It's not often that the CPU market has any degree of disruption. And that was the logic behind the launch of AMD's Ryzen CPUs, with the chip manufacturer aiming to offer more performance by selling CPUs with more cores and threads than their Intel counterparts for less money.
But as Australians well know, what represents good value overseas often represents something else entirely once the Australia Tax is applied. And just how good is the performance, anyway?
I've been testing three of AMD's new CPUs: the Ryzen 7 1800X, the Ryzen 5 1600X and the Ryzen 5 1500X. The first is AMD's challenger to Intel's Broadwell-E chips, with 8 cores and 16 threads running at a base clock speeds of 3.6GHz, boosting up to 4Ghz when needed. An 1800X will set you back around $670 or $680 from local retailers, before shipping. By comparison, Intel's 8-core Broadwell E CPUs cost at least $1470 locally.
The 5 series chips are targeted at the more mainstream market, particularly those looking at buying an i5 series CPU for gaming. The 1600X is a hexacore CPU running at the same clock speeds as the 1800X, with 6 cores and 12 threads. Starting from $359, it's priced in between Intel's four core, four thread i5-7600K CPU (from $314), and the slightly beefier 4 core, 8 thread i7-7700 (from $392).
The challenger to Intel's i5-7600K, as far as price is concerned anyway, is the Ryzen 5 1500X. Running at 3.5GHz/3.7GHz and sporting four cores and eight threads, you can get the 1500X for $275 from local retailers. That puts it directly in competition with Intel's locked i5-7500 4 core/4 thread CPU, and also makes it an attractive buy over the quad-core i5-7400, which runs at 3.0GHz/3.5Ghz and has the same amount of cores and threads.
The main thing to takeaway, and one of AMD's angles of attack, is the idea of the amount of cores, and threads, your CPU has. The more cores your CPU has, the more workload your system can handle at once, at least in theory.
In practice, games and programs have gotten better at using more cores and threads in a users system. They've still not quite become as efficient as non-gaming applications at gobbling up extra cores and threads, like the Adobe suite, specialist video encoders, 3D renders and heavy computational tasks can. If you've got more cores, all of these tasks run noticeably faster.
From a gaming perspective, however, the most important factor still is clock speed. And while some games are better equipped to take advantage of systems with more CPU cores and threads, like Ashes of the Singularity and the ever-growing crop of games with DirectX 12 and Vulkan support, the majority still run just fine on quad-core systems.
And herein is the biggest problem facing gamers with AMD's Ryzen. Team Red might have a good argument when it comes to people who do a little bit of everything, but just how good are the Ryzen CPUs for the thing gamers do most?
AMD running a side-by-side test of a Ryzen system against an Intel CPU
One of the big advantages of AMD's new platform for Ryzen CPUs, AM4, is that every CPU uses the same socket. That basically means you can use the one motherboard and not worry about having to replace it in a few years time when you want to get the latest Ryzen CPU. AMD has promised to keep using AM4 all the way until 2020, although most people don't typically upgrade their machine within three years anyway.
On a more practical note, this makes testing a little easier since only the CPU has to be swapped out. Here's the testing machine used. Note that I had to use a beta version of the BIOS for the Gigabyte motherboard for better support, although AMD has since released an AGESA update to all manufacturers and your motherboard manufacturer should have an update available on their website.
- Ryzen 7 1700X (3.6GHz/4.0GHz) / Ryzen 5 1600X (3.6GHz/4.0GHz) / Ryzen 5 1500X (3.5Ghz/3.7GHz)
- Gigabyte AX370 Gaming 5 (F5d BIOS)
- GEIL EVOX 16GB DDR4-RAM 3200Mhz
- Samsung 850 EVO 1TB SSD
- Gigabyte GTX 1080 G1 Gaming
- Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
All three CPUs were tested with the DDR4-RAM running at 2933MHz, as recommended by AMD. There were some issues when the Ryzen 7 CPUs first launched with memory stability, but those have been improved since launched and the latest BIOS updates should rectify them completely.
Every system is different, and every part of a system can have an impact on that system's performance. So factor that into account - and if you're looking at purchasing a system, read as many benchmarks and graphs as you can! No two CPUs, GPUs, sticks of RAM, or hard drives are the same. Performance can vary from one component to the next, but the more information you have the better overall picture you'll get.
I'm not fortunate enough to have access to multiple generations of AMD and Intel CPUs to do a wider set of testing. Some notes about the above: the Cinebench R15 test was the multi-threaded version, not the single threaded performance variant. The latter does a better job of highlighting the power of the higher clock speeds on Intel CPUs (or read another way, the weakness of Ryzen CPUs), but it's also less realistic in regards to how people would actually use programs of that ilk in a working environment.
For what it's worth, the Cinebench speeds were pretty in line with the performance achieved by Techspot, which allowed their Ryzen 1600X and 1500X review to be republished by Kotaku. You can that read that in full here, but here's a shot of their Cinebench score so you can get a better picture:
Making Sense Of It All
What the Ryzen CPUs really excel at right now is tests and programs calibrated to take advantage of as many cores and threads a CPU has. That's Photoshop. Premiere Pro. Video encoders like Handbrake. Streaming software. Excel. 3D renderers.
Games are getting there, and the performance in DOOM is a taste of the future. As my previous testing showed when the Radeon RX 480 and 470 launched last year, playing modern titles at 4K doesn't necessarily have to come with massive compromises in image quality.
