A Closer Look at Processors
Previously in Ken’s Corner, I’ve talked about the importance of cores and clock speeds in the performance of computer processors, but a common question I get is about the names and other numbers on a processor: What is an AMD? What does i5-8500 mean? There’s not really a short answer here.
There are two main processor companies in the world: Intel and AMD (Actually, there are dozens of manufacturers out there, but most of those companies make specialized chips that are not used in the consumer market so for our purposes, they don’t count.) Currently, Intel has a slight edge in the market share, but that lead has been shrinking during the last four years until just over a percentage point separates the two companies.
Intel dominates in laptops, with nearly a four-to-one margin of their CPUs installed in notebooks. Conversely, AMD has the lion’s share of desktops with their processors on board.
Which chips are better? In truth, CPUs from each company measures up fairly closely with same-size chips from the other company. That hasn’t been the case for very long; up until the mid-2010s AMD’s CPUs were not up to the same level. Since 2017, that situation has drastically changed and today, AMD is producing the 15 top-quality processors on the consumer market according to Passmark, an independent testing company. AMD CPUs are also generally less expensive.
The numbers in the name of a processor give us a couple of hints as to the quality of the chip. AMD and Intel use a similar numbering system for CPU identification and likewise have different names for their individual lines. Intel’s top line for public use is the “I” series: i3, i5, i7 and i9. For AMD, the new Ryzen line-up is the model that has brought them into contention for the top spot against Intel. Conveniently, those CPUs are the Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 models.
As might be guessed, those numbers refer to the level of quality of the processors, with the Intel i3 and AMD’s Ryzen 3 being the baseline CPU. Higher numbers here usually mean better processors with the i9 and Ryzen 9 being the top of the line for their respective companies. I say “usually” because things change within a line from model to model and year to year.
For the sake of clarification, let’s compare two Intel chips: the i5-1134G7 and the i7-10510U. With the i7 chip being of a higher series number, logically it would be a better chip; it’s not. Why? The first numbers after the hyphen in a processor’s name tell part of the story. The i7-10510U is a 10th Generation CPU, indicated by the “10” at the front of the number following the dash. Conversely, the “11” in the i5 indicates it’s an 11th generation. Later generations come about due to improvements in chip manufacturing techniques, so it follows an 11th generation is going to be better than a 10th generation. It’s not always the case, but it’s close enough to be a blanket statement.
However, the best, newest chip isn’t necessarily what you need. It’s tempting to say you “need” a computer with AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper PRO 3995WX (Currently the top of Passmark’s rating system), but the truth is unless you either play massive, intense, multi-player video games at maximum resolution or work for Pixar, you’re wasting most of the power of that processor. Plus, very few people should consider paying nearly $5,500 for a CPU. For most users, a Ryzen 5 or i5 processor is more than enough to get you through.