Topics Map > Computers: General

Intel, AMD & ARM Processors

An overview of notebook and desktop processors offered by Intel and AMD, brief coverage given to ARM whose processors are found in tablets and smartphones.


I. Purpose/Overview

The purpose of this document is to demystify the role that the processor plays in popular consumer electronics, especially laptops and desktop computing systems. Further, this document offers a breakdown of the current state of the processor market—particularly, highlighting the companies, Intel and AMD and how their current product lines size up against each other. Though the emphasis of this document is desktop computing, the spike in relavance of the smartphone and tablet makes mention of mobile processors useful, hence, ARM—a leader in mobile processing is profiled as well. Also provided is a chart that classfies these processors for the purposes of helping you decide on a system appropriate for your needs. Finally, we provide a section dedicated to demystifying some of the technical/marketing jargon that is tossed around as companies introduce new product lines.


II. Why Does The Processor Matter

The microprocessor—or commonly, the CPU or just processor—is the brain of a computer. It performs many calculations behind the scenes, ultimately allowing you to complete tasks as trivial as composing an e-mail to tasks as intensive as data analysis and modeling. Processors are encountered in many forms of consumer electronics. Most familar to many are notebook and desktop computers as well as mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Though the processor is just one of the many physical components that comprise these products, it is arguably the most central to determining their overall "usefulness" into the future as software requirements become increasingly demanding.

Unlike other components of a notebook computer, the processor is a fixed component. This is in contrast to RAM and hard disk storage which can be upgraded in many cases. Therefore, another consideration is the fact that the CPU you choose will be the same throughout the life of the system. This implies that as applications and operating systems become more sophisticated, the computer's ability to handle them will be directly affected by the purchase decision made all that time ago. This choice may mean the difference between a system that is useful for another year or two versus one that is not. A final consideration in choosing a CPU is the suggested or minimum requirements of the important software to be used as well as any academic department recommendations as a guide as to the relative kind of computing performance expected for a particular field of study.


III. Companies

i.

Intel

If there was a single semiconductor chip maker the average consumer is aware of it would likely be Intel. If not for the famous Intel "chime" as heard in many television commercials throughout the years then definitely for the fact that it would be difficult not to encounter its technologies in some form whether at work, school or otherwise. Intel is the premier chip maker for personal computers—companies such as Apple, Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony have product lines that depend on the processors that Intel produces. Intel's processors generally offer the best performance for all-around usage. This has been especially the case the last several years with the introduction and evolution of Intel's Core series product line. Currently, Intel's flagship consumer product line consists of mobile and desktop-grade Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 processors now in their second generation (dubbed "Sandy Bridge"). The third and latest generation of these processors (dubbed "Ivy Bridge") began to roll out for release late April 2012. The biggest difference between these two generations amounts to a moderate improvement in all-around computing performance but a substantial improvement in integrated graphics performance. Another significant feature Ivy Bridge adds is native USB 3.0 support, overtaking USB 2.0.

ii.

AMD

Though not considered the behemoth in the personal computing space as Intel, AMD is a decisive runner-up—and arguably the only true competitor Intel has in this domain. After spending much of the early to middle 2000's as being the performance and value leader with their Athlon 64 line of personal computing processors, AMD—unable to mimic this success in more recent years, has shifted their focus towards both enthusiast and budget-oriented system configurations. As a result, AMD is considered to be a viable alternative to Intel. Their current offerings are flanked by the Phenom series processors and Fusion APU processors. The Fusion APU (AMD A-Series) is a relatively new platform (as of 2011 and ongoing) that attempts to merge high-end graphical capabilities on the same chip as the processor. This means if your work or play requires a powerful graphics card, then AMD can potentially offer a cost effective alternative.

iii.

