One of the most frustrating things about comparing mobile systems is how hard it is to actually perform an apples-to-apples comparison. On the desktop side of things, I can easily test an AMD system with exactly the same components as an Intel rig, right down to the power supply and GPU brands. In laptops, typically the best we can do is to compare two systems of similar price. Compare a $1,000 AMD laptop to a $1,000 Intel system, and you may find significant differences in RAM loadout, display size, resolution, GPU, and storage — all of which make it harder to know which solution is actually better.
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is, therefore, an exceedingly rare opportunity. Not only did Microsoft work extensively with AMD to optimize the platform (and that’s according to AMD itself), it also uses the same chassis and display for both the Intel and AMD versions of the platform. This allows for a much closer comparison of the two manufacturers than would normally be possible. Anandtech recently got its hands on an equivalently configured AMD and Intel system and put them up against each other in a head-to-head comparison.
The good news is that this is as perfect a comparison vehicle for an AMD-versus-Intel match-up as we’ve ever seen. The bad news is that it’s pretty much entirely an Intel smash-and-grab. Anandtech isn’t kidding when it writes:
AMD’s Picasso platform, featuring its Zen+ cores and coupled with a Vega iGPU, has been a tremendous improvement for AMD. But Intel’s Ice Lake platform runs circles around it. Sunny Cove cores coupled with the larger Gen 11 graphics have proven to be too much to handle.
The news isn’t all bad, but if you’re familiar with AMD’s APU performance since 2011, it might look like something of a repeat, with AMD falling well behind in CPU workloads but competing much more effectively on the GPU side of the equation. This is partly explained by underlying limits to each platform — Intel has LPDDR4X-3733 memory to work with, while AMD only has DDR4-2400 — but it’s also partly the result of the underlying process technology used for each CPU. Intel’s 10nm+ is the company’s latest mobile process node, while AMD is still using 12nm silicon from GlobalFoundries. AMD’s 7nm desktop CPUs draw much less power than its 12nm models and we expect its mobile APUs to show significant improvements… when they eventually become available. For now, however, 12nm silicon is what AMD has in-market, and it’s the fair comparison for Intel’s Ice Lake.
In a head-to-head comparison, Ice Lake comes out clearly the winner, with higher performance, longer battery life, nearly equal GPU performance, and better overall power consumption. This doesn’t automatically mean every AMD system loses to every Intel rig — keep in mind that we’re comparing $2,000 laptops here. It’s not unusual to see AMD rigs selling for less than the equivalent Intel CPU — which, again, is part of why apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult in the first place.
Consider this a “best foot forward in ideal circumstances” for both CPUs and companies — but not the final word on absolute performance between any two systems.
- Review Roundup: ARM-Powered Surface Pro X Nails Form Factor But Offers Weak Performance
- Microsoft’s AMD Surface Laptop Review Roundup: Strong Performance, Middling Battery Life
- Ice Lake Benchmarks Paint a Complex Picture for Intel’s Latest CPU