Deep Dive: Intel 'Tiger Lake' vs. AMD 'Renoir,' Which Laptop CPU Wins on Performance?

A casual glance at the specs for Intel’s new 11th Generation Core “Tiger Lake” laptop processors might suggest that there’s no reason for bleeding-edge-dwellers to rush out to buy a new laptop this year. The new CPUs have, at most, just four cores, fewer than the six cores of the top chips in Intel’s equivalent 10th Generation (“Comet Lake-U”) family, or the eight cores of AMD’s best silicon in its competing fourth-generation Ryzen Mobile (“Renoir”) line. Four cores seems humdrum here in 2020. Tiger Lake is also using chip-fabrication technology that’s already a generation behind Renoir.

But after performing more than 20 computing and graphics tests on a nearly-consumer-ready Tiger Lake laptop factory sample over the past week, we found that there’s plenty to back up Intel’s suggestion that Tiger Lake is revolutionary in its own way. That’s not because of a wildly high number of cores and threads, but because of what it can do with the cores and threads it does support. With a bit of AI optimization, much more capable integrated graphics silicon, and some higher clock speeds, in Tiger Lake, Intel has succeeded in getting its first crop of 11th Generation chips to outperform their Renoir competitors on some common tasks, such as video editing. And thanks to the inclusion of Intel’s Iris Xe integrated graphics silicon—the first public appearance of the company’s next-generation Xe graphics tech—even some proper PC gaming is possible, with some caveats.

Behold the Tiger Lake Whitebook

Our tests pitted an early sample laptop using Intel’s top-of-the-Tiger-Lake-line Core i7-1185G7 against a shipping machine from Lenovo built around AMD’s flagship Renoir-family CPU of the same class, the Ryzen 7 4800U. First off: It’s important to note that these are the two chip makers’ U-series laptop CPUs, designed for mainstream and thin-and-light laptops, not more powerful gaming or workstation machines. With eight cores, the Ryzen 7 predictably trounces the quad-core Core i7 on straightforward, multithreaded CPU-intensive tasks, such as converting videos or compressing a file folder. But because both of these chips are destined for thin, light, and stylish ultraportable laptops, the idea is that they will be used mostly for lighter tasks, such as video conferencing and web browsing. On those types of workflows, our tests suggest that Tiger Lake can be as good as Renoir, and in some cases much better. 

Tiger Lake whitebook laptop the new Evo standard (which are trustmarks of a sort, guaranteeing creature comforts like quick bootups, speedy wake from sleep, and fast recharging) are Intel’s way of “certifying” that an ultraportable laptop will deliver a powerful, enjoyable experience. But branding is one thing; cold, hard testing data is another.

Let’s see how those claims hold up with actual hardware.

How We Tested Tiger Lake

The first Tiger Lake laptops—many of them Evo certified—are not expected to go on sale for another month or so. In advance of the launch, Intel sent us a Tiger Lake-powered “whitebook,” an unbranded, pre-production laptop that lets its top announced Tiger Lake chip, the Core i7-1185G7, strut its stuff. (Intel requested we not test battery life on this machine, as it is not reflective of an exact OEM design.)

Intel Tiger Lake WhitebookLenovo IdeaPad Slim 7, an engineering sample of what is now a final production laptop. This machine won’t be available in the US in the exact configuration that we have: Ryzen 7 4800U, 16GB of DDR4X memory, and a 512GB Samsung SSD. (The top US Slim 7 model is based on the one-step-down Ryzen 7 4700U.) Indeed, AMD-based laptops of any kind with the 4800U are thin on the ground at this writing in the US, though models with the Ryzen 7 4700U are very much available.

Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 7Tiger Lake Trials: Our Testing Methodology  

We evaluated the performance of the Tiger Lake Core i7 using three types of benchmarks and workflow simulations: gaming tests (both synthetic and real-world), general computing, and AI-assisted workflows. For gaming and general computing, we use tests that are mostly identical to the tests we run every day when evaluating for-sale laptops or gaming PCs at PC Labs. They’re selected both for their comprehensive nature and their impartiality, representing a wide range of computing and gaming scenarios and stressing multiple laptop components.