ARM

The increased need for mobile productivity and entertainment has given rise to a relatively new class of devices: smartphones and tablets. ARM is well-known for the design of mobile, power-efficient processor designs. In recent years it has seen its technology used in the products of many prominent electronics companies. Apple's A4/A5/A5X, Nvidia's Tegra, Samsung's Exynos and Texas Instruments' OMAP products all integrate ARM processors into what is known as a system-on-a-chip (SoC). SoCs merge many of the essential components of a computer (such as the CPU, RAM, ROM etc.) on a single chip which allows devices that utilize them to be lightweight and compact. These SoCs have gone on to be implemented in blockbuster products such as Apple's iPhone and iPad or Samsung's series of Galaxy phones. ARM's presence as the CPU and architecture of choice on many mobile devices cannot be understated as estimates put their numbers in the billions.


IV. Processor Comparison Table

This section offers a breakdown and comparison of the different product lines within Intel's/AMD's offerings. The processors are divided by the companies making the processors (Intel and AMD) then within those companies, a general ranking and purpose is offered for the kinds of processors each is offering. That is, some will be far better suited for doing advanced tasks such as data/statistical analysis, modelling, and mulltimedia creation where at the other extreme (toward the bottom of the Intel and AMD charts below), these products will not be able to handle much more than web browsing and e-mail. In between those extremes are processors that can usually handle a little bit from the top and bottom ends of the spectrum. The kind of performance implied by these processors is typically enough and recommended for most users; e.g. the Core i3 or i5 processors on the Intel side or the Phenom II or A-series from AMD's offerings.

Intel Comparison Table

Intel Recommended For Last Generation Released (Codename) Number of Cores Notable Features Additional Product Information Product Commentary
Core i7
i7


Enthusiasts, Superior All-Around Performance, Multi-tasking, Multimedia Creation, Advanced Productivity and Advanced 3D Graphics

2012 ("Ivy Bridge") and upcoming

2, 4

(1) Hyper-Threading
(2) Turbo Boost
(3) QuickPath InterConnect
(4) Tri-Gate (3D) Transistors
(5) Intel HD Graphics
(6) 64-bit

Intel The Intel Core i7 represents the company's most feature robust processor offering. They are Intel's flagship series of processor, achieving the greatest levels of relative performance. As an excellent all-around processor, the i7 is ideal for enthusiasts, gamers, power users and content creators alike. They are available for both desktop and notebook platforms. The current generation of i7 (as well as i3 and i5) processors is Ivy Bridge as of Mid-2012.
Core i5
i5
All-Around Performance, Multi-tasking, Advanced Producivity, Multimedia, Advanced 3D Graphics

2012 ("Ivy Bridge") and upcoming

2, 4

(1) Hyper-Threading (on i5 Mobile Dual-Core only, not available on Quad-Core desktop version)
(2) Turbo Boost
(3) QuickPath InterConnect
(4) Tri-Gate (3D) Transistors
(5) Intel HD Graphics
(6) 64-bit

Intel
The Intel Core i5 is a class of high-performance processor just a notch beneath the i7. Though they generally possess same features as the i7 with some exceptions (see Features), they have less cache (L3) memory which amounts to similar, but lesser all-around performance. Like the i7 and i3, the i5 features Intel's high performance integrated graphics in the HD 3000/4000. Most users will find the general level of perfomance offered by the i5 to be an attractive option compared to a more expensive i7-equipped system.
Core i3
i3
Productivity, Multi-tasking, Basic Graphics, Multimedia

2012 ("Ivy Bridge") and upcoming

2, 4

(1) Hyper-Threading
(2) QuickPath InterConnect
(3) Tri-Gate (3D) Transistors
(4) Intel HD Graphics 3000
(5) 64-bit

