Sometimes it feels like computers have reached peak speed. Often times, when trolling YouTube or playing a quick round of Overwatch the limitations on performance seem tied to something else. Your internet is too slow, or you need a new graphics card. Computer processors have gotten faster — every year Intel unveils a microarchitecture with breathless claims of mighty performance improvements, but CPUs haven't had a real leap forward in a while. AMD's new Ryzen processors comes perilously close to changing the game.
In recent years, AMD has kind of become the ugly cousin to competitors Intel and Nvidia. While AMD may power the Xbox One and the PS4, the company has languished in the traditional computer market. On the graphics side, Nvidia has stomped AMD to hold the majority marketshare — Nvida's cards are found in most gaming laptops, and a lot of workstations too. On the CPU. side Intel is practically ubiquitous with the word computer. Seeing the tiny AMD sticker on a good laptop is an oddity, not a regularity. AMD desperately wants that to change and the Ryzen CPU is the first step.
AMD's Ryzen processor is based on the company's new Zen microarchitecture. Zen is nearly half the size of AMD's last microarchitecture, the six-year-old Bulldozer. And Ryzen, running on Zen, is much, much faster. Not just faster than the chips running on the ageing Bulldozer. Ryzen is also significantly faster than much of what Intel has to offer.
Today, only three Ryzen chips are available, and they're only going to work with desktop computers. There's the 1700, which retails for $US330 ($436), the 1700x, which retails for $US400 ($529), and the top of the line 1800x, which retails for $US500 ($661).
It feels almost like a gamble for AMD to launch its new microarchitecture with desktop CPUs. Work places are increasingly moving to laptops, and that's what most consumers look for when they head to the big box store to buy a new computer. But it makes sense when you see how the top of the line Ryzen 1800x stacks up against Intel's best Kaby Lake CPU, the i7-7700K. This thing flies when rendering 3D images in Blender or videos in Handbrake, or even the game Rise of the Tomb Raider. In all three instances it was nearly twice as fast as the i7, despite costing just $US150 ($198) more.
From top to bottom: Blender, Handbrake, Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Much of the Ryzen's speed comes from the number of processor cores it packs into the CPU. It has eight cores, capable of running 16 threads concurrently. The i7-7700K has just 4 cores that run 8 threads concurrently. So the Ryzen can handle twice as many processes concurrently — which is especially useful when you have to render giant chunks of media in programs like Blender and Handbrake. According to both Intel and AMD, the processor that is most comparable to the 1800X is Intel's i7-6900K. But the i7-6900K runs on the older Broadwell-E architecture...and it currently retails for $US1000 ($1,322).
Which means the Ryzen 1800X can give the same performance for half the price. That's magic! That's money saved! That also has to mean there's a catch. In the case of AMD's miracle new ultra fast processors there are two catches. The first is related to speed — Ryzen is still slow in a lot of instances. Intel has dominated so much of the computer market than many software designers have optimised their product to run especially well on Intel CPUs. Which is why it took the 1800x twice as long to render images in Photoshop, and why it was neck and neck with the i7-7700K in both our WebXPRT and Civilizations VI benchmarks. It's also why it scored only 2000 points higher in Geekbench 4 despite having twice as many cores.
Clockwise from left to right: Geekbench 4, WebXPRT, Photoshop, Civilizations VI.
Until software designers start optimising for Ryzen it will only be able to brute force its way into winning benchmarks, and software designers may never do that unless AMD can gain more of the CPU marketshare. Though AMD reps assured Gizmodo that software designers will soon be able to incorporate many potential optimizations tailored for Ryzen.
Yet that won't help with Ryzen's other issue: the integrated GPU. The Ryzen CPUs don't have one. There's no way to get video out. If you want to view anything on your computer built with Ryzen inside — browser, operating systems, even BIOS — you'll have to spend additional money on a graphics card.
That's not a problem for gamers, or editors and designers rendering huge files. They will have already invested in a video card. It is a problem for budget conscious PC builders. And it will continue to be a problem until AMD drops its Accelerated Processing Units (the name for AMD's CPUs with integrated graphics) later this year.
The APUs and other mobile friendly chips are certainly on the horizon — AMD has promised as much, but right now what AMD has delivered is incredible speeds that will benefit only a small portion of computer users. Which is a damn shame. Ryzen runs cooler than Kaby Lake or Skylake, and it sucks up less power, and it's faster. In nearly every way that counts Ryzen seems superior to what Intel is currently offering. But it's going to need more than raw speed if it ever wants to truly win. The 1800X's price to power ratio has me nearly convinced AMD has a contender — now stick this in a laptop that goes for less than the Intel version and we might have a winner.
Correction: The original piece identified the i7-6900K as Skylake. It is, in fact, Broadwell-E.