Buying a computer can be a lengthy process involving many complex decisions, but none come with quite as much jargon as figuring out the best CPU.
And so before you even know it, you’re drowning in talk of cores and clock speeds, socket types and memory controllers, Bulldozers, Piledrivers and more.
While you’ll need to consider at least some of these issues, there’s an easier way to approach your purchasing problems. And that’s to ignore the technical detail, just for the moment, and focus first on a more fundamental question: Intel vs AMD, which processors are the best for you?
You’ll probably find that answering this is much more straightforward. And once you’ve made your choice, many other decisions about your new PC will fall into place, saving you plenty of time.
Intel vs AMD: Intel CPUs
If you’re after performance above else (and you can afford the price tag) then Intel processors are the way to go. At least, in general – there are several families available and you need to be careful which you choose.
You’ll get the most speed from Intel’s 6-core Sandy Bridge E processors, for instance. As our review of theIntel Core i7 3930K shows, its extra cores, cache and quad-channel DDR3 RAM help to deliver a huge amount of raw computing power.
It’s expensive, though (around £400, and that’s the cheaper model). And you’ll need a not-so-common LGA2011 motherboard, too. Most people will be better off spending the extra cash on other things.
If you’re happy to stick with a regular desktop CPU, the more conventional choice would be to opt for one of Intel’s new Ivy Bridge CPUs. They’re the fastest mainstream processors around; power consumption has fallen, just a little; and the new HD 4000 integrated graphics chipset is up to 60% faster than the previous generation.
All of which has helped the technology deliver some impressive results, particularly in the notebook arena with systems such as the AppleMacBook Pro and Toshiba Qosmio X870.
As we discuss in the Core i7 3770K and Core i5 3570K reviews, though (as well as “Why Intel’s new CPUs disappoint”), these new chips aren’t exactly revolutionary. There are no more cores, clock speeds and cache are similar, and apart from the integrated graphics there’s not a great deal of change.
This relative stability does have one pleasing side effect: the new family will all slot happily into any current Intel LGA1155 motherboard, so there’s no need to worry about new socket types or other board-related complexities. (At most you’ll need to upgrade the BIOS, but your manufacturer’s website will tell you more.)
But it does also mean that, particularly if you’re looking for a bargain, it may still be worth considering one of Intel’s older generation Sandy Bridge CPUs. Sure, they’re aging a little, but they’re still in regular use, particularly where value is important (Sony’s stylish and decidedly premium-lookingSony Vaio T13 Ultrabook is a great example). And with good reason: as we point out in the review, even low-end i3 Sandy Bridge processors are more than adequate for many basic tasks.
Intel vs AMD: the AMD competition
If you’re wondering how it is that Intel can afford to release a new processor family which has changed so little from the last, the answer is simple: they’ve very little competition, particularly in the desktop space.
AMD’s latest technology, code-named Bulldozer, has proved a monumental disappointment in many different ways. Sure, it has 8 cores. But this makes Bulldozer ridiculously large (2 billion transistors, more than double its competition). A power hog. And performance is dire, with single-threaded comparisons showing Bulldozer delivering less speed than an old Phenom II core (and multi-threading isn’t that great, either).
So is that the end of the story? Not quite. Intel rules when it comes to conventional desktops, that’s true, but when it comes to the mobile world (or small-form-factor systems such as all-in-one computers) it’s a slightly different story.
The possible breakthrough comes in the shape of AMD’s second-generation A-Series processors (formerly known as Trinity). These come with new Piledriver cores (an evolution of Bulldozer), faster integrated graphics, improved power management and so extended battery life.
And the end results? It’s early days, but our first benchmarks produced some good news, with the new technology easily outperforming AMD’s older mobile technology on raw CPU power, and getting close enough to the Intel equivalent that you probably won’t be able to tell the difference.
But the key selling point here is the integrated graphics, which we found delivered speeds something close to twice what you’d expect from Intel’s new HD 4000 technology (as found in Ivy Bridge CPUs). This still isn’t fast enough for dedicated gaming, but does at last mean a laptop will be able to play modern games at reasonable resolutions and detail settings, and that’s a big step forward.
Intel vs AMD: which is best?
We’ve looked at the two products, then – but which is best? It all depends on what you’re looking for.
If money is key then Intel’s Pentium G640 is a good place to start. It only offers 2 cores (and no support for Hyper-Threading), but for under £50 you’ll get more than enough power for most tasks, and because it requires a standard LGA1155 socket you’ll easily be able to slot in something faster later, should it be necessary.
Or, if you’re an AMD fan, try the FX-4100; it’s old technology (and more expensive at maybe £80), but is still a very capable CPU, quad-core and with a 3.6GHz base clock speed.
Should you be looking for more power within a conventional desktop setting, then life is a little more straightforward – you just have to choose the best Intel CPU you can afford.
At the low end, this might mean opting for a Sandy Bridge processor, perhaps the 2.9 GHz Core i5-2310 (yours from around £120). But if you’d like to keep up with the latest Ivy Bridge technology then the Sandy Bridge Core i5 3570K isn’t much more expensive at about £150, which probably makes it the common sense pick (especially as the Core i5 3770K costs almost twice as much).
If performance is all, and money not a problem, then there’s always the Sandy Bridge E-based Intel Core i7 3930K (purchase price around £400). Just keep in mind that it’s really not a chip for regular desktop users, and the need for an LGA2011 motherboard will seriously limit your options.
And then, finally, there’s the best mobile CPU. And that’s where decisions become a little more difficult.
As we discussed earlier, you could just pick an existing Intel chip, in anything from Sony’s budget Vaio T13 Ultrabookto the excellent Toshiba Z930 Ultrabook, and you’ll get generally good results.
But AMD’s new A-Series processors have some interesting plus points, in particular the supercharged integrated graphics. If you’d like to be able to play modern games on a real budget then they may be worth the wait.
And of course Windows 8 tablets will further complicate the issue, not least because they’ll also include ARM versions.
If you’re looking for a system with a mobile CPU, then, your choice is about to expand considerably, and in some very interesting ways. It may be a good idea to postpone your purchase, if you can: even waiting for a month or so could provide you with some worthwhile new opportunities.
Just keep an eye on our reviews and news pages and we’ll keep you up-to-date.