The 6 best AMD CPUs of all time

AMD has a long history, and after the recent launch of Ryzen 7000 processors, we decided it was time to look back. The company has a storied history filled with many highs, but equally as many lows.

Although AMD is well known for its graphics, it only started selling GPUs in the late 2000s. Its CPU business is much, much older, going all the way back to the 60s. And just as AMD’s graphics are inextricably intertwined with those of Nvidia, AMD’s CPUs are hard to separate from those of its other rival, Intel.

AMD has made six CPUs that not only proved itself as a true competitor to much larger companies but also pushed technology and the world forward.

Athlon AMD’s first victory The AMD Athlon 650.Amazon

The Athlon 1000 came out in 2000, and AMD was founded in 1969, so before I talk about how AMD beat Intel in the race to 1GHz, I should cover how AMD even got here. Although the company was making its own processors in the ’70s, AMD very quickly assumed the role of a secondary source for Intel chips, which gave AMD the right to use the x86 architecture. Secondary sourcing was important back then because companies that made computers (such as IBM) wanted to be sure they would have enough supply and that it would be delivered promptly. For most of the ’70s and the ’80s, AMD got along by making Intel CPUs.

Eventually, Intel wanted to cut AMD out of the picture and tried to exclude AMD from producing the 80386 (which AMD would eventually clone to make its Am386). Intel’s exclusion of AMD marked the first of many lawsuits between the two companies, and by 1995, the two companies eventually settled the suit, which granted AMD the right to use the x86 architecture. Soon after, AMD launched its first CPU developed without Intel technology: the K5. It competed against not only Intel’s established CPU business but also another company using the x86 architecture, Cyrix. The K5 and the K6 in 1997 provided an alternative to Intel for people on a budget, but couldn’t compete on performance.

That all changed with the K7, also known as Athlon, which in Ancient Greek means “contest” or “arena.” Launching in 1999, the original line of Athlon CPUs didn’t just close the gap with Intel’s Pentium series — AMD beat Intel outright. The new K7 had much higher clock speeds than the old K6 as well as significantly more cache. Anandtech speculated that Intel would need a 700MHz Pentium III to beat AMD’s 650MHz Athlon, but also observed that AMD’s lower prices would keep Athlon competitive, albeit at great expense to AMD.

Over the next few months, AMD and Intel kept one-upping each other by releasing new CPUs, each with a higher clock speed than the last. The race for the highest clock speed wasn’t just for performance; having a higher frequency was good marketing, too. But despite Intel being the far larger company, AMD beat Intel to 1 GHz by launching the Athlon 1000 in March 2000. Intel announced its own 1GHz Pentium III just a couple of days later, and it beat the Athlon 1000, but AMD’s CPU was available at retail much sooner.

The entire Athlon lineup had been a massive upset in the CPU industry, and AMD’s underdog status cemented the Athlon’s legendary reputation almost as soon as it came out. Intel still held the advantage thanks to its massive size and healthy finances, but only a few years ago, AMD was just a company making extra CPUs for Intel. By 2000, AMD had ambitions to take 30% of the entire CPU market.

Athlon 64 AMD defines 64-bit computing The AMD Athlon 64 X2.Amazon

Over the next few years after the race to 1GHz, both AMD and Intel ran into trouble trying to get their next-generation CPUs out. Intel launched its new Pentium 4 CPUs first in late 2000, but these CPUs were hobbled by high prices, reliance on cutting-edge memory and its infamous NetBurst architecture, which was designed for high clock speeds at the expense of power efficiency. Meanwhile, AMD was refining its already existing line of Athlons, which didn’t deliver next-generation levels of performance.

AMD had a good reason to delay, however, as the next generation of AMD CPUs was to introduce 64-bit computing. This was perhaps a far more important goal than 1GHz as 64-bit computing was a massive improvement over 32-bit computing for a variety of tasks. Intel actually beat AMD to the punch with its Itanium server CPUs, but Itanium was extremely flawed because it wasn’t backward compatible with 32-bit software. That gave AMD a big opening to introduce its 64-bit implementation of the x86 architecture: AMD64.

AMD64 finally made its debut in 2003, first in the brand new Opteron series of server CPUs and later in Athlon 64 chips. While Anandtech wasn’t super impressed by the value of AMD’s new desktop CPUs (especially the flagship Athlon 64 FX), the publication appreciated AMD’s performance in 64-bit applications. AMD’s superior implementation of 64-bit was a key reason why Athlon 64 and particularly Opteron sold well. Ultimately, AMD64 provided the basis for x86-64 while Itanium failed to accomplish any of its goals before its discontinuation in 2020 (yes, it survived that long).

But consequently, Intel felt that its CPU business was in mortal danger from AMD. To protect its business interests, Intel relied on something AMD couldn’t match: money. Intel started paying companies like Dell and HP large amounts of cash in the form of rebates and special deals to not use AMD CPUs and to stick with Intel. These arrangements were extremely secretive, and as OEMs became more reliant on cash flow from Intel’s rebates, they became reluctant to ever use AMD chips, because doing so would mean giving up money from Intel.

AMD filed a lawsuit in 2005, but the legal battle wasn’t resolved until 2009 after Intel had been fined by regulatory agencies in several countries and jurisdictions, including a $1.5 billion fine in the EU. The two companies decided to settle the case out of court, and although Intel denied it had ever done anything illegal, it promised to not break the anticompetitive laws in the future. Intel also agreed to pay AMD $1.25 billion as compensation.

That wasn’t the end, either. While the legal battle raged on, Intel continued to cut deals with OEMs, and AMD’s market share quickly began to decline despite being very competitive against Intel’s chips. Opteron in particular suffered, having reached over 25% market share in 2006 but declining to just under 15% a year later. The acquisition of ATI in 2006 also contributed to AMD’s worsening finances, though Intel arguably caused greater damage by denying AMD the chance to not just sell chips but to develop a strong ecosystem within the CPU market. AMD wasn’t out of the fight, but things were looking bad.

Bobcat and Jaguar AMD’s final refuge PlayStation 4

The 2000s was the heyday of the desktop PC, with its high power consumption and equally high performance. The next step of computing wasn’t in the office or at home, though, but on the go. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets were becoming increasingly popular, so it was inevitable that AMD and Intel would vie for supremacy in this category, though the companies had different ambitions and methods of fulfilling those ambitions. Intel, with its brand new Atom CPUs, wanted to get into every single kind of portable computer, from laptops to handheld video game consoles to phones.

AMD was also working on a similar CPU, but had different ideas about where it would focus its efforts. The company didn’t want a fight with ARM which had a stranglehold on phones and other devices, so AMD decided to focus on the traditional x86 market — mainly laptops but also ITX PCs, home theater PCs, and low-end devices. This CPU was codenamed Bobcat, and it was the first of the Cat core CPUs that were crucial to AMD’s financial well-being for this period.

Although it was late to the party in 2011, Bobcat immediately established itself not just as an Atom competitor, but as an Atom killer. It had pretty much all the media features most people could want in addition to much higher CPU and GPU performance than Atom (an instance where the ATI acquisition was starting to pay off). Power consumption was extremely good on Bobcat as well, and Anandtech observed that AMD “finally had a value offering that it doesn’t have to discount heavily to sell.” Bobcat was a big success for AMD, and it sold in 50 million devices by 2013.

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