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Your computer’s CPU performance is vital to your productivity, gaming, entertainment, and everything in between. And when it comes to modern CPUs, there are only two dominant forces you need to know about: Intel and AMD.
In fact, if you head out to buy a new desktop right now, there’s a very strong chance you’ll come home with an Intel or AMD system. But if these two CPU manufacturers dominate the market, how do you rightly choose between them? Here’s what you need to know.
The CPU Kings: AMD Ryzen and Intel Coffee Lake
The big debate is currently between AMD’s well-received Ryzen CPU architecture and AM4 chipset, and Intel’s Coffee Lake and 300 Series chipset. These represent the latest and greatest in desktop CPU technology.
Want an easy (and vastly oversimplified) way to summarize the AMD vs. Intel CPU battleground?
AMD CPUs have long focused on packing in CPU cores, bringing theoretical gains in multi-threading performance, while Intel focused on high clock-speed and individual core efficiency. For a long time, Intel dominated AMD in the CPU market. But the introduction of the long-awaited Ryzen architecture brought AMD back to the forefront as a competitive force.
AMD vs. Intel: CPU Performance
One of the first metrics you should consider is performance. How much power is that shiny new Ryzen or Coffee Lake CPU packing under the hood?
Reviewers and salespeople tend to jump to the clock speed and number of cores as the basic CPU power measurement. They’re not wrong, but that doesn’t give you the entire CPU power picture. Consider:
- Clock speed: Clock speed refers to how many processing cycles the CPU completes per second.
- Cores: The number of physical cores the CPU has. More cores mean more processing power.
- Instructions per second: How many millions of instructions can the processor handle?
- Cache: Large CPU caches allow for the storage of information accessed frequently.
- Front Side Bus: The front side bus allows the CPU to communicate with the rest of your system and needs to run at a similar speed.
Another important performance metric is the CPU generation. Comparing CPUs across different manufacturing and technology generations is difficult because while the numerical representation of CPU performance remains similar, the underlying technology is different. Some estimates put the generational CPU performance difference as high as 20 percent (in favor of the newer generation).
With this in mind, AMD and Intel CPU generations don’t completely sync. The Ryzen 1st generation hit the market before Intel’s Coffee Lake, and now Ryzen’s 2nd generation is on the market without a direct Intel competitor. Intel Cannon Lake, the next CPU generation, is expected to arrive in the latter half of 2018.
Accordingly, the following specs include both Ryzen CPU generations alongside Intel’s Coffee Lake, where possible. (The entry-level Ryzen 1300 series CPU doesn’t have a 2nd generation model yet.)
AMD Ryzen 2 CPU Features
The Ryzen 2 CPU generation brings a few new features to the architecture that give it a significant boost. In fact, the Ryzen 2 generation is better than its Intel 8thgeneration Coffee Lake counterpart in many ways—but crucially, not all.
AMD’s senior product manager, James Prior, says the AMD Ryzen 2nd generation is “not an area statement, it’s a power efficiency statement. The area is not going to change much, but the ability for us to manipulate the frequency-voltage curve has improved.”
The performance-per-watt of the CPUs receives an extra boost using AMD AM4 chipset features such as Precision Boost 2 and Extended Frequency Range 2 (XFR2). You can read more about Precision Boost 2 and XFR2 below.
The AMD Ryzen 2nd generation also comes to your system with a brand-new stock cooler designed to maximize those Precision Boost 2 and XFR2 turbo performances gains. The Wraith Stealth, Spire, Max, and Prism availability depends on the Ryzen 2 CPU you purchase (but many of them have exciting user-controlled flashing LEDs!).
Precision Boost, Precision Boost 2, and XFR2 Explained
An AMD processor and motherboard recognizes when the CPU has extra capacity during intensive processes. The CPU frequency rises until it hits the maximum (turbo) frequency, or the power or temperature threshold. When Precision Boost hits the limit, it attempts to maintain the peak by adjusting in 25MHz intervals.
Precision Boost implements this in “two-core boost” or “all-core boost” modes, with the two-core boost providing a larger performance boost. For example, this is how Precision Boost works with the Ryzen 5 1600 CPU:
- Boost up to 3.6GHz using 1-2 cores
- Boost up to 3.4GHz using 3-6 cores
- Base clock of 3.2GHz if boost not available
Precision Boost 2 takes this additional power and performance further, but with one major difference: there is no lower clock speed limit if more than two CPUs are in use. Precision Boost 2 allows for maximum frequency across all cores up to the limits of frequency, power consumption, or temperature.
The performance boost varies depending on the workload, as well as the type of program you use. Thus, lighter programs receive more boost, while more intensive ones receive less. A cooler system receives more boost; a warmer system receives less.
Precision Boost Overdrive is a framework present in the current Ryzen Zen+ CPU architecture and AM4 X470 motherboard platform. Currently, Overdrive is like a more aggressive version of Precision Boost 2 that works by altering the direct voltage of the CPU cores, allowing for theoretical performance gains outside the advertised CPU frequency range.