Intel The Intel Core i3 processor is the closest successor to the now out-of-production Core2Duo processor. The most significant differences between the i3 and i5/i7 is the lack of Turbo Boost and less cache (L3) memory. The i3 offers moderate all-around performance and is often found in budget-oriented systems.
Pentium (Post-2009)
pentium
Productivity, E-mail, and Web Browsing, Photos and Music 2011 ("Sandy Bridge") 2 Hyper-Threading (however, most currently do not support this feature) Intel The Intel Pentium as a product line had built a strong reputation with consumers in the 90's through the early 2000s with the Pentium I/II/III/4 series. Formerly a flagship line of processor, the Pentium is currently in production as a budget-oriented option just above the Celeron in terms of relative performance. The most recent iteration of the Pentium takes some architectural cues from the Core i series with the 2011 Pentium based on the Sandy Bridge, offering performance suitable for most basic tasks.
Celeron
(Post-2010)
celeron
Productivity, E-mail, and Web Browsing, Photos and Music 2011 ("Sandy Bridge") 2 64-bit Intel Throughout its many iterations, the Intel Celeron has occupied the lower end of the processor market in terms of both price and performance. Updates to the Celeron based on current generation architecture have been made to keep the processor relevant. The improvements are enough such that they allow for running current productivity packages and web applications. They are best considered for an entry-level system.
Atom
atom
Basic Productivity, E-mail, and Web Browsing 2012 ("Cedar Trail") and upcoming 1, 2 (1) Hyper-Threading
(2) 64-bit
Intel The Intel Atom belongs almost exclusively to a class of personal computers known as netbooks (nettops and tablets are the lesser common instances). The Atom is focused not so much on performance as it is on reducing power consumption. As a result, many netbooks offer excellent battery life at the cost of being unable to run more sophisticated applications beyond web browsing and word processing. Generally speaking, netbook processors such as the Atom do not see substantial performance gains with subsequent generations.
Retiring/Retired Product Lines
Core 2 Duo & Core 2 Quad

Multi-tasking, Productivity and Multimedia

2008 2, 4 64-Bit Intel
- Core 2 Duo
- Core 2 Quad
Though the Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors are still in production, the platform has been succeeded by the Core i Series since late 2008. Despite this, these processors are still very servicable providing adequete levels of performance for multitasking to varying levels of multimedia creation and productivity applications.
Core Solo/Core Duo/Centrino & Celeron (Pre-2010) Basic Productivity, E-mail, and Web Browsing 2006 1, 2 32-bit N/A The Core Duo/Duo Centrino processors preceeded both the Core2 and Core i series of processor. Generally do not recommend running current software for optimal use; consideration of an upgrade path is recommended soon.
Pentium III & Pentium 4 Legacy software and operating system Late 90s/Early 2000s 1 Pentium 4: mostly 32-bit later versions 64-bit, w/Hyper- Threading N/A An upgrade path is highly recommended; Usefulness is relagated to doing basic tasks such as running older versions of Microsoft Office or browsing webpages absent of the latest media or plugins such as Flash or Java.

 

AMD Comparison Table

amd Recommended For Last Generation Released (Codename) Number of Cores Notable Features Additional Product Information Product Commentary
FX
amd fx
Desktop Enthusiasts, All-Around High Performance 2012 ("Bulldozer") and upcoming 4, 6, 8 (1) HyperTransport
(2) Integrated DRAM Controller with AMD Memory Optimizer
(2) AMD Turbo CORE
(3) AMD Virtualization
(4) AMD PowerNow! (Cool'n'Quiet)
(1) AMD
(2) Architectural Features
Available exclusively on desktop platforms, AMD FX targets custom builders and enthusiasts. This is a processor that far surpasses the needs of the average user. However, given the amount of performance it provides combined with the relative low cost, it becomes an attractive option for budget custom PC builds. The FX along with the A-Series, represent AMD's current flagship products and later releases within these product lines are planned.
A-Series (Fusion)
a series
A4: Basic
All-Around Use/Productivity, Casual Gaming

A6, A8: All-Around Performance, Multimedia, Advanced 3D Graphics
2012 ("Trinity") and upcoming

A4: 2

A6, A8: 4

DirectX 11 Capable Graphics (1) AMD
(2) Notebook Features
The AMD A-Series (AMD Fusion) are a type of chip that merges the CPU with a high-performance GPU (graphics processing unit) resulting in a versatile system that is very power efficient. They are available in desktops, laptops and most recently, ultrabooks. Where the A4 APU is found in less expensive, entry level systems, the A6 and A8 are more suited for all-around use w/advanced graphics applications (such as gaming or 3D modeling). In May 2012, AMD released the next generation of Fusion A-Series processors known as "Trinity", these processors promise much greater graphical and general purpose performance. AMD has aligned Trinity as an answer to Intel's Ivy Bridge. 
Phenom II
phenom ii
Advanced Productivity, HD Video, 3D Graphics, Photos and Music 2010 2, 3, 4, 6 (1) HyperTransport™
(2) Integrated DRAM Controller with AMD Memory Optimizer
(3) AMD Turbo CORE
(4) AMD PowerNow! (Cool'n'Quiet)
(5) AMD CoolCore!