But in general, and this is something that's borne out by every piece of news I've seen about Ryzen over the last two months, Intel still holds an edge when it comes to out and out performance in video games. It's understandable: games tend to benefit more from higher clock speeds than they do an increased amount of CPU cores and threads. Quad-core CPUs, according to Steam's monthly surveys, are the most common processors amongst the gaming populace, and it makes sense that developers build their games on hardware, and for hardware, that accommodates for that.
Over time, however, that situation will change. It's a natural technological evolution - but it's also a forced one, thanks to the competition AMD has brought to the market. The Ryzen CPUs are more competitive at the higher end in Australia, although that's partially due to Intel cutting the price of their mid-tier CPUs and also releasing the i3-7350K, which overclocks superbly and can offer solid, affordable performance in games.
But here's the major catch.
As soon as you stop gaming and try to do anything else - unzip a major file, do some image work in Photoshop, encode a video or two for YouTube, or try to stream anything - the i3-7350K becomes a lot less appealing. It's good at doing one thing well, but far less so if that application has good support for multi-threading, and especially if you use your PC like everyone else does - a machine that can perform multiple demanding tasks at once.
And this is where the argument for the Ryzen CPUs start to kick in.
If you're someone that just uses your PC to game, and does nothing else besides a bit of light browsing, then the Intel CPUs offer the best performance outright. But it's not necessarily the best value, especially where the 1800X is concerned. And as more games adopt more modern APIs like DirectX 12 and Vulkan (the former especially, as anyone developing a game for Project Scorpio will want to take advantage of the features hard-baked into the console), systems with more CPU cores and threads will shine.
There's also the reality that the vast majority of developers are more accustomed to building games on, or for, Intel hardware. The PS4 and Xbox One is obviously built using AMD hardware, but most PC gamers use Intel CPUs and NVIDIA graphics cards. AMD has played second fiddle for the last few years, and with good reason.
Steam has finally published its latest findings across its gargantuan platform, and as you'd expect there's some interesting tidbits about millions upon millions of gamers who use the service.
But since the launch of Ryzen, the dial has changed a fraction. A fortnight ago, Stardock issued an update for Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation that added a noticeable bump to performance. Some sites saw a 20% or 30% increase in performance at 1080p, while others saw more limited gains around 10%.
Systems vary, of course. But what was interesting was this quote from Oxide Games' Dan Baker, who hit the nail on the head when it comes to the reality for AMD fans:
Every processor is different on how you tune it, and Ryzen gave us some new data points on optimisation ... we’ve invested thousands of hours tuning Intel CPUs to get every last bit of performance out of them, but comparatively little time so far on Ryzen.
Another side of the same coin: having had the market advantage for aeons, Intel has lots and lots of money to throw at edge case scenarios that result in better performance, tuning and familiarity with game engines and developers. AMD doesn't have that same luxury, and with good reason: their previous CPUs weren't good enough.
In other words: if you've just built a PC in the last year or two, you definitely shouldn't be thinking about an upgrade.
Over the next year or two, that will change. I'd expect the situation within studios to change a little as well: developers are one of the target markets for whom the Ryzen CPUs, especially the 1800X, make the most sense. Not are they only playing games as much as anyone else, they're also programming, building complex 3D renders, compiling builds, streaming, encoding video.
Put simply: more developers will be likely to buy the 1800X, because the performance is good enough and the difference in price is substantial enough. That will result in more familiarity with the Zen architecture that will result in improved performance, and stability, for AMD systems.
That said, there's also an unspoken rule to PC building: you should always make a judgement on today's performance at the price you can afford. There are no guarantees that driver updates or developer patches will get you the extra frame rate you need to play Watch Dogs 2 at 4K. Or ArmA 3 at 60fps. Or whatever game it is you're interested in.
But you don't have to look far into the future to know that a CPU with 4 cores and 8 threads will hold up much better in 2018, 2019 and 2020 than an i3 or i5 dual-core or quad-core system. And there's another advantage I haven't mentioned either: the flexibility of the AM4 platform.
AMD has pledged to support Zen all the way out until 2020, meaning you can build a Ryzen system today and then grab a new CPU in 2019 or 2020 without having to upgrade the motherboard, RAM, and so on.
Enthusiast PC gamers upgrade their GPU every two or three years, but they don't upgrade their CPU as often. Part of the reason is practicality: swapping a GPU in and out is far less of a pain in the arse than swapping out a CPU. And many PC fans will often upgrade their CPU in tandem with their motherboard, partially due to compatibility (needing a new CPU socket, for instance).
But this matters little to people today, so let's simplify the pitch.
First of all, AMD is back. There's no doubt about it: having been in a position where there was no reason to consider an AMD CPU before, there are now plenty of reasons to do so, across multiple points in the market.
Intel still holds the lead in gaming, however. A good example can be seen in our benchmarks from last year. Our testbench machine was an i7-4790K with much older parts, but the improvement using the newer Ryzen CPUs, and faster RAM, isn't that substantial. If you're upgrading from that generation of hardware, you can comfortably wait until Intel's Cannon Lake CPUs come out, or until 2018 when the next Zen CPU hits the market.
For those building a PC now, it's worth considering the 1500X and 1600X. The 1600X runs at the same base and boost clock speeds as the 1800X, and performs just as well in today's games for almost half the price. And having the six cores and 12 threads gives it a leg up on the price-equivalent Intel rivals in streaming and all-around productivity. The i7-7700K is a touch faster in games - but it also costs at least $100 more, money that could be spent on a better GPU. (The difference between an RX 470 and a RX 480 or GTX 1060, for example, is around $40.)
So the end question is, are you a gamer? Or are you a gamer who likes to stream, likes to record video, spends time in Photoshop, touches up photography on the side, and so forth? The more you find yourself falling in the latter camp, the better value a Ryzen CPU becomes.