Extended Frequency Range 2 (XFR2) works in conjunction with Precision Boost 2. XFR2 helps define how far the system can push the CPU frequency in relation to the operating temperature. Essentially, the better the cooling, the more boost the system can handle.
Entry Level: AMD Ryzen 3 1300X vs. Intel Core i3-8350K
The entry-level CPUs for AMD and Intel both pack a decent punch. There are a couple of major differences, though. For instance, the Ryzen 1300X is 0.5GHz slower than its Intel counterpart, but works with a higher RAM frequency and has a 2MB L2 Cache.
Another important distinction is the Thermal Design Power (TDP). (TDP is the maximum amount of power a cooling system needs to dissipate to keep the CPU cool.) The Ryzen 1300X’s 65W is much easier to cool than the i3-8350K’s 91W—though the overall clock speed reflects this difference.
One final consideration goes to system overclocking. AMD unlocked the Ryzen 1300X’s multiplier, as did Intel for the i3-8350K. The good users over at UserBenchmark rank the Intel i3-8350K 26th for speed (out of 1,105 CPUs tested via the site), while the Ryzen 3 1300X ranks 79th.
Overall, it is pretty difficult to separate these two CPUs. The Intel CPU certainly packs a punch, but the AMD Ryzen CPU is a steal at that price point.
Mainstream: AMD Ryzen 5 1600X vs. AMD Ryzen 5 2600X vs. Intel Core i5-8600K
Moving onto the mainstream (mid-tier) CPUs, you have the AMD Ryzen 5 1600X, the Ryzen 5 2600X, and the Intel Core i5-8600K. Again, the CPUs have particular strengths and differences.
The AMD Ryzen 5 1600X and 2600X, and Intel Core i5-8600K, have equal clock speed and CPU cores. They also have the same maximum RAM frequency (both CPUs only work with two RAM channels, too).
What sets both AMD Ryzen 5 CPUs apart from the Intel counterpart is the number of CPU threads. Both AMD chips have 12 threads, compared to the i5-8600K’s six. The 2600X also has a turbo CPU frequency of 4.2GHz, taking it past the 1600X, but still behind the i5-8600K’s 4.3GHz.
In a further boost, the AMD Ryzen 5 1600X and 2600X combine a 3MB L2 cache and a huge 16MB L3 cache in an attempt to boost both single and multicore performance. The higher speed is passed on in TDP, with the 1600X and 2600X generating up to 95W in comparison to the i5-8600K’s 65W.
Again, separating these three CPUs is difficult. The Ryzen 5 2600X is the superior CPU, at least for now. Its baseline performance in conjunction with XFR2 and Precision Boost 2 means you’re guaranteed solid, powerful system performance.
But don’t dismiss the Intel Core i5-8600K. The fine folks of UserBenchmark still rate the Intel CPU with better single-core performance over both the 1600X and 2600X. Conversely, the same users consider the 1600X and 2600X multicore performance over the Intel chip.
Thus, the Intel may well offer better performance for gaming and other single core tasks, while the Ryzen CPU multithreading might offer better performance for those switching between programs with intensive processes.
Performance: AMD Ryzen 7 1800X vs. AMD Ryzen 7 2700X vs. Intel i7-8700K
Climbing up another CPU performance tier, you have some seriously powerful chips to consider. The AMD Ryzen 7 1800X and Intel Core i7-8700K were the flagship chips for their respective CPU generation (barring the super high-end desktop chips—more on these in a moment!). The introduction of the AMD Ryzen 7 2700X does somewhat change the perspective, though. Still, there are some spectacular specs for you to mull over.
Right off the bat, you’ll note the AMD Ryzen 7 1800X and 2700X have two more cores than the Intel i7-8700K. With those two additional cores comes an additional four CPU threads. In this, both the 1800X and 2700X offer substantial gains in multicore performance and represent an excellent choice for resource-intensive creative processes. The newer 2700X also works with a higher RAM frequency, too.
However, as you have seen before, the Intel CPU beats out the AMD competitors in single-core performance. As such, many gamers prefer the Intel i7-8700K to power high-end gaming rigs.
High-End Desktop: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X vs. Intel i9-7960X
The final comparison is between the frankly obscene AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X and the equally monstrous Intel i9-7960X. Both of these CPUs pack a massive 16 cores and 32 threads, bringing a staggering amount of power to your desktop.
Despite Threadripper’s single-core performance advantage of 0.6GHz, the Intel i9-7960K outperforms the AMD chip in multiple benchmarking tests. One of the most notable defeats comes in the AMD-preferred Corona Renderer benchmark, where the i9-7690K consistently breezes past the Threadripper 1950X.
Unfortunately for AMD, the readings don’t drastically improve in other areas. UserBenchmark contributors rate the i9-7960X’s single-core, quad-core, and multicore performance higher than the Threadripper 1950X. (How many cores do you need, anyway?)