(1) AMD
(2) Key Architectural Features

The AMD Phenom II is primarily a class of high-performance desktop processor.In 2010, AMD claimed to be the first in the industry to offer a consumer class six-core processor though the X6. Mobile variants of the Phenom II were introduced as well, but not in the six-core flavor. Though new generations of this product line are no longer in the works, this line of processor is still sold as a low-cost, budget-oriented option for custom system builds. The performance of this processor is more than enough for everyday usage and productivity.
Athlon II
athlon ii

Basic Multi-tasking, Productivity and Multimedia Applications

2011 and upcoming

2, 3, 4 (1) AMD Virtualization
(2) AMD PowerNow! (Cool'n'Quiet)
(3) AMD CoolCore!
(1) AMD
(2) Key Architectural Features

The Athlon II is a relatively recent processor taking design cues from the Phenom II. Unlike the Athlon Classic, is still in production and far more suited to current productivity applications such as Microsoft Office as well as multitasking and multimedia applcations. It is found in both laptops and desktops as a reasonably-powered, cost-effective option.

Turion II
turionii
Productivity, Photos, and Music 2010 1, 2 (1) HyperTransport
(2) 64-bit
AMD The Turion II is a processor based from the same architecture in the Phenom II and Athlon II. It was introduced as a competitor to Intel's Core 2 Duo. As a result, its performance should be very suitable for productivity software. They designed with power efficiency in mind and is found primarily in notebook configurations.
Sempron
sempron
Basic Productivity, E-mail, and Web Browsing 2010 1, 2 (1) HyperTransport
(2) 64-bit
AMD The Sempron is the AMD analogue to the Intel Celeron. It offers very basic levels of performance and is updated every so often so as to offer an inexpensive option capable of running recent versions of productivity software such as Office 2010 as well as web applications.
Retiring/Retired Product Lines
Phenom

Multi-tasking, HD Video, Basic Graphics 2008 2, 3, 4

(1) HyperTransport
(2) AMD PowerNow! (Cool'n'Quiet)
(3) AMD CoolCore!

AMD The AMD Phenom processor preceded the Phenon II. Though the processor is no longer in production, it is generally considered lower-middle range in performance; suitable for multi-tasking and more than casual use. The Phenom was available only for desktop platforms.
Athlon (Classic)

Web Browsing, E-mail

Not In production (1999-2005) 1, 2 32-bit or 64-bit N/A Formerly known as just the Athlon, the Athlon Classic has not been in production since 2005. The kind of performance is extremely limited for today's applications and is recommended for only the most basic of uses. Generally, a complete system upgrade from this processor range would be advisable if your needs fall beyond web browsing and e-mail tasks.

 

Companies Utilizing ARM Architecture

arm System-On-a-Chip (SoC) Notable Product(s) Containing Type of ARM Processor Number of Cores Additional Product Information
Apple

A4

iPhone 4, iPod Touch (4th Gen), iPad (1st Gen), AppleTV (2nd Gen) Cortex-A8 1 Apple
A5 iPhone 4S, iPad 2, AppleTV (3rd Gen) Cortex-A9 2
A5X iPad (3rd Gen, Retina Display) Cortex-A9 2
Samsung

Exynos 3 Single

Samsung Galaxy S, Samsung Galaxy Nexus S,

Cortex-A8 1 Samsung
Exynos 4 Dual Samsung Galaxy SII, Samsung Galaxy Note (International) Cortex-A9 2
Exynos 4 Quad Samsung Galaxy SIII Cortex-A9 4
Exynos 5 Dual N/A Cortex-A15 2
Nvidia

