AMD has been very excited about its new Ryzen processor which we were told offers 8 cores, superior performance and all at a superior price to Intel. We were hoping these claims were true as the lack of competition in this space has seen technology jumps and evolution stagnate over the past few years.
[Related: Ryzen 5 vs Intel Core i5 CPU review]
So we were excited to put the new Ryzen processor and AMD AM4 platform through its paces to see which you should buy. But first a reminder: you’ll see many multi-page reviews on the internet with all kinds of benchmarks, complex overclocking scenarios and interminable technology-based theorizing regarding which is best but here we care about people who just want to buy the best CPU in terms of performance, features and value. With that in mind...
Which CPU is best? Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen — the difference in a nutshell
For most people Intel is currently better than AMD. The general performance of a 3.6GHz AMD Ryzen 1800X CPU compared to a 7th Generation 4.2GHz Intel Kaby Lake Core i 7 7700K CPU is slightly weaker, and yet the AMD processor costs hundreds of dollars more than the Intel equivalent.
However, there some potentially-big exceptions. The extra processor cores offered by Ryzen compared to Kaby Lake (eight instead of four) mean that certain tasks will run MUCH faster than the Intel chip. If you do a lot of 3D rendering, video encoding or your favourite games run better on multiple cores (few do, but some popular titles like Battlefield 1 and Civ are included in the short-but-growing list) then the extra money is well worth paying. The extra cores can also help with video game streaming on services like Twitch.
To put this into more perspective, an expensive, eight-core Intel Core i7 6900K CPU is similar in speed to an AMD Ryzen 1800X CPU but the AMD processor costs less than half as much! That’s revolutionary and disruptive… to some people.
AMD deserves a great deal of credit for coming back from nowhere to match Intel and produce some interesting technology but its claims of matching Intel for dramatically less money are somewhat misguided. Intel’s platform is faster and cheaper. Here’s why…
Which CPU price is best: Intel or AMD?
Intel’s flagship Core i7 7700K processor can be had for around $500 with a decent Z270 motherboard costing around $200. That’s a total of $700. Meanwhile an AMD Ryzen 1800X CPU costs $699 while a decent AM4 AX370 motherboard costs around $300. That’s a $1,000. Even with deals and judicious buying, a comparable AMD system will cost hundreds of dollars more. So which is faster?
Performance: How we test
For the Intel tests we used our regular Test Rig components and an Intel Core i7 7700K CPU.
The AMD AM4 Test Rig used the same Samsung 960 Pro NvME hard drive, Nvidia 1070 graphics card but with a Gigabyte Aorus GA-AX370-Gaming 5 motherboard (BIOS rev: 5b) plus Corsair Vengeance 3000MHz LPX DDR4 RAM.
We ran the tests at default BIOS settings with only the memory timings being adjusted to run at the advertised speeds. AMD told us that these still need to be done manually but we found on our Gigabyte motherboard that we could still set the timings and voltage automatically using (Intel’s proprietary) XMP settings – which takes just a couple of clicks – all good! (Related: How to set up new RAM using XMP.)
We then ran the same tests with a system’s automatic overclocking features. We don’t tweak settings like enthusiastic overclockers as few people can be bothered with that. However, if motherboard settings or an app made it easy to stably boost performance, we were happy to use that.
With Intel’s processors we used the Gigabyte Z170X Designare motherboard’s built-in automatic overclocking settings to easily increase the clock speeds. This feature isn’t (yet?) available on Gigabyte's AX370 mobo but overclocking is simply executed using the RyzenMaster Windows app – you just slide the sliders to the speed you want.
We only had access to a modest Noctua NH-U12S SE-AM4 air cooler which meant we couldn’t push the Ryzen 1800X CPU very hard – Ryzen’s built in heat management means it manages its own speed at high temperatures which has the side effect of running faster when cooler. We found the 3.6GHz CPU crashed at 4.1GHz but would run stably at 4GHz. The exception was in the Cinebench 3D rendering test which pushes all cores to 100% usage. It quickly crashed at 4GHz and only worked sporadically at 3.8GHz. We strongly suspect that a better cooler will improve this performance but we didn’t have access to one as we went to press (check back later!)
Why AMD Ryzen requires Windows Power Settings to be set to High Performance?
We usually leave our test rig at default settings with Balanced Performance but AMD insists that it requires Windows to be set to High Performance in order to get the best from Ryzen because of the platform’s innovative heat-influenced performance features which can be detrimentally affected by Windows core parking and power management. Indeed, switching from Balanced to High Performance raised Ryzen’s PC Mark score from 4171 to 4317 (this compares a Core i7 7700K's Balanced Performance score of 4411).
Which processor is faster: Intel or AMD?
Generally speaking, Intel’s 7th Generation Kaby Lake processors are faster than AMD’s Ryzen processors but there are exceptions. In general usage Intel wins but when an application or game that takes full advantage of all the available cores is used, Ryzen can be much faster.
Our AMD Ryzen test rig arrived with some unusual tweaks (AMD is adamant it shouldn’t have but it did) and when we reset the (rev. 3f) BIOS (and set up the RAM with XMP timings) it scored 3,944 in PC Mark.
Gigabyte provided us with the latest rev. 5b version and the score increased to 4,010. That’s still behind the Kaby Lake 7700K’s 4,448 and also behind Intel’s older 6th generation 4GHz Skylake Core i7 6600K score of 4,040.
When overclocked the Ryzen score only increased to 4,147 but the Intel 6700K pushed on to 4,355 and the 7700K pushed on to 4,477.
So in the general usage PC Mark test, Intel wins – which will be enough for most people. We also ran the Creative 3.0 PC Mark test which focuses more on photo manipulation and video editing. In this case Intel scored 5,853 while Ryzen scored 5,861. That’s a slight win for Ryzen which, as we see below, will translate to potentially-dramatic time saving if you do extensive media encoding.
Next: Ryzen starts winning and Conclusion