AI-assisted workflows are relatively new to personal computing, so there aren’t many in-the-wild, commonly agreed upon benchmark tests that can help evaluate them. But they’re critically important to the tasks that many PC users perform every day. Ever add a filter or effect to a photo in Adobe Photoshop, or performed mass image tagging? The task probably relies on processor-level AI to speed it up. 

Intel Tiger Lake WhitebookTiger Lake’s AI proficiency. In a wider sense, these types of tests, if fashioned in a fair and equitable manner, are better than many narrower-focus benchmarks, since they use real-world software from companies like Adobe, Microsoft, and Nero, and execute real-world tasks. But since we’re relying in these cases on Intel’s own in-house-designed tests, bear in mind that the results are hand-picked to display the Tiger Lake processors in a positive light, especially compared with Renoir. We’re including them here as an example of the benefits of AI, not as immutable proof of Tiger Lake’s “superiority” over Renoir.

Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 7See our original Ice Lake performance preview.) We didn’t run every test on that machine that we did on Tiger Lake and Renoir, so you will see those Ice Lake results skip in and out of our performance charts below. They’re included for curiosity and perspective.

Gaming Tests: Iris Xe Is a Pleasant Surprise

PC gaming has exploded in popularity of late, thanks to both the rise of esports in the past several years and, more recently, all the enforced indoor free time brought on by coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Many newly minted casual gamers are wondering how they can get in on the fun without buying a bulky, expensive gaming rig.

So let’s start our look at Tiger Lake performance with a quick glance at its gaming prowess. Again, the Intel chip is using the new Iris Xe graphics solution, while the Ryzen 7 4800U is using AMD’s integrated Radeon Graphics. 

Synthetic Graphics Testing

First, let’s take a look at some synthetic graphics tests and less-demanding multiplayer games…

It’s immediately apparent from the 3DMark and Superposition results that the Iris Xe graphics silicon in the Core i7 looks a good bit more capable than the Radeon Graphics in the Ryzen 7 at rendering gaming-style 3D animations. Not discrete-graphics-card capable, but a healthy uptick over Radeon and a leap ahead of last-gen Ice Lake.

For some background: 3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We ran three different 3DMark subtests: Fire Strike, Time Spy, and Night Raid. Each gives a proprietary score. Fire Strike is a demanding DirectX 11 benchmark that’s really intended for beefy gaming rigs. The Core i7 is around 13 percent better than the Ryzen 7 on this test, but it still can’t hold a candle to the 10,000-plus scores we regularly see from gaming laptops like the Razer Blade (nor should it). The Time Spy and Night Raid tests are more forgiving, and while the Core i7 and Ryzen 7 are grouped closer together on them, the Core i7 still has the advantage. This is highly unusual territory for Intel integrated graphics.

Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, the work is done in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, and a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. It’s reported in frames per second (fps) instead of a proprietary score.

While the Core i7 does better than the Ryzen 7 on both of these benchmarks, serious gamers will scoff at the average 24fps that the Core i7 posted on the most forgiving test, Superposition at 1080p with medium graphics detail settings. That said, Superposition is a very stern taskmaster, and gaming performance is highly dependent on the title you’re playing. So let’s take a closer look at actual performance using the in-game benchmarks of some popular titles, ones both resource-demanding and not. 

AAA and Multiplayer/Esports Game Testing

Okay, let’s move on to some (mostly) pretty demanding mainstream AAA titles…

The Core i7’s advantage continues here on industrial-strength PC games such as Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Many casual gamers who like to get their frame-rate fix would be perfectly satisfied running Far Cry 5 at normal detail settings and a 720p resolution for an average rate of 48fps. It’s not the native 1080p of our whitebook sample laptop’s screen, but as you can see, some games here will indeed be perfectly playable at 1080p if you dial down the detail settings somewhat. Again: new territory for Intel integrated graphics.