Tegra

Microsoft Zune HD

ARM11 1 Nvidia
Tegra 2 ASUS Eee Pad Transformer, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Motorola Xoom, Dell Streak 7 & Pro, Sony Tablet S Cortex-A9 2
Tegra 3 ASUS Transformer Pad 300, ASUS Nexus 7, Acer Iconia Tab A510 & A700, HTC One X Cortex-A9 4
Qualcomm Snapdragon S2 Nokia Lumia 900 N/A 1 Qualcomm
Snapdragon S3 Galaxy Note LTE (AT&T), HP TouchPad N/A 2
Snapdragon S4 Samsung Galaxy SIII LTE, HTC EVO 4G LTE N/A 2, 4
Texas Instruments OMAP 3 Barnes and Noble Nook Color Cortex-A8 1 Texas Instruments
OMAP 4 Amazon Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, Blackberry Playbook, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet Cortex-A9 2
OMAP 5 N/A Cortex-A15 2

V. Benchmarks

It is important to note that there are a considerable amount of details that factor into the overall performance of any given processor beyond frequency (GHz). This is not a valid way to compare most processors, especially between competing companies and between generations. For example, an Intel Pentium 4 (a processor that is generations behind any current Intel i-series processor) running at 3.8 GHz is much slower compared than any i3, i5 or i7 running at lower GHz—the biggest reason for this is the improvement in architecture allowing for increases in the number of cores as well as improvements in other features (such as cache memory and bus technology) that allow the modern CPU to get more work done in a given clock cycle. Hence, it is more useful to compare frequencies and number of cores of processors across the same product line.

CPU benchmarking involves running a specific software tool or suite of tools which allow users to 'distill' an overall performance rating that can be used to rank against other processors. Computer hardware websites such as those listed below have aggregated rankings for all major desktop/notebook processors released within the last decade, allowing a prospective buyer to get a feel for the relative level of performance separating one processor from another. Further, these benchmarks when considered in tandem with the cost of a given processor also allow buyers to compare value as far as amount of performance per dollar. This is important since CPU performance does not necessarily correlate with price, especially across different makers.

The following links below provide comprehensive rankings for desktop and mobile processors.

Benchmark Links:

Desktop CPU Benchmarks:

Mobile CPU Benchmarks:


VI. Notable Features Demystified

In this section, we breakdown the practical meaning of some notable technical features included in the various processors available. The vast majority of these features pertain to how a given processor is able to attain a performance boost over either its competitors or previous generations of products.

Feature Explanation Processors Using Feature
Intel Features
Hyper-Threading (HT) Improves the performance by allowing the operating system to improve its ability to 'multitask' processes more intelligently. One physically present core is treated as two logical cores which share workloads between each other. Hence, a dual-core with HT has 4 logical cores and a quad-core has 8 logical cores. Core i7, Core i5, Core i3, Atom
Turbo Boost Allows the processor to intelligently and dynamically overclock a core(s) such that thermal/power constraints are not violated. For example, a dual core processor with Turbo Boost can overclock one core to much higher frequencies while decreasing speed of the other core; in some situations this can improve performance. Core i7, Core i5 (Mobile Dual-Cores only)
QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) An Intel technology which replaced Front Side Bus (FSB) -- similar in purpose to AMD's competing HyperTransport technology. Implemented in some fashion across all Intel core iX series
Tri-Gate (3D) Transistor A new fabrication technology implemented for mass production for the first time in 2012 with Ivy Bridge. Essentially, increases the surface area of each transistor on the chip while also reducing power leakage which on the whole significantly decreases power consumption and improves performance. Ivy Bridge (2012) iX series
vPro Synchronizes remote desktop, security, and other multi-station support features. Decreases desk-side maintenance visits. Current Intel processors
Execute Disable Bit Prevents certain viruses from infecting the system by labeling some data "executable." Current Intel processors
AMD Features
HyperTransport

A feature that helps minimize the number of buses in a system. This can reduce system 'bottlenecks' and allow microprocessors to use system memory more efficiently.

