AMD has been selling us 99% Intel-Compatible chips for as almost as long as I can remember. It was in the mid-late 90’s when Intel compatible motherboards started including ZIF Sockets, making it easy for customers to insert, remove, and swap CPU chips attached to their motherboards. But have Intel clones been a good choice over the years? Are they a good choice now? Let’s ponder.
Back when I was younger, before we had to remove our shoes to board planes, when we still had to type “https://” to visit any web site, and before XBox ruined gaming for people with brains… several companies were making claims (lies) that they could make Intel-Compatible chips better than Intel. If my memory serves me, I remember Cirrus Logic and AMD making inroads into that market. I owned a Cirrus Logic chip at one point, and no… it wasn’t fast at all, compared to the Intel chip it claimed to replace. Also, around that same time, AMD came out with the “K6″ and”K6-2” chips to drop into the same boards… also awful.
Despite the K6 chips being utter garbage, AMD ran an effective marketing campaign and managed to convince enough people to buy them, thereby funding their continued existence. If I recall, the K6 chips appeared fast in Integer benchmarks, however, with abysmal floating point performance, many types of applications were utterly painful to use compared to the same applications running on their Intel counterparts. All-in-all the K6 was a terrible chip overall that was simply capable of posting good numbers in a few synthetic benchmarks… enough to convince ill informed people to buy them.
AMD wasn’t really doing well as a competitor on the technology side. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a huge misstep by some golf-playing suit from Intel, AMD would have probably retired from the x86-compatible space altogether. Lucky for them, Intel signed some bad contracts that put them on the hook to integrate RAMBUS into their chipsets. Intel chips began running on RAMBUS RAM exclusively for a while. I guess someone had convinced the suits that Intel needed RAMBUS or something. Intel did some kind of exclusive deal with them, locking out AMD from RAMBUS architecture, but effectively locking themselves in. This really pissed off Intel’s customers, because RAMBUS was suuuper expense at the time, and whereas (on paper) it was super fast, the systems weren’t really taking advantage of the increased memory bandwidth, while the price/performance ratio suffered immensely. The CPUs just couldn’t drive RAMBUS to its potential yet, and RAMBUS added a boatload of cost. RAMBUS was like building a freeway through Antarctica… you didn’t need it all that capacity.
AMD saw this as an opening, and countered with with a new line of processors, the “Athlon” processors, which notably and smartly quadrupled the floating point performance of the K6 line, outperforming Intel’s floating point for the first time. Athlon also employed a competing RAM technology: DDR or “Double Data Rate”. DDR doubled the speed of existing RAM technology by allowing operations on both the rising and falling edges of the clock signal. DDR was way cheaper, required less investment for motherboard makers, and, combined with the fact that the Athlon processor’s adequate floating point speed resulted in Athlon systems performing better compared to Intel overall.
AMD took the lead and also the spotlight for a while. AMD was the first company to reach the coveted 1GHZ clock speed.
I don’t know what happened after that, but AMD must have all gone to Vegas to celebrate, inadvertently acquiring a 10-year hangover. Virtually every chip they made after that was garbage. I owned a rig sporting the first dual-socket Athlon platform, it was really shoddy and didn’t outlive my Dual-Slot 666Mhz Pentium rig. I also ran a Phoenom FX chip, the 8950, in a server in my basement. It promised a whopping 8 cores, but just 4 FPUs, and ran so hot with its 250watt TDP that they specifically REQUIRED water cooling to operate it (not included). This machine was utterly miserable and I never actually got it stable at it’s advertised speed. I literally had to UNDERCLOCK the chip!
AMD, for years following, decided to focus on the “value” category, and the 8950 was their flagship, but still just a “value” processor. It was marketed like “look we are giving to 8 cores for the price of 2 Intel cores” or something to that effect. They didn’t make anything really significantly “better” until the Ryzen line came around.
Ryzen seems to have rejuvenated the AMD chip line for the first time in years. Many tech influencers on Youtube promote systems built with Ryzen…. certainly on paper, Ryzen and the enthusiasm-building Threadripper line seem like great chips at great prices when compared to their Intel counterparts.
But is performance everything to look for in a computer? What about the platform as a whole? The motherboards? The chipsets? What about… trustworthiness? Nobody wants their computer to go up in smoke after 1 or 2 years of operation. Nobody wants to scream and fight with their computer every time they try to plug in a new device, get BSODs, or have the VRM overheat constantly despite having 23 fans in the case (I literally have that many fans in one Threadripper case).
When Threadripper was first released the sales reps at Microcenter, very knowledgeable people, urged me to avoid it. The consensus was the BIOS just wasn’t ready. RAM compatibility was limited, and achieving the advertised capacity of 128GB of RAM with the 8 RAM slots was impossible. But I have an itch for parallel processing. I eventually bought a Threadripper 2990WX… a 32-core monster that cost me $1900 for the chip alone. By this time there were several BIOS iterations released… but is Threadripper really a good platform?
Well… of the 3 Threadripper boards I’ve recently had in my possession (a 4th is coming via eBay tomorrow), ALL 3 of them had 10gbe ports that would overheat and fail under load. One of them would not take any m.2 stick I put into it without BSOD. One of them died about 31 days into the build, just beyond my 30 day return window, but the store manager was nice enough to make an exception and let me return it (since I blow virtually all my paychecks there anyway), and one of them is currently dead, living just 2 years, and awaiting replacement in the mail via some random second hand seller I found on eBay.
I watercooled my 2990wx, not for the purpose of overclocking, but for the intention of longevity. I figured if I just kept everything extremely cool (I barely exceed 60C on any part under full load) it would last longer. I was very interested in keeping this $1900 chip running for a long time. But despite watercooling the CPU and GPU, the motherboard had all kinds of chips that run HOT. You can burn your finger if you touch the VRM heatsink, in fact, despite the heat-pipes and “active” cooling (in the form of a single, extremely loud, tiny, fan mounted around the backplane area. I tried to mitigate this by 3D printing some air ducts to direct airflow directly onto the VRM and the areas of the board that were getting too hot.. but all in all… this board still died, despite the CPU and GPU rarely running at temperatures above 36C. When it died, I was just doing mundane work on some backup software over an RDP session when suddenly the computer went offline, I assumed initially that it was just the 10gbe failing (again). I went downstairs to find the monitor turned off and the motherboard stuck in a BIOS POST loop…. currently awaiting replacement parts.
On the other hand, I’m willing to bet anyone that if I plugged a PSU into my old Dual-slot 666mhz Pentium II motherboard that I could actually get it to boot up and load Windows 2000 just fine. The pattern I’ve noticed with my Intel-based systems is that they always outlived their usefulness. I only shut them down when it just didn’t make sense to run them anymore. But ALL of my AMD systems just died, forcing me to be react to their loss… causing pain and frustration. I had one AMD-based motherboard literally catch on fire. I watched the capacitors light up like a cigarette lighter, and the computer was done…. it was just sitting idle at the time.
I have probably built around 75 computers in the last 20 years for my personal use. I don’t recall any Intel motherboard dying, ever, although in all fairness I might have forgotten about one or two… but regarding the AMD based boards… a nightmare. All those computers suffered an early death with exception to maybe the 1GHZ Athlon champion… but I might have forgotten about one or two survivors. All in all, the overarching theme is that AMD has left me with a lot of pain and loss in the technology world, while Intel was sturdy, reliable, and compatible, even if they didn’t put up the best numbers in the performance, or price:performance category.
So despite giving AMD a second chance this time around. I’ve decided that I’m swearing off AMD in the future. For one thing… I can’t afford to buy cheap processors and motherboards… they’re too expensive to replace .