As always, gaming graphics results are highly game- and settings-dependent. One brand-new game we tested, F1 2020, showed almost no advantage (other than a few frames per second) for the Ryzen 7 or the Core i7, especially at the highest detail settings. (This game in versions past has had a reputation for being memory-speed dependent.) Civilization VI also falls into this near-run category. Both systems performed roughly equally on its “AI” in-game benchmark, which measures how well the system can process the calculations that must occur in between each turn. On the other hand, if you turn the detail settings down on titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider, the gap between the Core i7 and Ryzen 7 is more significant.

On the ultra-popular, old-school Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), which is fairly judicious in its processing demands, both processors fare much better than on the synthetic Superposition test. Even though the Core i7 has a roughly 40fps margin over Ryzen 7 Renoir at a 1080p resolution, the Ryzen 7’s result of 73fps is still plenty playable. Those are some lofty frame rates for casual players! You can see a another big uptick for the Tiger Lake system over the Renoir model in the massively multiplayer World of Tanks; the Renoir system would not even run the Ultra preset in the benchmark.

Overall, the takeaway from AAA gaming performance is that assuming you get the settings right, many popular, demanding games look like they may well be nicely playable on a Tiger Lake Core i7 in a full-wattage implementation. They might well be playable on the equivalent Renoir Ryzen 7, as well, but the amount of playability “wiggle room” will be less.

The integrated graphics solutions on neither of these chips can hold a candle to the far-more-powerful discrete GPUs that power gaming laptops, of course. But many casual gamers will be perfectly fine with average frame rates of 40 to 60 frames per second at lower resolutions and detail settings. 

There’s a lot more to be said about Intel Xe here—and the reversal of Intel’s integrated-graphics fortunes that our sample laptop seems to portend. See our colleague Matthew Buzzi’s take on Intel’s Iris Xe and its possible implications for mainstream gaming today, and for laptop designs tomorrow.

Thanks to Intel’s Iris Xe, Tiger Lake’s gaming performance is better than on most laptops that lack discrete GPUs that we’ve seen to date, and better, in most cases, than Renoir is. But the fact remains that most people in the market for an ultraportable laptop don’t care all that much about running graphics-intensive games, and the gaming performance of Renoir and even Ice Lake’s Iris Plus is already pretty good for the unfussy.

Most consumers and professionals that give much thought to PC performance—and who are in the market for a skinny laptop—will care most about how Tiger Lake handles other demanding tasks, especially multimedia content creation. To measure that, we started with our usual suite of multimedia content-creation benchmarks…

Take Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench test, for instance. It’s fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.

We ran both the venerable R15 and the latest R20 versions of Cinebench, and they both crowned a clear winner: the Ryzen 7. The Ryzen 7 is better on Cinebench almost entirely thanks to its additional cores and threads. The advantage holds no matter whether you’re using your laptop at maximum power, balanced power, or unplugged. More cores and threads beats a higher clock frequency on this particular task, which is based on the real-world Cinema 4D software used by many entertainment industry pros. 

An interesting footnote is that when you run Cinebench on a single processor core, the Tiger Lake Core i7 actually scores slightly better than the Ryzen 7 does. This suggests that Intel’s silicon is slightly more efficient than AMD’s on a per-core basis, as it has been for several processor generations, although this doesn’t really matter much when running demanding modern software that presses multiple cores and threads. 

Cinebench is often a good parallel for our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It’s a timed test, and lower results are better. As with Cinebench, the Ryzen 7 applies its 8C/16TH design to muscle over the Core i7 on this test. 

