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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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