For over two decades of home computing, there have only been two major central processing units for manufacturers to choose between when building a new computer: AMD and Intel. During that time, tech experts, journalists and the custom PC building community have debated whether AMD or Intel makes the better processor.
To understand how to differentiate between and choose the best of the processor brands, you need to know how they’re constructed and how they interact with the rest of the system.
AMD CPUs are compatible with AMD-chipset motherboards, and Intel CPUs require mainboards with an Intel chipset. This is one of the main reasons your CPU brand weighs so heavily on your PC build because it determines what kind of motherboard you need.
When searching out a motherboard for your Intel CPU, you need to make sure you’re matching the CPU generation with the motherboard generation. The 8th and 9th-generation Intel Core CPUs work with 200 and 300-series motherboards, while the 10th and 11th-generation CPUs work with 400 and 500-series chipsets. Keep in mind that there are a few minor exceptions to this for a few CPU models. Also, if you’re using an older motherboard with a newer CPU, there’s a chance you’ll need to update the motherboard’s firmware beforehand. If you plan on overclocking your CPU or RAM, you’ll also need a Z-class motherboard.
AMD chipsets offer a lot more flexibility, with chipsets like the 470 and 450 lines supporting all Ryzen CPUs currently on the market. On the other hand, the newer motherboards support only the two most recent CPU families. The 500-series chipset takes advantage of some impressive new technologies with which older mainboards aren’t compatible. For overclocking the CPU or system memory in a Ryzen system, you’ll need an X-class chipset like X470. It’s worth noting that AMD systems benefit significantly more from high-speed and overclocked RAM due to how the CPUs communicate with the system memory.
Two decades ago, every CPU consisted of precisely one CPU core. When a 2000s-era Intel Pentium 3 ran at 1GHz, it could complete any one task at a time at that speed. The Pentium 4 family saw the introduction of a technology called “hyperthreading,” which allowed a single processor core to use its computing power on two processors or threads at once. Consumers and software developers didn’t realize it then, but hyperthreading was the beginning of the race to the multi-core behemoths we have today.
An early CPU with hyperthreading had to split the entirety of its compute power between two threads. The mid-2000s saw Intel release the first CPU with two physical cores, each of which could operate on entirely separate processes simultaneously while using all of their available compute power.
Today, most processors have four physical cores, many have six, some have high-performance ones have eight and even fewer have 12, 16 or more physical cores. Some high-end CPUs even continue to offer hyperthreading. Interestingly, even the most recent AAA video games sometimes had trouble utilizing all of a CPU’s physical cores effectively until a few years ago. For the most part, most general consumers will notice a difference between a dual-core and quad-core CPU, while dedicated gamers will be able to tell right away when their new octa-core processor provides a significant frame rate boost.
Some workloads benefit from high single-core performance. Plus, most multi-core processors are programmed to reduce their clock speed progressively as they actively use more cores. In 2021, multi-core performance is largely more important than single-core for gaming, general use and especially multitasking.
The 5950X routinely leads benchmarks, whether they’re testing for commercial-grade workflows or 4K gaming capabilities. It sports a whopping 16 cores and 32 threads, and there’s pretty much nothing that will slow it down. The downsides to this impressive piece of equipment are that it’s costly and draws a large amount of power. If you don’t need this much power, the Ryzen 9 5900X is essentially a scaled-down version of this one that draws considerably less electricity.
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Most gamers would be more than satisfied with this octa-core processor under the hood. It’s powerful enough to drive 1440p and 4K monitors at high frame rates, and it also does well when encoding resource-intensive video. The included cooler is highly effective, which somewhat mitigates the high cost.
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It’s nowhere near new, but the 3300X is still an excellent choice for a mid-range gaming system. Thanks to the flexibility of AMD’s chipsets, it’s the perfect choice if you want to hold out for a few months or even a year while waiting for the prices of the most premium Ryzen CPUs to drop.
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The premium consumer-grade offering from Intel, this one offers performance barely below the similarly-classed AMD Ryzen offering. Its eight cores and 16 threads are perfect for gaming and multitasking, and it especially shines at the highest common resolutions.
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While it’s not massively powerful, this is the perfect chip for a budget-friendly gaming rig. Even though it lacks a ton of firepower, it might help you save up for an 11th-generation Core i7 upgrade sometime down the road. Keep in mind that this is an F-class CPU, which doesn’t have an integrated GPU, so you’ll need a discrete graphics card to go with it.
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This one’s just about the most affordable modern CPU out there. It’s not good for 3D gaming, but it can handle classic 2D games adequately and complete most everyday tasks without missing a beat.
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It’s impossible to answer this question definitively. In some resource-intensive use cases, AMD’s current advantage in multi-threaded operations can make a noticeable difference. In others, Intel’s offerings offer nearly identical performance. If you’re gaming, one game might work better with an AMD CPU and another with an Intel model. In those cases, the difference between the two CPUs might be significant or negligible. To make it even harder to nail down, prices are constantly fluctuating for both companies’ products.
With all that said, if you’re building a PC for high-intensity workloads like rendering video, a many-cored AMD CPU is the way to go. The setup will be very costly, but professionals will be ready for that. If you’re putting together a simple computer meant for sending email and browsing the web, some of Intel’s ultra-affordable CPUs are worth considering.
If you’re a gamer looking for peak performance, you might find a minor edge with AMD’s latest Ryzen models, although you’ll pay a decent amount. On the other hand, Intel offers excellent performance at the 1440p resolution, and they tend to be slightly less expensive than AMD offerings. The ultimate choice for gamers will depend partly on how the rest of your system components line up and your resolution.
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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.