AMD’s mainstream Ryzen CPUs heralded the return of competition in the desktop processor market. Now, AMD brings the same Zen architecture and strategy to the high-end desktop, and we’ve already seen Intel’s reaction in the form of lower prices for its (still-pricey) Skylake-X line-up.
First, the elephant in the room: AMD positions Threadripper for creators, heavy multi-taskers, and gamers who stream to services like Twitch. It also specifically states that the processor isn’t intended for low-resolution gaming, particularly under lightly-threaded titles.
We are going to explore more intense use-cases in an upcoming feature, but were unable to complete streaming testing due to the usual time constraints we face during a launch window. We did run some ad hoc tests and were able to easily play Mafia 3 at 4K while encoding a video and running a virtual machine, which we could still access via remote desktop. We didn’t experience any significant performance degradation via our own subjective measure. Still, we prefer hard data and will work at putting definitive results behind the experience.
High-resolution gaming is unequivocally a niche, according to Steam's Hardware and Software Survey, but it's clearly growing in popularity. Of course, enthusiasts who spend $1000 on a processor are far more likely to use high-resolution monitors. But testing at 1440p or 4K very obviously pushes the bottleneck back over to the GPU. And because we're testing CPUs in these reviews, we deliberately use 1080p as a tool to emphasize broad differences between architectures and more specific deltas separating models. As GPUs evolve, higher resolutions should become more processor-bound, and hopefully by then we'll see more optimization for lots of cores.
The following gaming price efficiency charts use a geometric mean of the 99th percentile frame times (a good indicator of smoothness), which we convert into an FPS measurement and plot against price. Our suite includes six games released in 2016 and five older titles that launched in 2014/2015. Threadripper’s extra cores could enable more performance in the future as software evolves to utilize them better, so we also include a chart with newer games that exploit host processing resources more thoroughly.
It’s clear that Intel's Core i9-7900X offers better average frame rates during purely gaming workloads, but our standard practice of focusing on 99th percentile metrics takes performance and smoothness into consideration. We’re looking at a five FPS delta between the stock -7900X and Threadripper’s best stock configuration in all games, and six FPS for new games. That gap becomes seven and four FPS, respectively, after overclocking both processors. You can imagine that gap will shrink at higher resolutions.
We didn’t add platform costs to our price efficiency charts because all high-end parts drop into obviously premium platforms, and X399 is no exception. But be mindful that you'll pay a lot more for a HEDT platform than the two mainstream configurations we tested. Cheaper alternatives like the Core i7-7700K and Ryzen 7 series are likely better for the folks who are interested in gaming, first and foremost. Much like our recommendations for Intel’s high-end desktop processors, we don’t recommend AMD’s flagship 1950X for strictly gaming, either.
If your workloads are CPU-bound, though, Threadripper shines in our benchmarks written to exploit as many cores as you can throw at them. Threadripper outpaces the similarly-priced -7900X in rendering, encoding, and compression. As expected, it isn’t quite as nimble in lightly-threaded applications, such as decompression and portions of the Adobe suite. Those applications continue to favor Intel’s IPC throughput and frequency.
After the Ryzen launch, AMD was faced with the challenge of quickly maturing its motherboard ecosystem and convincing game developers to optimize existing titles for the new architecture. The company has met with success on many fronts in a relatively brief time (it’s hard to believe it’s only been five months), and enablement continues. Threadripper is a unique product that introduces even more complex challenges. No doubt, AMD is ready to take action on those, too. Case in point: Threadripper offers so many cores that some games won't even load. No doubt, Intel will face the same conundrum in the future as it scales out its architectures as well.
AMD is obviously aware of the challenges it faces. Using a combination of BIOS switches and Windows-based utilities, it exposes several knobs that ensure compatibility and address the architectural eccentricities of a data center-inspired desktop product. We’re sure to see well-heeled enthusiasts work through the settings to find the best combinations, even if most want to use Threadripper the way it ships. Of course, we like to experiment, so we’ll spend the coming weeks working on more stressful use-cases and finding the best combinations for different workloads.
Ryzen Threadripper 1950X is a solid entrant for AMD, and the company knows it's going after a niche market here. Those who need what Threadripper offers likely already know. And if that's you, we have to imagine you're elated to know there's an alternative to Intel's steep buy-in, particularly now that AMD is winning in benchmarks it hasn't won in a very long time.
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