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Processors: Intel vs. AMD

If the motherboard is the heart of your system, the central processing unit (CPU, or just processor) is the brain.  Choosing one these days is a lot more complicated than it used to be.  I remember back in the early 90’s when there were only two or three clock speeds and one model to choose from.  Now that there are only two competitors left on the market, and almost a hundred different processors (once you consider models and speeds) it’s quite a headache to sort it out.  I’ll cover some of the current basics in this article.

What’s in a name?

Both Intel and AMD make processors of the same class, much like competing car manufacturers.  AMD is the cheaper of the two, though Intel holds a large market share and penetration.  The quickest way to judge a processor is its clock speed.  This simply dictates the number of operations it can handle per second (a unit known as Hertz, or Hz).  For instance, a 3.0 GHz can handle 3 billion operations per second.  Of course, speed isn’t the only specification.  The onboard cache and socket type are two other defining factors.  The size of an onboard cache typically varies between 512 kB and 1 MB.  The 1 MB version is usually more expensive but performs better.  The socket type will determine which motherboards the processor will fit into.  Usually the socket name includes the number of pins that the processor has.  For instance, ’socket 939’ has 939 pins.

Where’s the beef?

There was a time when a one-gigahertz (1 GHz) processor was unimaginable.  Of course, now it’s just old hat.  The most important thing to realize now that processors are ranging between 2.0 and 4.0 GHz is that speed is increasingly less important.  The performance difference between the top-of-the-line processor of a given brand, and its low-end processor, is not that far apart anymore.  At the same time, the price difference has increased significantly, with high-end processors running for almost $1000.  Considering that the true bottleneck lies in other parts of the computer like the motherboard, you shouldn’t be intent on getting the fastest processor possible.  Instead, read up on the motherboard section for a description of the newest motherboard architectures available that will eliminate system bottlenecks.  You don’t need an extremely fast processor these days to enjoy a smooth computing experience!


Intel has enjoyed much success as the perennial favorite in the processor wars.  It’s still the CPU of choice among businesses and individuals alike, though lately AMD has been making headway. 

Intel offers 3 models of their current processor: the Pentium 4.  The high-end model is known as the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition.  These run for about $1000 right now and require a unique motherboard due to its new chipset and socket requirements.  Their mainstream version is the regular Pentium 4.  These are the most reasonably priced ones for solid performance.  Intel’s economy model for the less demanding is known as the Celeron.  Intel always includes the clock speed of their processors in the model name.


Some people love to root for the underdog.  For a while, I was one of them.  AMD has been making quality processors while consistently undercutting the price milestone set by Intel.  Many years ago, the difference between AMD and Intel processors was significant.  Back then, the price difference made up for it.  These days, AMD has been making lots of ground on Intel by offering competitive products at slightly lower prices.  Their newest line of Athlon64’s offers the next-generation in 64-bit processing.  Of course, there aren’t any programs right now that have made the transition from 32-bits to 64-bits, but once that does happen in the next year or so, Athlon64 owners will not have to upgrade.  AMD’s top of the line processor is the Athlon64 FX.  It runs about $200 cheaper than Intel’s Pentium 4 Extreme Edition.  Their mainstream model is the Athlon64, and it’s also priced lower than the Pentium 4.  On the economical side there’s the AMD Sempron.

One thing you should note about AMD’s naming conventions is that their model names don’t reflect the actual clock speed.  You should always research into this.  For instance, the AMD Athlon64 4000+ isn’t a 4.0 GHz processor.  It’s really running at a clock speed of 2.4 GHz.

So which processor do you want?  Intel holds the title of performance king, but AMD’s Athlon64 line is quickly catching up to the Pentium 4.  I would not recommend the high-end models for either brand, because the high price tag doesn’t convert to significant performance gains.  Instead, you should always get the mainstream model unless you have cash to burn.  The economy models are only for people who don’t require serious computing power.  If you’re never going to play video games, render 3D models, or record movies/music, the Celeron and Sempron processors are really cheap.

Like most markets where there are only a few competitors, the processor market is rather homogenous in terms of price and performance.  Choosing a processor these days doesn’t matter as much as picking the right components.