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AMD or Intel:  Who is making the best budget CPU?

AMD or Intel: Who is making the best budget CPU?

amd_fx_series_fx_4300_3_8ghz_4x intel-core-i3-3240-ivybridge

Mal’s Computer Corner

Platform: PC

Developer: Advanced Micro Devices/Intel Corporation

By Malefico

Let’s face it. Most of us gamers are on are on a limited budget. We need solid gaming performance, but want good value in whatever parts we choose for our system. If you are just entering the world of PC gaming, or thinking about making that leap, you probably don’t want to/can’t afford to spend $1000 dollars for a system just to find out if you like it enough to make PC gaming a more substantial part of your hobby. The good news is, you don’t have to. Read my profile for details on the system I use to play the games and write reviews for the Bacon. Suffice it to say, it’s far from state of the art. But if you’re getting into PC gaming, you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time under the hood. You just want a reliable box that will keep up with game development for at least three years. At that point you can start thinking about upgrading your system, either piece by piece or by putting together a whole new batch of components.

Provided you have realistic expectations, you can get yourself into the world of PC gaming for the same cost as a next-gen console. When I say realistic, you have to understand that a $500 gaming system will not play the latest games at the highest settings- but even medium settings offer far better visuals than even the best consoles. I’m not judging, I’m just saying. A $500 gaming rig will outperform either of the next-gen consoles, both in computing power and graphics capability. And of course, it’s a PC so when you are not gaming on it, you can use it for work or school, or other interests like music creation/editing, video creation/editing, storing pics or music, etc.

The Basics

For this article, we’ll just be focusing on CPU’s or central processing units. For a more in-depth discussion of what a CPU is and does, see my APU article here. Essentially, the CPU that you choose will also influence the rest of the system, particularly the video card. There’s a documented phenomenon called bottle-necking. In basic terms, bottle-necking occurs when a CPU is mismatched with a video card, and the slower of the two holds back the performance of the faster. While there are a lot of theories about how to deal with this issue, my point is that when you put a system together, you have to match the best parts for the application.

When building a budget gaming system, owners typically don’t want to have to upgrade for several years so future-proofing is a big part of building a system. I would avoid any processor that currently costs less than $100 for this reason. I’ve chosen two processors just north of this mark. The two we’ll be looking at are the AMD-4300 (Vishera) quad-core and the Intel Core i3-3240 (Ivy Bridge) dual-core processors, the AMD for $110 and the Intel chip at $120 on Newegg as I write this.

At first glance, this might seem to be an unfair comparison. However, as we’ll see the Intel chip stacks up very favorably in a number of departments, despite its two-core deficiency. This is mute testimony to the raw efficiency of Intel chips, and the way software is written today. The statistical comparisons I’ll be making are taken from a variety of sources, but a very good source of info is Anandtech’s benchmark scores (the link will take you to the page detailing a complete benchmarking comparison between these two chips. On this site you can contrast the performance of various PC components side-by-side. I understand the games below only offer a very limited idea of what the chips can do, but it’s the only two I could find where the two were compared side-by-side.

First, let’s look at gaming performance. For many, this is the only benchmark that matters. If so, the AMD FX chip is the winner, but not by much. Using Elder Scrolls; Skyrim and Diablo III, the diminutive Core-i3 was only bested by a modest 5.5%

single thread

In more mundane tasks, the Intel chip fares better. Generally, speaking, it actually outperforms its quad-core competitor in single-threaded tasks (meaning the application is heavily geared toward loading a single core within the processor- in fact, the Core-i3 shames the FX chip in things like general office productivity and encoding audio and video, posting scores 14% better than the FX.

Conversely, the AMD chip pulls ahead in multi-threaded tasks, bringing its additional cores to bear to outpace the Intel CPU. When the software allows for hyper-threading, the FX handily bests the Core i3- 29% better overall.

The Other Stuff

Now that we’ve got some of the more prominent comparisons out of the way, let’s talk about some of the things most people don’t consider when they shop for a processor. Power consumption and heat generation are two things that matter in the long run. Greater power consumption leads to higher electric bills, especially on a device that might run four or more hours per day for several years.. In this arena, Intel puts the pimp hand down on AMD. The Core-i3 is rated at 65W TDP (Thermal Design Power, a measure not only of electricity consumed but heat generated as a result), while the FX chip takes 95W TDP at maximum load. AMD’s offering would theoretically use more power and generate more heat then the Intel chip, an astounding 46% more given its modest performance edge. Moreover, heat kills electronic components. With a CPU putting out vastly more heat, additional cooling has to be taken into consideration. Either that, or plans must be made to replace certain components that may fail earlier in a system’s life-cycle.

power-2

So far, the Core-i3 is looking like the one to have, but what about the future-proofing we talked about at the beginning of the article? With more and more software developers taking advantage of multi-core processors, we may see AMD chips rise in rank as applications catch up to hardware. Even now, programs like Photoshop and 3D modeling/rendering apps tend to favor CPU’s with higher core counts, as shown above in AMD’s hyper-threading dominance. The future of software development is uncertain, but will likely continue to evolve to support and favor processors with higher numbers of cores.

