AMD, and a real improvement on its previous technology. It's not an Intel beater – yet – but the design is even now a genuine competitor for Intel in some areas.

Intel vs AMD: which is best?

We've looked at the two companies, then – but which is best? Of course, it all depends on what you're looking for.

At the low end of the market, where price is key, a dual-core system may have to do. Intel's Celeron G1840 is a very basic two-core, two-thread CPU, but it's also a Haswell chip at only £33 (around US$54, AU$61). AMD's A6 5400K is another interesting budget option: weaker as a processor, but with decent integrated HD 7540D graphics considering the £40 (around US$65, AU$74) price tag.

Move into the budget gaming market and the AMD FX-6300 is a great product. Six Piledriver cores deliver excellent multithreaded performance, it's seriously overclockable, and the end result delivers close to Intel i3 speed for less money – it's under £80 (around US$130, AU$148) right now.

Alternatively, the mid-range Kaveri chip A8-7600 already delivers excellent graphics performance along with minimal power requirements for a mere £75 (around US$122, AU$139), and some people will see it get even faster as HSA and Mantle take off.

Excellent single-core performance does mean that many regular desktop systems will generally be better off with an Intel processor, though. If you can live without overclocking then the Core i5-4570 delivers something close to the power of a Core i7 for a much lower price – around £145 (around US$235, AU$270) – although beware: hyper-threading is disabled.

If that's not enough then the unlocked Devil's Canyon include the Core i5-4690K (£160, which is around US$260, AU$295), while its companion Core i7-4790K is a quad-core, eight-thread chip with a standard speed of 4GHz (4.4GHz boost), great news if you can live with the £270 (around US$440, AU$500) price tag.

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