We also used the POV-Ray 3.7 benchmark, based on the Persistence of Vision Raytracer, a free software program that makes tons of floating-point calculations to determine pixel colors and (optionally) put them on screen. It exercises CPU cores and threads, giving the processor a workout during the off-screen rendering of a complex, photo-realistic scene with multiple light sources. The time this takes is listed in seconds (lower is better), and the Ryzen 7 again performed far better than the Core i7 thanks to its additional cores and threads. (We’re starting to sense a pattern here. )

That pattern continues on the 7-Zip benchmark, a straightforward test that measures a system’s ability to compress files into a ZIP archive. This activity is highly dependent on cores and threads, and the Core i7 simply doesn’t have as many as the Ryzen 7. 

We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here. The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters. With slightly more graphics muscle and high clocks that come to the fore in this “bursty” test, the Core i7 performed slightly better than the Ryzen 7 did here. 

While both the Core i7 and Ryzen 7 performed roughly the same on Cinebench and Handbrake regardless of whether they were plugged in or using battery power, the Renoir sample saw significant degradation in performance on Photoshop when unplugged, while the Tiger Lake sample did not. This isn’t necessarily a sign that Intel’s battery management is categorically better, but rather evidence that you can expect performance differences in some situations if you’re running on battery power instead of being plugged in. 

More Workflow Tests: How AI Could Change Everything

All of the preceding tests measure real-world activities, but with the exception of the Photoshop image editing test, they do so in a simplified manner using modified versions of real-world software. The tests are intended to measure how a computer’s hardware affects the performance of the software. 

Tiger Lake and flowersProductivity Tests: What About Simple Web Browsing?

The above tests show that while the Ryzen 7 is arguably a more capable chip overall, the Core i7 does perform better in some situations like gaming and AI-assisted multimedia editing. But if you’re like many people these days, you really only need your laptop to reliably surf the web, make video calls, and do basic productivity tasks for your boss while you’re working from home. 

In these cases, the results of our PCMark 10 test suggest that Tiger Lake and Renoir are mostly on equal footing, delivering similarly excellent performance. PCMark 10 is a holistic performance suite developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score in three different subcategories as well as an overall score; higher numbers are better. 

The Core i7 received an overall score that’s a few hundred points higher than the Ryzen 7 on both the maximum power and the balanced power tests. But any score above 5,000 here is excellent, and the difference of a few hundred points is likely indistinguishable in everyday use. 

The most notable result of the PCMark test is that the Core i7 whitebook was able to maintain its level of performance when unplugged, while the Ryzen 7 saw a significant drop. This mirrors the situation we experienced with the Photoshop test, and is further evidence that AMD and Intel processors handle power management while unplugged differently.

Easy, Tiger! Will This Whitebook Reflect the Real World?

The results of all of these tests—among the first independent ones to be performed on a Tiger Lake processor—definitely give bleeding-edge dwellers something to salivate over as they decide between Ryzen and Core for their next laptop purchase. But remember that we performed these tests on machines are early samples, and both were presumably cherry-picked to show their respective processors at peak bloom. There’s no guarantee that the Tiger Lake laptops that you can actually buy will show the same performance patterns in every case; we can only speak to this specific Core i7 in this specific implementation.

One certainty, though? Tiger Lake is a unique inflection point in Intel’s mainstream CPU business. Absent a major leap forward in silicon engineering, Intel chose to configure most of the initial Tiger Lake lineup with fewer cores, higher frequencies, and more artificial intelligence in order to eke out better performance. Our tests show that this approach doesn’t advance traditional CPU-intensive, thread-crunching workloads well; nor would we expect it to. On the other hand, with certain creative workloads now assisted by AI, the approach can be quite effective under certain circumstances. 

Tiger Lake Whitebookcustom-designed processors, which could show up in a MacBook as soon as the next few months. So while fall is always an exciting time for laptop shoppers, this one is poised to be particularly eventful as Intel’s latest chips hit the street inside the latest lust-worthy machines. Indeed: Tigers and MacBooks and Renoirs, oh my.

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September 17, 2020
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