One saving grace for AMD is that the Threadripper isn’t that far behind in performance but is worlds ahead regarding cost. The 1950X is usually hundreds of dollars cheaper than its Intel equivalent. You can have the phenomenal power of a 16 core, 32 thread CPU and still have a little cash left over (plus you need an X299 motherboard to use an Intel Core i9 CPU—another expense).
There’s one more fact to note. The Intel i9-7960K is an Intel Skylake generation CPU—the generation before AMD’s Ryzen 1 and 2, and Intel’s Coffee Lake (the other Intel CPUs on this list).
AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2 and Intel’s 28 Core, 5Ghz CPU
I am only mentioning these devices in passing, but you must consider them. Intel announced a behemoth 28 core CPU running at 5GHz per core. The current price estimate is over $2,000.
In response, AMD made a much-anticipated announcement: the Threadripper 2 is coming. The direct Intel competitor will pack 32 cores and 64 threads into a single CPU. AMD’s corporate vice president, Jim Anderson, says “This is heavy metal performance.”
Both of these spectacular CPUs will arrive in the latter half of 2018.
AMD vs. Intel: Chipset Features
The Ryzen and Coffee Lake CPUs come with their own motherboard specifications. The entire specifications for each chipset variety would take a long time to list. So here’s what the top motherboard chipset for each manufacturer brand brings to your system, as well as a short overview of model numbers and an image with a few details.
AMD AM4 Chipsets: X470, X370, B350, A320
The AMD AM4 chipset unites AMD Zen generation processors under a single motherboard platform. Previously, AMD had a wide range of motherboard chipset builds which could get confusing. The AM4 socket and chipset will power AMD products for the foreseeable future (until 2020).
There are four main chipset models to consider. The X470 is the top-of-the-line motherboard released to coincide with the latest Ryzen 2 CPU generation, while the A320 series is the basic, low-frills end of the spectrum. Check out the table below for an overview of differences.
The biggest draw for the X470 is the potential for faster RAM support, working well with speeds up to 2933MHz. AMD says X470 motherboards will get the best out of the 2nd-generation Ryzen CPUs. The boards are better equipped to handle the higher clock rates of the new chips, as well as better implementing XFR2 and Precision Boost 2.
Furthermore, the X470 rolls out with support for AMD’s StoreMI technology. StoreMI works similarly to Intel’s Optane Memory, but with a few crucial differences. For instance, you can pair a spacious mechanical drive with an SSD or up to 2GB of RAM to create a rapid virtual disk, keeping your important files on the fastest device. But unlike other RAID technology or even Intel’s rival system, you can create or disband a StoreMI configuration at will.
Another key AM4 chipset feature is overclocking compatibility. The X470, X370, and B350 motherboards specifications all allow you to overclock your Ryzen CPU (if compatible, of course), while only the Intel Z370 (and upcoming Z390) allow overclocking. Thus, AMD has a superior range of motherboards available for enthusiasts looking to squeeze extra performance from their CPU.
Intel 300 Series Chipsets: Z370, H370, Q370, B360, H310
The Intel 8th generation Coffee Lake CPUs were accompanied by the Intel 300 Series chipset. At the Coffee Lake launch, only the enthusiast-grade Z370 chipset was available to consumers. Since then, Intel has slowly released the rest of the 300 Series chipset range, catering to a wide range of consumer types.
Check out the below image for a brief overview of Intel 300 Series chipset features.
The Z370 chipset features Modern Standby mode, allowing your system to connect to the internet and update your inbox and similar while the system is in a sleep state. While this is a common laptop feature, Modern Standby is one of the first true desktop implementations.
In conjunction, the Z370 allows for so-called “ambient computing.” Ambient computing lets wake-on-voice features function in super-low power modes, among other useful additions.
The Z370 has some definite downsides, though. For instance, changes in motherboard power regulation prevent Intel Skylake and Kaby Lake processors from working on Z370 motherboards, despite sharing the same CPU socket. Another Z370 downside is the lack of 2nd generation USB 3.1 ports (there are none).
It is worth mentioning that while the Z370 chipset doesn’t feature integrated Wi-Fi, the other chipsets do. The integrated Wi-Fi supports speeds of up to 1,733Mbps over the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard.
At this point, if you want to build a high-end Intel system but don’t want to overclock, the H370 chipset is probably your best option.
AMD Ryzen or Intel Coffee Lake: Which Will You Buy?
You now have a thorough understanding of the AMD Ryzen and Intel Coffee Lake processor battle. Better still, you know where the relative strengths lie when thinking about their respective chipsets, too.
Purchasing a new system is always slightly tricky. AMD’s Ryzen and AM4 architecture has clawed Intel back into reaching distance. For some, it has surpassed it. The price to power ratio of an AMD system makes them an extremely attractive proposition. Furthermore, AMD appears to have a strong development identity, and there is definitely more to come from the Ryzen and AM4 platform.
But does that mean Intel is done? Of course not, and only a fool would discount them from powering past AMD with their next CPU generation—whenever that finally arrives. Make sure you know how to properly compare CPUs so you can keep up with the latest developments.