Overclocking is something people who are just getting into PC gaming aren’t necessarily thinking about, but it’s worth mentioning here. AMD has always had a good reputation among gamers who choose to overclock their systems. Basically, by feeding the processor more power, you can increase its clock speed and thereby its performance. This gain is offset by much higher power consumption and heat generation. Never overclock a system without beefing up the cooling capacity first. Intel doesn’t offer any Core i3 chips that are unlocked for overclocking. For an idea of how much extra energy is used to produce approximately 10-15% better performance (maximum), see the graph below.

Power consumption

The Bottom Line

But that’s tomorrow (maybe) and this is today. The AMD FX series was disappointing to PC gaming fans when the 4100/6100/8100 (Zambezi) series was released amid much hype from AMD. The newer Vishera chips are improved, but still lag behind Intel chips in computing efficiency and power consumption. Instead, AMD focused on developing chips that combined CPU and GPU technology on a single die. Their success in this field can be seen in both the PS4 and X Box One, which utilize AMD Trinity APU’s.

It’s hard to argue with the good points demonstrated by the little Core-i3 chip. Gaming performance is nearly identical, and for most users the Intel chip will work better in everyday non-gaming use, use less power, generate less heat and consequently should last longer than the AMD CPU. If you do a lot of picture and video work, or 3D modeling/animation maybe the FX-4300 makes sense. However, if you earn a living doing those things chances are you’re looking for more robust performance than either of these chips can deliver.

The tests above were done on fairly low-end systems. Where AMD chips often seem to run into themselves and performance flattens out, Intel chips tend to run better and better as you scale to higher-end accompanying parts like motherboards.

For an idea of how good Core-i3 CPU’s can perform, take a look at the Tom’s Hardware article here.

While the article doesn’t reflect real-world situations in that the Intel chips were tested on a board costing $350, probably not the one most folks building a $500 system would pick, it nonetheless shows that even a low-end Intel processor has the guts to outdo processors that should (on paper) send it home with that look on its face. Like it’s processors, Intel-compatible motherboards perform very well… but you pay for it.

The Verdict

Some of the things we looked at were gaming, general and multi-threaded performance, plus power consumption and future-proofing. While the FX-4300 does have a slight edge in gaming, it’s nothing a slightly better motherboard, video card or both wouldn’t erase for the little Core-i3. When you look at overall performance, especially as it concerns the cost of ownership and the fact that this little chip can be used in your bigger, better gaming system down the road, ther Intel chip edges out AMD..

Software developers might learn to fully utilize multi-core processors at some point in the nebulous future, but this is the here and now. And right now, Intel’s David beats AMD’s wanna-be Goliath.

For real-world performance, scalability, efficiency and cost of ownership concerns, Intel’s chip wins, but not by much. AMD’s slight price advantage will quickly disappear as higher electric bills rolled in, and the scant 5% gaming performance advantage is something most users will never notice. However, there’s always the overclocking advantage inherent to AMD chips.

Since I am doing a comparison, I thought it would be good to include Bacon scores for both the processors in this article.

Based on the AMD FX-4300’s better price, slightly better game performance, better multi-threaded performance, it gets 7.5 out of 10. I decided not to include overclocking capability (with increased power and heat) and the FX’s debatable future advantage because comparing an OC processor to a locked one is inherently unfair, and nobody can predict whether future games will be written to take full advantage of 4, 6 and 8-core processors.

The Intel Core i3-3240, with its better single-threaded performance- more useful in everyday tasks most folks will perform, scant gaming disadvantage (which disappears when paired with better components), laudable efficiency and scalability gets 8 out of 10.

Folks who read this article will no doubt argue with my conclusion. Let me just say that how well a component performs vs. how much it costs (out of the box and down the road) matters a lot to me. Also, I have to give Intel props for designing chips that produce excellent performance while using fewer cores and significantly less power.

Let me know what you think, and try to keep it civil.

Written by Nerd Bacon

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