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AMD v Intel

CPUs On Test By Pete Gardner
Published March 2023

AMD v Intel

What benefits have the latest crop of CPUs brought for audio users — and what might the coming year have in store for us?

For those who keep a keen eye on the computer hardware market, it’s been an interesting few years when it comes to CPU development. Intel, the leaders for many years when it came to high‑performance applications such as audio and video production, were dethroned a few CPU generations ago. Indeed, for a while they appeared almost to be heading out into the wilderness due to delays in their platform updates, but the last time we took a look at how the leading Intel and AMD chips compared (a shade under a year ago, in SOS April 2022), Intel were showing strong signs of a recovery, and we found that they and AMD performed comparably at that time.

Intel’s step forward at that time was largely as a result of moving over to a so‑called ‘big.little’ core arrangement, with the CPU as a whole using both high‑ and lower‑performance cores in an arrangement similar to that in Apple’s current hardware. A timely switch to Windows 11 helped to support this new way of working and, now various DAW and plug‑in creators have had the chance to do a little tweaking and refinement, it seems largely to have proved successful. This, along with support for the newer DDR5 RAM, meant we saw large intergenerational gains in Intel’s testing results. Still, as I noted at the time, all of this was just enough to bring them back to level pegging with the well‑established high performance of the AMD platform.

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Fast‑forward to today, and the situation has reversed: it’s Intel who are now looking to optimise an established platform, whereas AMD have brought out their new AM5 chipset which, along with any gain in raw performance, incorporates support for DDR5 RAM. While Intel’s last generation Z690 chipset continues to support their newly released 13th‑generation CPUs, the company have also brought out their new Z790 chipset, which includes PCIe 5.0 support. So too does the new AMD platform. All of which means that both companies’ latest ranges boast a similar range of features.

Although dedicated PCIe 5.0 devices remain thin on the ground — the first next‑generation storage options aren’t due to arrive until later on this year — the upgrade to PCIe 5.0 doubles the available bandwidth, which means there are other potential benefits. A number of mainboards have already appeared on both platforms which can take advantage of these extra resources, and offer up to five current‑generation PCIe 4.0 M.2 NVMe drives, along with the standard SATA drive connections. That will be a boon to anyone who’s looking to fit a large amount of fast storage for their ever‑growing collection of audio projects and sample libraries; those doing serious virtual orchestral work, for example.

Given the similar performance of their high‑end chips a year or so ago, it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that both companies have chosen to focus most strongly on headline improvements in the raw hardware performance. The performance gains are most notable with the companies’ flagship Intel 13900K and AMD 7950X models, but a similar trend can be seen across both ranges. Of course, these attempts to snatch this generation’s number one slot mean that power consumption has risen, and while that’s not a huge concern for many users, there’s a significant issue for audio users: while they might well be happy about the performance boost, higher power consumption invariably means more heat and thus potentially more system noise due to cooling.

Intel’s Z790 boards play host to CPUs which are already pushing the envelope, with a 253W TDP (Thermal Design Power — the maximum amount of heat generated) rating on the Core i9 13900K for its Turbo mode at stock ratings. This has been amplified by a number of new mainboards which, by default, already apply a small degree of performance boosting — which results in the Intel‑advised power limits being largely ignored! During our tests, we found that various boards apply chips’ PL2 voltage settings (Performance Level 2, intended for turbo performance) to regular PL1 workloads, whilst also unlocking the PL2 mode’s power draw completely, to allow the CPU to use as high a voltage as it wants when under heavier turbo‑boosted loads. This resulted in peak loads occasionally spiking in excess of 325W total draw, a level which would prove challenging for even the very best cooling options available today.

When the power consumption was unlocked in this way, the ‘real world’ performance gains that were achieved were surprisingly modest: typically it resulted in only an extra 100MHz being applied to each core. In terms of practical, everyday use, that seems a poor trade‑off. Making a few BIOS adjustments to set things in line with Intel’s specification vastly reduced the power spikes (to a much more manageable level) and brought the average temperatures down to a point that made quieter cooling far easier to achieve.

For the previous generation, AMD’s Ryzen platform was already the more power‑efficient solution, and although we’ve noted an increase in power usage this time around, the upper specified limit of 170W on the 7950X model ensures that it remains significantly less power‑demanding than the Intel equivalent. AMD have, to some degree, changed how performance is managed: typically, with Intel and previous AMD generations, you set your CPU target speed in the BIOS and the board would attempt to use whatever power it took to achieve it, unless you specified otherwise, even to the point of overheating. AMD...

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