All current AMD processors
Cool'n'Quiet Reduces heat and noise of processors allowing for increased energy efficiency. Phenom I & II, Athlon, Sempron (with exceptions)
Turbo Core Turbo Core allows for contextual overclocking of the processor to optimize performance subject to electrical and thermal requirements/specifications. Phenom II X6, Trinity APUs
CoolCore Limits unused elements of the processor such that power is conserved -- allows for increased notebook battery life on a single charge. Phenom I & II, Turion

VII. FAQ

Q: What is the difference between a 32-bit and 64-bit processor?

A : From a practical standpoint, the true difference at hand is the ability to run a 32-bit operating system (OS) versus a 64-bit OS and their subsequent applications. Technically, 64-bit allows the processor to address larger chunks of data from physical memory (RAM) than their 32-bit counterparts. Hence, while the maximum amount of RAM for a 32-bit system is 4GB, for a 64-bit system there is no practical limit except where artificially imposed by a specific version of an OS or system manufacturer—for example, Windows 7 Home Edition allows for up to 16GB of RAM where Professional and Ultimate allows up to 192GB. The benefit of 64-bit arises in dealing with the increasing sophistication of applications as well as working with and processing large files with greater efficiency. Most modern CPUs such as any of Intel's iX series are 64-bit and virtually any new configuration of a machine with these processors include a 64-bit OS. It is important to note that while 64-bit CPUs can typically run 32-bit applications, the reverse is not true.

Q: What is the relationship between a processor and RAM? Why and when can a RAM upgrade make my system run faster?

A : Where the CPU acts as the brains of a computer, processing your input into output, Random Access Memory (RAM) can be considered an analogue to working memory. It is a fast type of volatile memory that the system uses to help process data. When the amount of RAM is overwhelmed by various processes on the system—which can happen if a user had begun using a more sophisticated OS with only the minimum amount of recommended RAM or if many applications are running at once—the OS resorts to using storage from the much slower hard disk drive to 'simulate' and compensate for the lack of RAM, this is known as virtual memory. Running many applications from virtual memory can result in general sluggishness, the CPU may be fast but it can process data only as quickly as the virtual memory can dispense it. In essence, a lack of sufficient RAM can lead to a system being 'bottlenecked'. Upgrading RAM can help ensure that the system is running on as little if any virtual memory as possible, this makes the machine more responsive especially when multi-tasking across several applications. Hence, the value of RAM is in its ability to ensure that the CPU is able to pull data as seamlessly as possible. If the current amount of RAM in a system is 'enough', adding more RAM will not serve to speed up the system any further. At this point, the system runs as fast as the CPU is capable of and depending on the needs of the user, a processor upgrade might be considered.


VIII. Useful Links

(1) Tom's Hardware (http://www.tomshardware.com/)

Tom's Hardware is among the web's premiere resources for news, commentary, reviews and price comparisons of computer hardware and peripherals.

(2) Anandtech (http://www.anandtech.com/)

Anandtech is another excellent online magazine that specializes in providing articles and in-depth reviews for computers hardware and consumer electronics.

(3) MacRumors Buyer's Guide (http://buyersguide.macrumors.com/)

The MacRumors Buyer's Guide offers an excellent means of staying on top of Apple updates to their product lines such as the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac. As processor updates are typically among the most significant changes accompanying an update, this guide will help you time your purchases 'strategically' so that you get the most processing power (and features) for your dollar.





Keywords: personal departmental processor comparison intel pentium celeron core duo dual centrino dell apple mac cpu amd Ghz amd turion athlon sempron phenom i3 i5 i7 nehalem sandy bridge   Doc ID: 4927
Owner: Ryan H.Group: DoIT Tech Store Consulting
Created: 2006-08-17 19:00 CDTUpdated: 2012-09-14 15:22 CDT
Sites: DoIT Help Desk, DoIT Tech Store, DoIT Tech Store Consulting