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At the heart of your pursuit for a new or upgraded PC lies an important decision: Should you use an AMD or Intel CPU? Like MacOS versus Windows, the AMD versus Intel rivalry is one of the greatest debates for PC enthusiasts — and in 2021, these two industry giants are more hotly competitive than they’ve been in the best part of a decade.
AMD leapfrogged Intel’s 10th-generation processors with its Ryzen 5000 launch, holding a clear lead in gaming and productivity workloads. Intel is catching back up with its launch of 11th-gen Rocket Lake processors, though, and undercutting AMD on price. Outside of desktop, both Intel and AMD offer excellent mobile processors for gaming laptops, thin and light machines, and budget notebooks.
Each new product launch marks a shift in balance between AMD and Intel. Here’s the state of affairs in 2021.
In the past, AMD CPUs were the best option in only budget and entry-level portions of the market, but that changed with Ryzen 3000 and Ryzen 5000. While AMD still represents great value for the money, it now does so throughout the entire price and performance spectrum, competing with Intel on just about everything and taking a stark lead in a few specifics, even at the high-end.
The most affordable of AMD and Intel chips cost between $40 and $60 for a couple of cores and energy-efficient clock speeds. The best midrange CPUs will set you back between $200 and $350, while top gaming CPUs are priced around $500. If you want to accelerate intensive tasks like video editing and transcoding, you can spend north of $1,000 if your budget allows it.
Dan Baker/Digital Trends
Intel and AMD have excellent processors for gaming and productivity tasks like video editing and transcoding, but they do have their specialties, too. AMD’s current best, the Ryzen 9 5900X and 5950X, beat anything Intel has to offer, clocking in with 12 and 16 cores, respectively. Intel’s competing 11900K comes with only eight cores, but it uses Intel’s new Cypress Cove microarchitecture. We’re still waiting for more benchmarks, but early results position the 11900K’s performance slightly below the 5900X.
You don’t need to buy the best to get a great CPU for gaming or work, though. At around the $300 mark, AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X, with six cores and a high boost clock, is a fantastic chip for work and play. Intel has the 11600K in this price bracket, which matches the 5600X with six cores and 12 threads. However, the 11600K has high power and thermal demands. On paper, the 11600K already has twice the TDP of the 5600X, and in real-world use, it can draw even more.
At the more entry-level segments of the market, AMD’s processors tend to offer better value for money, with standouts like the 3300X and 3600 offering amazing multitasking and gaming performance. We don’t have budget Ryzen 5000 options yet, though we should sometime in 2021. Intel’s 10300F is credible competition, though.
Low-budget options like AMD’s 3200G and Intel’s Core i3 10100 make it possible to start your system without an added graphics card, making them great for general office work and watching Netflix, though not too much more.
There are factors outside of performance that may make you choose one manufacturer over the other, though. Intel’s latest-generation CPUs have far better support for Thunderbolt 3 ports if that’s something you can make use of. On the other hand, AMD offers overclocking on its cheaper B-series chipset, allowing budget builders to squeeze the most performance out of their machine.
If you want to use your PC for heavy video editing at high resolutions, perform intensive video transcoding, or perform any other intensive task that can benefit from even more power than the best mainstream CPUs can offer, then high-end desktop, or HEDT CPUs, could be what you need. Both AMD and Intel have their own options in this space, with higher core and thread counts. AMD’s options remain the most capable and cost-effective, though.
Intel’s HEDT line reaches up to 18 cores and 36 threads with the 10980XE, but even if you can find it in stock, it’s often priced way above its suggested retail price of $980. Although it is technically a 10th-gen CPU, the 10980XE and its fellow Core i9 X-series CPU models are based on Intel’s much older Cascade Lake-X technology, which is far less capable than Intel’s mainstream Comet Lake CPUs on a core-for-core basis. It’s still a powerful CPU, but when you consider AMD’s alternatives, it’s hard to recommend.
AMD’s 5950X mainstream CPU already offers credible competition for the 10980XE at under $800, so it offers far better value for money. But if you want extra performance, the sky’s the limit.
AMD’s third-gen Threadripper CPUs offer 24, 32, and even 64 cores with support for double that number of simultaneous threads, all while maintaining clock speeds around the 4GHz mark. If your software can make use of all those extra cores, AMD’s Threadripper CPUs offer unparalleled performance outside of obscenely expensive server CPUs, easily outstripping the Intel competition. They also support a greater number of PCIExpress lanes — 64 versus just 44 on the Intel alternatives — making them more suited to larger storage arrays.
