AMD or Intel: Which is a better budget choice?

October 1, 2014

In this article you'll learn which one of the big procoessor brands is better for people on budget

Some ten years ago, AMD and Intel were involved in a fierce rivalry for industry dominance. AMD had the lead in raw performance, but Intel’s market power ensured that their products still remained relevant in the eyes on consumers. Unfortunately, AMD has fallen behind in the past few years and can only dream of reclaiming the CPU crown. Thankfully, AMD still remains relevant in the lower-end of the market, and still has a few cards up its sleeves, thus competition is still keen at the lower-end of the market.

Today, we examine the value proposition of AMD chips against Intel chips with regard to budget desktop and laptop systems.

But first… the AMD product range explained

Intel’s product range is rather straightforward. At the low-end, we have the Intel Atom targeted for low-power devices, the Intel Celeron, which offers comparable or better performance than the Atom with a power consumption penalty, followed by the Intel Pentium, which can range from a slightly better Celeron to a slightly worse Intel Core i3 processor. Moving up the mid-range, we have the Intel Core i3 and i5 processors, and finally, the Intel Core i7 processors at the top. There’s an upcoming Core M range as well, which is a super low-power variant of its existing mobile Core processors.

AMD’s product range is a little more complicated. At the bottom, we have “Beema” and “Mullins”, based on the Puma microarchitecture. These are targeted squarely at the Intel Atom and Celeron market, as well as ARM competitors such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon. AMD aims to have these chips in entry-level laptops and tablets. They bear the E1, E2, A4, A6, A8 and A10 monikers.

Moving up, we have “Kaveri“, their bread-and-butter. Based on the Piledriver microarchitecture, Kaveri provides a good blend of both CPU and GPU performance. These chips provide performance close to that of an Intel Pentium or Core i3. They bear the A6, A8, A10 and FX monikers.

At the top sits the “Vishera”, based on the Steamroller microarchitecture. They are branded only as FX processors, and haven’t been updated in a while. Clearly, the top-end of the market is no longer the focus for AMD.

If it isn’t obvious to you yet, E1 and E2 are the bottom-of-the-barrel, A4 to A10 are the mid-range and FX occupies the top-end.

The AMD value proposition

What then, does AMD offer its much larger competitor? CPU-wise, AMD struggles to compete, with the exception of certain multi-threaded workloads (that are few and far between). Where AMD shows its prowess is in its GPU performance. AMD pioneered ‘Fusion’, which puts both a CPU and a graphics processor (GPU) on the same chip, terming it an Accelerated Processing Unit (APU). Intel has followed, but their GPUs generally lag behind their AMD counterparts in every processor class.

One thing worth noting is that at the heart of every PlayStation 4 and Xbox One lies an AMD chip. This means that every console game is already optimised for AMD GPUs. Through what AMD calls the Mantle API, developers can easily carry over these optimisations to the PC. This usually translates to a few percentage points improvement on their APUs. If you’re a gamer on a very tight budget, AMD could just be for you. The A10-7850K, a desktop processor which runs on “Kaveri”, is able to handle Battlefield 4 rather comfortably.

If you’re running a desktop, you could augment graphics performance by adding in an aftermarket Radeon graphics card. AMD’s “Radeon Dual Graphics” allows you to harness the power of both the GPU on the APU itself, together with the discrete Radeon graphics card. If you’re broke right now, you can enjoy decent performance right now, and overcome the shortcomings later.

So… should I buy an AMD?

The answer really depends on whether you’re buying a laptop or a desktop.

For laptops…

Let’s talk about laptops first. Unfortunately for AMD, their processors are manufactured on a process two generations behind Intel’s. Thus, power consumption is not as competitive as their Intel counterparts. This translates into poorer battery life on a laptop. While Intel laptops may be enjoying eight hours of battery life, AMD laptops may top out at about four. Recognising this, AMD has introduced lower-powered processors (mainly the E-series and A4 to A6 range), but computing performance is not really competitive. An AMD laptop, for example, may perform the same as a comparable Intel laptop, but with double the power consumption.

On the other hand, graphics performance across the board are better than their Intel equals, so it may be useful for some light gaming. If battery life isn’t a concern, you can often find AMD-based laptops at a price much lower than Intel-based ones. As for their lack of computing performance, it probably isn’t much of a concern (barring the E-series) for most day-to-day tasks.

My advice: if you can, swap the HDD for an SSD and the system will feel noticeably faster. Unfortunately, manufacturers seem to think of AMD as only budget systems, so they often cut corners in more areas than the processor itself, so you’ll have to do your own upgrades.

In summary, if the price is irresistibly cheap (for example, if you can find a “Kaveri” laptop for the same price as an Intel Atom laptop) and battery life isn’t of much concern to you, you’d be better off with an AMD.

For desktops…

For desktops, power consumption is much less of a concern. I wouldn’t recommend a FX-series processor these days (they still consume too much power for the performance), but Kaveri options are rather popular. The near-top-end Kaveri, the A10-7700K, is probably the option you should look at. It offers you an opportunity to get a well-balanced system at a decent price. Say, instead of getting an Intel Core i5 processor, you could instead opt for an A10-7700K and a discrete Radeon graphics card for a similar price. If you’re a gamer on a budget, I think the tradeoff between computing and graphics performance is well worth it. Instead of getting excellent computing performance (which you may not even fully utilise!) and poor graphics performance, you instead get decent computing and graphics performance.

Unfortunately, beyond this group of people, there really isn’t much of a reason to opt for an AMD. For example, if you already own a graphics card, the main selling point of an AMD system would cease to exist.

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