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AMD 64-Core Threadripper 3990X Review: Battle of the Flagships

The core wars rage on.

AMD Threadripper 3990X
Editor's Choice
(Image: © AMD)

The Threadripper 3990X is pretty much exactly what AMD says it is: A highly specialized processor that provides incredible performance in a narrow cross-section of workloads, but at an extremely attractive price point given its capabilities. 

AMD's decision to pair 64 cores and 128 threads with higher boost frequencies pays big dividends in VFX, 3D animation, and ray tracing workloads with more performance than you would expect from any comparable workstation-class solution, not to mention even some dual-socket servers. The higher boost frequencies provide snappy performance in everyday lightly-threaded applications and devastating threaded performance in workloads that scale well. You also get access to 64 lanes of PCIe 4.0, which is useful for powerful SSD RAID arrays and other high-performance additives.

It's hard to imagine that a single chip could beat a dual-socket Xeon or EPYC server outfitted with class-leading data center processors, but that's exactly what the Threadripper 3990X did in most of our rendering tests. The processor also readily drops into enthusiast-class motherboards, making it an easy upgrade for professionals that already have other third-gen Ryzen models.

On the surface, the $3,990 price tag is eye-watering, but given the level of performance, it's more than acceptable in professional settings where time equates to money. You'll need to pair the chip with an expensive high-capacity memory kit, capable watercooling, and a bulky power supply to extract the most performance, but those costs pale in comparison to a dual-socket server platform.

That said, the chip does have a limited customer base due to its specialized nature, and users that need more memory throughput or PCIe lanes will benefit from moving up to datacenter-class processors. Hopefully the 3990X gains traction in the OEM market, as validated workstations based on these processors would broaden the user base.

We've done our best to show you the best of the Threadripper 3990X's performance, but we can't tell the whole performance story due to spotty software support for a processor of this class. Outside of AMD's targeted workloads, most software can't extract the best performance from this processor. We also encountered plenty of difficulties finding workloads that would scale in Windows on our server test platforms, largely due to the difficulties associated with NUMA. However, those challenges explain perfectly why this processor could find a profitable niche: A large number of applications don't scale well with NUMA architectures, particularly with Windows, which is the operating system of choice for visual effects artists.

AMD has plenty of experience in pushing the software ecosystem forward to support heavily threaded chips, and the company is already working with several companies to improve processor grouping support, and hopefully, industry-standard benchmarks like SPECWorkstation 3 will also get an upgrade.

In either case, the Threadripper 3990X is an incredibly impressive chip. Just three years ago, an eight-core $1,000 chip represented the best the industry had to offer on an HEDT platform, but now we have up to 64 cores and 128 threads at our disposal, and AMD says it won't slow down as it shrinks to smaller process nodes. As crazy as it sounds, we'll see higher core counts in the future. Hopefully the software and operating system ecosystems respond with performance-boosting optimizations so this kind of incredible performance benefits more types of workloads.

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  • mohammed2006
    Threadripper 3990X performance gape is not enough to justify it over 3970x. which i think is the one to buy.
    Reply
  • King_V
    As the article states, though - this is for specific types of workload/use cases.
    Reply
  • knekker
    A large number of applications don't scale well with NUMA architectures, particularly with Windows, which is the operating system of choice for visual effects artists.
    I work in the VFX industry, where I've been at ILM, DNEG, MPC and Cinesite that work on most of the block buster movies, and I can tell you this. Windows is definitely not the OS of choice, that would be linux.
    I do however currently work at a smaller vfx studio, and they use Windows.
    Reply
  • splave
    Great read Paul! I love that the 64 core makes the 32 core look reasonable now haha
    Reply
  • keith12
    Really enjoyed that one! Great comparison of the HEDT CPU's v Server and Mainstream, the good, the bad, and the ugly!

    Although, I don't get the almost apologetic tone in the Gaming Test notes. Yes, we know these CPU's aren't meant for gaming, but HEDT users, I'm sure, like to down tools too and game after a hard days slog! I suspect they'd like to know, along with the majority of the community, and anyone who'd be genuinely interested in these CPU's in the first place, what kind of gaming performance they can expect (and it's pretty damn good, by all accounts! ) from them.

    Anyway, including the gaming metrics is just being comprehensive. That's why I come to Tom's. Comprehensive is good. Don't resist the urge to include these benches in future comparison's. Don't mind the detractors! :D
    Reply
  • domih
    So you could run a Cassandra 21-node cluster on one PC with 21 Virtual Machines each allocated with 6 threads, keeping 2 threads for the host. With a mobo max memory of 256GB, each VM could be allocated 11GB leaving 25GB for the host. AMD enables you to have fun 🆒
    Reply
  • Phaaze88
    knekker said:
    I work in the VFX industry, where I've been at ILM, DNEG, MPC and Cinesite that work on most of the block buster movies, and I can tell you this. Windows is definitely not the OS of choice, that would be linux.
    I do however currently work at a smaller vfx studio, and they use Windows.
    Would your line of work actually enjoy using the 3990X, or would it just stick with something Intel again, due to the time and money lost swapping platforms?
    Reply
  • bamboe
    Well here they did a linux test if you like it
    https://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=article&item=3990x-threadripper-linux&num=1
    Reply
  • rjacko01
    I have also worked Framestore, ILM, MPC etc & the idea of running windows for vfx on that scale is seriously scary. I think it's fair to say 95%+ of vfx are linux, cause only a few smaller houses run windows, often with horrendous results.
    Reply
  • derekullo
    Hypothetically with 256 megabytes of L3 you could also have a 128 thread monero miner.

    My extrapolation from the 3970X (28900 hashes/second x 2) = 57800 hashes/second x 0.9 (due to scaling not being completely linear due to lower clock speeds) = 52020 hashes per second

    Putting that into a monero calculator with a 300 watt power drain for the system and 0.06 Cost per KWh we get $1,364 profit a year.

    $3990 / $1364 = 2.9 years to recoup your investment.

    https://www.cryptocompare.com/mining/calculator/xmr?HashingPower=52020&HashingUnit=H/s&PowerConsumption=300&CostPerkWh=0.06&MiningPoolFee=1
    Comparing this to a Geforce 2080Ti we get a strangely similar 2.89 years to recoup its investment.
    $1300 / $1.23 a day = 1057 days / 365 days = 2.89 years

    With the 3950x clocking higher and being 35% cheaper per core it would make more sense to use 3 - 3950x in 3 separate rigs than a 3990x.
    Reply