The PHLX Semiconductor Sector Index has generated solid gains so far this year, despite the chip shortage and the sell-off in tech stocks earlier in 2021. However, not all of the index's components have been on fire.

While NVIDIA (NVDA 0.23%) stock has roared higher on the back of a strong showing from its gaming and data center businesses, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD -1.30%) stock price has failed to sustain its terrific momentum from 2020 and headed south. Intel (INTC 0.64%) stock, meanwhile, has pulled back over the past couple of months as its April quarterly report gave rise to a bunch of red flags.

Price change chart showing slight upward trends for AMD and Intel, and large upward trend for NVIDIA.

AMD data by YCharts

Does this mean NVIDIA is the one you should be buying? Or will AMD's and Intel's fortunes turn around in the second half of the year, making them potentially better buys than the richly valued NVIDIA? Let's find out.

NVIDIA: Benefitting from long-term growth catalysts

It is safe to say that NVIDIA is firing on all cylinders, as almost all the company's business segments registered eye-popping growth in the first quarter of fiscal 2022. Barring the automotive business, which saw a 1% revenue decline, the gaming, data center, professional visualization, and OEM (original equipment manufacturer) segments recorded varying degrees of impressive growth during the quarter.

As a result, NVIDIA's total Q1 revenue jumped 84% year over year to $5.66 billion, while non-GAAP earnings more than doubled to $3.66 per share. The company's guidance was also a solid one, with its estimated second-quarter revenue of $6.3 billion expected to increase nearly 63% year over year at the midpoint of its guidance range.

Person looking at financial charts on phone.

Image source: Getty Images.

NVIDIA can sustain such high rates of growth beyond 2021 as the data center and gaming markets, which account for nearly 85% of the total revenue, are sitting on long-term catalysts. The data center segment's revenue hit $2 billion for the first time last quarter, recording 79% growth over the year-ago period. NVIDIA credits the segment's outstanding growth to strong demand from hyperscale customers deploying its GPUs (graphics processing units) for artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

NVIDIA says that its data center GPUs are "deployed across all major hyperscale and cloud service providers globally and we see strengthening demand in the coming quarters." That's not surprising, as the demand for data center GPUs could grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42% through 2027, hitting $20.6 billion in revenue. NVIDIA is in a solid position to tap this opportunity, as it supplies its GPUs to the top cloud service providers and has been taking steps to diversify its revenue streams.

Meanwhile, NVIDIA's 80%-plus market share of gaming graphics cards will be another big tailwind for the company. Its video gaming revenue more than doubled last quarter to $2.76 billion. Jon Peddie Research estimates that the market for discrete gaming GPUs could jump from $23.6 billion last year to more than $54 billion by 2025. NVIDIA's dominant market share means that it could win big from the additional revenue opportunity.

Advanced Micro Devices: Widening its gap over Intel

AMD stock's retreat on the market isn't justified, as the chipmaker's impressive financial growth has continued this year after a strong 2020. AMD is on track to record 50% revenue growth in 2021, though it can do better as it was originally anticipating a 37% increase when the year began. The company's market share gains in the client and server CPU (central processing unit) markets, as well as the growing demand for graphics cards, have encouraged it to raise the guidance.

However, AMD can finish the year on a much stronger note, as it recorded 93% year-over-year revenue growth in Q1 to $3.4 billion, which was ahead of the market's expectations. The company is pulling the right strings to ensure that it sustains its high levels of growth, such as consistently winning market share from Intel.

Popular video game distribution platform Steam reports that AMD's share of the client CPU market has now exceeded 30%, a massive improvement from three years ago when it held just over 16% of the market. AMD's gains have been driven by a superior manufacturing process based on a 7-nanometer manufacturing node, while Intel's competing chips are expected to be out later this year.

But AMD seems all set to widen the gap over Chipzilla, as the former's foundry partner Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing is working on smaller 5nm and 6nm nodes. Such a move is likely to give AMD's Ryzen CPUs another performance boost and ensure that they continue to sell like hotcakes.

On the other hand, the massive increase in sales of gaming graphics cards, as discussed earlier, will also be a tailwind for AMD. That's because AMD plays second fiddle to NVIDIA in the GPU market, and the additional revenue opportunity over there could substantially add to its revenue in the long run. Throw in other catalysts such as the new console cycle that's giving AMD a significant lift, and it becomes easier to see why the company's fast growth is here to stay.

Intel: Trouble regaining its mojo

Unlike its rivals, Intel is in a rut. The chip giant has been unable to regain its mojo since losing its competitive edge. That was evident from Intel's Q1 results, as non-GAAP revenue of $18.6 billion was flat on a year-over-year basis. Gross margin shrank 6.1 percentage points year over year while operating margin fell 6.7 percentage points. As a result, Intel's net income was down 6% over the year-ago period.

Things are about to get worse for Intel in the second quarter. Revenue and adjusted earnings are expected to drop 10% and 15% year over year, respectively, while full-year non-GAAP revenue is anticipated to drop 7% to $72.5 billion. So, Intel's poor financial performance and outlook put it behind the likes of NVIDIA and AMD, which are delivering irresistible growth. As such, growth-oriented investors may drop Chipzilla from their watchlist of stocks to buy.

The verdict

With Intel out of the race, investors looking to buy a fast-growing semiconductor stock can choose either NVIDIA or AMD. From a valuation standpoint, AMD looks like the better buy as it trades at 36 times trailing earnings, compared to NVIDIA's multiple of nearly 90 times. AMD's price-to-sales ratio of nine is also much lower than NVIDIA's multiple of nearly 25 times.

Given that AMD's pace of growth was better than NVIDIA's in Q1 and is likely to keep up that momentum for the remainder of the year, it looks like a steal right now. AMD also looks like a better buy for those looking for a growth stock at a reasonable valuation. However, investors with a higher appetite for risk may also consider buying NVIDIA, as it can remain a top growth stock and justify its rich valuation by delivering terrific growth thanks to huge end-market opportunities.