Building – or simply buying – a PC isn't an easy task. With a seemingly endless list of components to consider, there is evidently a lot standing in the way between you and powering on that hardy rig for the first time.
Among these necessities is the CPU, the central processing unit, or just the processor for short. The processor is an integral part of your computer, so much so that it's often referred to as the brains of the operation.
However, like with the graphics card space and the war of Nvidia vs AMD (or Advanced Micro Devices), there's an incessant battle between the two major processor manufacturers as well: Intel and AMD. With AMD beset on all sides, let's look at how its APUs, like its desktop-grade Zen processors stack up to Intel's CPUs, such as the upcoming Kaby Lake and six-core Coffee Lake processors.
Gary Marshall originally contributed this article
For bargain shoppers, the most common misconception is that AMD chips are more affordable than those powered by Intel. Truth be told, AMD does its best CPU work at the entry level, which could explain this mistaken belief.
An Athlon X4 860K, for instance, boasts a 3.7GHz frequency (4.0GHz with Turbo Boost) for only $75 (about £52, AU$103; as of this writing). Even for a dual-core processor, that's not a bad deal if you aren't expecting much as far as integrated graphics are concerned.
If you want, though, you can get something like the AMD A6-5400K for about $40 (about £27, AU$55; as of this writing). However, you could say the same about Intel's comparable Celeron series.
The truth is that both Intel and AMD processors typically retail at about the same price; AMD is only known for being cheaper because its chips are much less popular once you reach the $200 mark.
Being known for cores, AMD will give you more for less, but Intel is notorious for consistently outranking "The Red Team" in many cases due to hyperthreading, but I'll gloss over that in the next section.
That said, processor prices fluctuate constantly. Wait a few months after launch, and you'll quickly find that the Intel Core i7-6700K you were eyeing has dropped in cost. Understandably, patience is a virtue that's easier said than followed – especially when you're distracted by the prospect of shiny, next-gen processors touching down within a few months.
If you want the best of the best performance with little regard for price, then turn your head towards Intel. Not only does the Santa Clara chipmaker get persistently better ratings in CPU benchmarks, but Intel's processors draw less heat as well, blessing them with lower TDP (thermal design point) ratings across the board.
Much of this is owed to Intel's implementation of hyperthreading, which has been incorporated in its CPUs since 2002. Hyperthreading keeps existing cores active rather than letting any of them remain unproductive.
AMD, on the other hand, takes pride in its focus on increasing the number of cores in its chips. On paper, this would make AMD's chips faster than Intel's, had it not make a hugely negative impact on heat dissipation.
While cooling an Intel processor is a rather straightforward process, because AMD likes to shove as many cores as possible into a single processing unit, its chips tend to run hotter much to the discomfort of the more affordable cooling solutions. (As a result, you could say this makes AMD chips equally as or more expensive than their Intel counterparts.)
Take AMD's $259 (about £179, AU$357; as of this writing) FX 9590 for example. It clocks in at 4.7GHz, or 5.0GHz with AMD Overdrive installed. Oh, and did we mention it has eight cores?
That's twice the number of cores bolstered by the Core i7-6700K. But, according to PCMark tests conducted over at CPUBoss, Intel's rigid beast still comes out on top in terms of overall performance.
Even though AMD's processor technically has a faster clock speed, as you can assume, with more cores comes a heavier workload. The clock speed doesn't mean much when carrying out the same tasks requires more effort from the CPU, and that's why – for now, at least – Intel's chips bring objectively better performance.
If you're building a gaming PC, truthfully you should be using a discrete graphics card rather than relying on a CPU to run The Witcher 3, for instance. Even though we're finally reaching a point where integrated CPU graphics are packing enough power to allow for the existence of a gaming-centric Intel NUC, there's undoubtedly room for improvement.
Be that as it may, if all you're looking to do is play League of Legends at mildly impressive settings or relive your childhood with a hard drive full of emulators (it's okay, we won't tell), the latest Intel Skylake, upcoming Kaby Lake or AMD A-Series APU processors will likely fare just as well as any top-end graphics card. At one time, for low to mid-tier gaming, AMD's Radeon chips were far superior to anything offered by Intel. With the arrival of Intel's Iris Pro graphics, however, that sentiment is becoming more and more refutable.
On the high end, where you'll be pairing your CPU with a powerful AMD or Nvidia GPU, an Intel processor is the better option. In this case, using an Intel Core i3 or i5 CPU rather than an AMD equivalent can be the difference between 15 and 30 frames per second.
While there is no clear winner in the graphics department, survey says AMD is the better option for integrated graphics (for now), while Intel works best when coupled with a GPU.
When you buy a new computer or even just a CPU, it's typically locked at a specific clock speed as indicated on the box. Some processors ship unlocked, allowing for higher clock speeds than recommended by the manufacturer, giving users more control over how they use their components (though, it does require some precautionary expertise).
AMD is normally more generous than Intel in this regard. With an AMD system, you can get more juice out of a mid-range, A-series APU for a modest price. Meanwhile, Intel's easily overclockable, unlocked configurations don't start until at least the $200 (£200, AU$300) range, beginning with the Core i5-6600K.
The unlocked chips Intel does offer, however, are delightfully faster than their AMD counterparts. If you're shopping on a budget, AMD offers the most bang for your buck in terms of overclocking, assuming you know what you're doing. Otherwise, where money is no object, Intel's exhibits the best clock speeds around with its unlocked CPUs.
Availability and support
In the end, the biggest problem with AMD processors is the lack of support with other components. Specifically, motherboard (mobo) options are limited as a result of the differing sockets between AMD and Intel chips. While there are plenty of options for both brands of chips, the fact of the matter is there are abundantly more mobo choices with Intel sockets.
With that in mind, AMD's chips make a little more sense from a hardware design perspective. With an AMD motherboard, rather than having metal connector pins on the CPU socket, you'll notice those pins are instead on the underside of the CPU itself. As a result, any processor issues you might run into are less likely to be inflicted by the motherboard's faulty pins. On the downside, replacing a high-end processor is usually a lot harder on your wallet than a shelling out the cash for a new mobo.
Ultimately, deciding on a CPU is up to personal preference. Where an Intel processor shines most when married to, say, an Nvidia GTX 1080, AMD's chips are surprisingly capable on their own, at least at low-to-mid settings. And, in some cases that's all you need. In others, not so much.
Which brand of processor works better for you: Intel or AMD? Let us know in the comments below.