They do come at a premium, with the 3960X, 3970X, and 3990X costing $1,400, $1,850, and $3,600, respectively. If you can make your work more efficient and even more profitable by buying them, though, that cost might be worth paying.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
The laptop market is a different story. Most notebooks you’ll find are based on Intel processors of various generations and integrated graphics. As a Dell representative once indicated, Intel’s portfolio is simply huge compared to AMD, and its current lineup of laptops and the CPUs inside them are better than ever.
Where Intel’s desktop processor development has slowed in recent years, its mobile enhancements have been far more exciting. Ice Lake CPUs introduced a more efficient design with far more capable 11th-gen graphics, offering enough performance to play many e-sports games at around 60 frames per second without the need for a graphics card. The 11th-gen Tiger Lake mobile processors only further that, such as the one found in the Acer Swift 5.
For even more general compute power (though weaker onboard graphics), Intel has a line of Comet Lake mobile CPUs that have higher clock speeds and are often paired with powerful graphics cards. The Razer Blade 15 is a fantastic example of how high-level gaming performance can be found in the most capable Intel mobile CPUs. They can be used for more productivity tasks, too, in capable devices like the Lenovo Yoga C640.
The breadth of options and manufacturing support mean most laptops still offer Intel CPUs as standard, but as in the desktop space, AMD is making inroads in mobile, too.
The Acer Swift 3 and the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 were some of the first examples of AMD’s recent mobile advance, and though they weren’t stellar, they showed promise. That push continued in 2020, with stronger releases like the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 serving as the launchpad for AMD’s new Ryzen 4000 chips for laptops. Lenovo refreshed its Legion gaming laptops in July 2020 with Ryzen 4000 mobile CPUs, pairing them with RTX 20-series graphics. Now, there are tens of options worth considering.
AMD announced its Ryzen 5000 processors for mobile during CES 2021, bringing the new Zen 3 architecture to thin and light laptops. Some models are already available, and more should come throughout the rest of the year.
Anandtech saw the 35W Ryzen 5980HS reach performance levels of the desktop Ryzen 5 5600X in rendering tests, far surpassing Ryzen 4000 and anything Intel currently has to offer. Much like desktop Ryzen 5000, the new mobile line seems to top charts across the board.
Other benchmarks show similarly impressive performance. The eight-core Ryzen 9 5900HS beats Intel’s i9-10980HK, which is one of the most powerful mobile processors available today. The only competitive chip is the quad-core i7-1185G7, which still falls significantly behind in a few benchmarks.
Both AMD and Intel offer credible performance for work and play, and there are many more considerations to make when buying a laptop than the CPU, so looking at individual model reviews is a must. That’s especially important in 2021, as the mobile Ryzen 5000 platform challenges Intel’s long-claimed mobile throne.
Which is best for you?
For everyday web browsing, watching Netflix, and answering emails, Intel and AMD CPUs will give you excellent performance right out of the box. There are certain tasks, though, where one company’s options perform better than the others.
If you’re looking to work with your processor performing intensive multi-threaded tasks like video editing or transcoding, or heavy multitasking activities with tens of browser tabs open, AMD’s CPUs are more capable at the top end and more cost-effective throughout the price and performance spectrums. Intel’s aren’t bad, but you pay more for the same performance in most cases — although that may be worth it if Thunderbolt 3 is something you really need.
If you’re working and playing on desktop, or even just gaming, AMD’s Ryzen 5000 CPUs are still the best option. Everything from the 5600X to the ludicrously-powerful 5950X offer the best gaming and productivity performance. Intel’s options are becoming more affordable to make them more competitive, which might make them worth it, but for raw power, AMD holds the lead.
If you’re buying a laptop, things are a little different. Intel’s Tiger Lake offers the best onboard graphics, and its Comet Lake CPUs are exceedingly capable. Ryzen 4000 chips with Zen 2 cores are also amazing, though, and very efficient. Intel holds the mobile crown right now, but AMD’s upcoming Ryzen 5000 CPUs look competitive at the very least. Still, you’ll want to look at reviews of the overall machine rather than focusing just on the CPU to get a full picture of which laptop is best for you.
The good news is that there really isn’t a bad choice in a CPU market — AMD and Intel are both operating at full tilt, so pick the processor that’s cheaper, available, and works with the components you already have.