For the past five months, AMD has steadily pushed its new Zen architecture into the enthusiast, mainstream, and budget desktop markets. These new Ryzen CPUs and their server counterparts (sold under the Epyc brand name) have reinvigorated AMD’s CPU sales and breathed new life into the company’s long-term prospects. Today, AMD is launching the last piece of its refresh puzzle — a new, ultra-high-end platform, with up to 16 cores, 32 threads, and 64 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 connectivity.
Today’s launch is, of course, the high-end desktop finale to the Ryzen refresh cycle AMD kicked off in earlier this year. But on a more metaphorical level, it’s a refresh cycle AMD’s fans have been hoping would arrive for over a decade. To be a CPU enthusiast is, generally speaking, to be a fan of a CPU’s performance, not its price. I doubt few aficionados of the original Athlon 64 FX-51 fondly recall its four-digit price tag, but in this case, we’re carving out a bit of an exception. It was AMD, not Intel, that launched the first consumer CPU to sell for $ 1,000, and it was AMD, not Intel, that never returned to the $ 1,000 CPU market after the launch of its Quad FX platform in 2006.
Today marks AMD’s triumphant re-entry into that market with the biggest single CPU I’ve ever frickin’ seen. Threadripper is enormous by the standards of the consumer market. It’s practically the size of a pony. And it’s packing amazing performance under the hood.
Competitive Positioning or Who Needs A 16-Core CPU?
It’s worth taking a moment to assess the lay of the competitive landscape. At $ 1,000 per CPU, the Threadripper 1950X is going up against the Intel Core i9-7900X. When it comes to core counts, the situation is decidedly lopsided; Threadripper packs 16 cores and 32 threads compared with Intel’s 10-cores and 20 threads. This will be partly offset by the 7900X’s higher peak clock speed (up to 4.5GHz with Turbo Boost 3.0) and superior single-thread performance in some applications. This is the first time we’ve tested the 7900X, and we’ll be watching to see where its new cache architecture improves performance against Broadwell-E.
AMD is positioning Threadripper as a no-compromise CPU you can use to simultaneously render video while streaming, or even use for advanced 3D rendering tasks while gaming. This is partly a nod to the difficult nature of really stressing multi-core CPUs; it’s not easy to find tasks that scale well to that many threads. But it’s also an acknowledgment it’s common, in some circles, to split tasks between multiple systems. Streamers often use capture cards and multiple PCs to stream, as do some professionals in video editing or 3D rendering. Threadripper is explicitly aimed at these buyers, or at anyone else who might want to, say, dedicate eight cores to Task A, four cores to Task B, and keep four cores handy for browsing and email at the same time.
The reason AMD is targeting Threadripper at a fairly narrow audience of power users and professionals is simple: If you want maximum gaming performance per dollar, you don’t buy Threadripper. If you have workloads that are only lightly threaded with some gaming tossed in, CPUs like the Ryzen 5 1600X are going to give you equivalent performance at a much lower price. In this respect, Threadripper is quite different from the old FX-51, which may have hit $ 1,000 but still offered a performance increase relative to the Socket 754 Athlon 64’s AMD launched at the same time.
The Platform and Motherboard
Threadripper’s X399 platform is AMD’s new top-end chipset, and it’s a beast, even compared with what Intel has to offer. Here’s the summary comparison of how AMD compares with its own Ryzen X370 chipset, which is what Ryzen 3 – Ryzen 7 are compatible with:
And here’s Threadripper’s chipset diagram.
See the bits about “No Dark Lanes / Channels / Ports?” Those are shots at Intel’s X299 platform, which transforms dramatically depending on what kind of CPU you plug into it. If you drop in a top-end Core i9, like the 7900X we’re testing, everything is great. If, however, you opt for a Kaby Lake X CPU, you’re limited to half the total RAM slots on the motherboard. Depending on how your motherboard vendor wired up its PCI Express lanes and back panel I/O, various ports and PCI Express slots may not be available, either. Kaby Lake X is probably the worst Intel kludge we’ve seen in a decade, and it’s obvious Intel made hasty plans to yank the part into the Skylake-X / Core X-Series family. If you buy X399, you avoid all such issues, and get 64 PCIe 3.0 lanes for your GPU to boot.
This is a good time to mention Asus’ ROG Zenith Extreme is an amazing board, with a slew of included and integrated features. Included, in no particular order, are:
2×2 MU-MIMO 802.11AC + 1×1 802.11 AD WiFi
8x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Ports.
2x USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) ports (1x Type A, 1x Type C)
1x USB 3.1 Gen 2 Front Panel Connector Ports
4-way SLI / Crossfire support
3x M.2 Slots with support for both SATA and PCIe mode (two of these support the longest Type 22110)
1x U.2 Port
There are headers for additional USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports on the board as well, if you somehow need more of them. The other nifty feature on the ROG Zenith Extreme, and one we haven’t personally seen before, is a DIMM.2 slot.
This riser card has two M.2 slots on it, one on each side. You install SSDs to the riser card, then plug the riser card into the DIMM-like slot that’s offset from the rest of the RAM on the right side of the motherboard (outlined in the image below):
Each drive supports an x4 PCIe 3.0 connection and the motherboard slot is keyed so you can’t stick DRAM in it. If that’s not enough to spark your interest yet, well, the Zenith Extreme also features a 10G Ethernet card as a pack-in accessory. Granted, that’s massive overkill for virtually everyone on Earth right now, but if you like the idea of future-proofing at least one system in your home for high-end broadband circa 2050, this’ll do it.
In contrast to the rather haphazard state of affairs that typified the Ryzen 7 launch, the Asus ROG Zenith Extreme was a delight to work with. We had no issues with the platform whatsoever, despite its early state. Then again, for $ 550, we’d hope for a flawless experience.
Test Configuration and Results
Both our Intel Core i9-7900X and AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X testbeds were benchmarked with 32GB of DDR4-3200 and a GTX 1080 Ti running Nvidia’s latest non-beta driver release, 384.94. A Thermaltake 80 Plus Gold power supply (1200W) was used for both testbeds. We had to omit PCMark 8 from these tests — it has an audio issue that hard-crashes the application related to Realtek audio solutions and the Creators Update.
A note before we begin, on game benchmarks. In our Ryzen 7 1800X launch article, we used 1080p benchmarks to highlight differences between AMD’s new CPU architecture and Intel’s Kaby Lake. At the time, Ryzen’s issues in certain tests, particularly at lower resolutions, weren’t known (or addressed). We’ve included 1080p results here as well, but added 1440p and 4K benchmarks to give additional context. Nobody who drops $ 1K on a CPU with a $ 550 motherboard and a $ 700 GPU is gaming at 1080p, but it can still be a useful way to see how games scale.
We’ve broken our results into two slideshows, one for games, and one for application tests and benchmarks. Let’s kick off with applications:
Our application benchmarks show AMD sweeping Intel in nearly every multi-threaded test. In the handful of cases it does not win, it at least ties things up with Santa Clara. Intel still has an advantage in some single-threaded tests, but we’ve already established the only people who ought to be considering Threadripper in the first place are people who are running multi-threaded workloads.
The slideshow below contains our gaming benchmark results, split into 1080p, 1440p, and 4K.
Our game benchmarks weren’t a focus of this review but we wanted to run enough tests to certify that Threadripper’s lower clock speeds when under load weren’t a detriment to its overall game performance. They aren’t — the chip can hang with its lower-core brethren from AMD as well as the best Intel has to offer. Threadripper isn’t a gaming chip as such (not unless you’re working on other things at the same time), but if you are a streamer or someone who uses the same box for professional work and gaming, you won’t be giving up any performance by opting for an AMD solution.
We’ll have power consumption figures added later today; some of the results were odd and need to be double-checked.
AMD’s Threadripper Rips Intel a New One
If Intel had any doubts about whether AMD could compete at the top of the HEDT space, they’re undoubtedly gone by now. Threadripper doesn’t just compete, it often leaves Intel eating dust. Across all of our application benchmarks, Threadripper wins 11 tests, loses five, and ties two. That’s a very solid set of performances, particularly for a company whose top-end CPU was sucking wind six months ago. Intel has already announced that it intends to launch 12, 14, 16, and 18-core processors by the middle of September, but with a top-end price tag of up to $ 2,000 even those chips will struggle to match Threadripper’s price/performance ratio.
There are, meanwhile, real questions about what to expect from Intel’s upcoming 18-core processors. We’ve asked the company if it will solder its high-end CPUs, but have yet to hear back from them. Given that Skylake-X is already pushing the limits of what paste can handle, the CPU giant would seem to have little option, but they’re playing mum on this point.
There will still be plenty of people who opt to stick with Intel and play a wait-and-see game with AMD. This even makes sense, depending on your business and market — if software costs are the bulk of your business expenses, the difference between Intel and AMD’s hardware prices aren’t going to have a huge impact on your bottom line. But if hardware costs have an impact on your bottom line — and for most of us, they do — AMD’s Threadripper is in a class of its own. From Ryzen 3 to Threadripper, AMD has redefined performance at every price point, to the benefit of consumers, businesses, and pretty much everybody — except, of course, Intel.