When Advanced Micro Devices announced nearly two years ago the Zen CPU architecture would provide an architectural improvement of 40%, my initial reaction was skepticism but with a healthy dose of optimism, too. For the last few years, AMD had some small wins and even some big wins like sweeping the Xbox and the PlayStation game consoles and it appeared it would be a long time before AMD could pull a rabbit out of their hat in PC processors. Based on my analysis of AMD Ryzen, I can confidently say that Ryzen desktop is the real thing and AMD is back in desktops, back with a vengeance.
Before I dive in, I think it would help to provide a little background. While it may seem like a distant memory, AMD once had a commanding performance lead in the desktop PC processor market. For years with the Athlon 64, Athlon 64 FX and Athlon 64 X2, AMD pretty much ran up the performance score on the competition and until Intel introduced the Core architecture which put a stop to that, AMD sold as many as they could make. AMD at one point dominated the $1,000 desktop CPU market. No, really, I’m not kidding.
So what makes a good desktop chip? Well, it depends. Whichever way you slice it, it comes down to some relationship between relevant performance in a preferred workload, power draw, price, cost and availability. You can drive performance with architecture and frequency. Architecture is very complex and simply put, is the word describing how the bits get executed. This is really what Zen and Ryzen are all about, a massively improved architecture, a grounds-up design.
Zen architecture delivers 50% more IPC
CPU architecture improvements are many times measured by the term “instructions per clock”, or IPC. This is essentially how much work the CPU can do every tick of the processor clock. I sometimes like to think of it as how much coffee I can grind with one full turn of the crank.
As I said before, Zen and the product derivatives like Ryzen and what is code-named “Naples” for server, is derived from a completely new architecture. In other words, it’s not a small improvement on prior architectures like “Jaguar” or “Excavator”. Starting from scratch is a high-risk, high-return endeavor as we saw in AMD’s “Hammer” architecture on the upside in 2000 and “Bulldozer” in 2010 on the downside. Architecture cuts both ways. This is just one reason Intel has remained with the “Core” architecture for a decade, making incremental improvements to it. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. AMD wasn’t getting what they needed from Excavator, so they had to create Zen.
AMD has hit a performance home run architecturally with the Zen core as evidenced by desktop Ryzen. AMD said two years ago they would increase IPC 40% but they are delivering more like a 50-52% improvement. I am used to seeing IPC measured by SPECint and AMD measured it with Cinebench, which may give them one or two-point improvement over SPECint. So, I’m saying 50%, which by the way is incredible and really boggles the mind. I don’t ever remember a 50% IPC improvement with any processor from anyone so this is a big deal and now that AMD is actually shipping, it’s an even bigger deal.
Analyst Anshel Sag will do a deeper architectural view within the next week.
Ryzen desktop target markets and workloads
AMD is making the case that there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the desktop processor market for a while. If that is based purely on CPU performance gains, they have a point. I must say though, I do see a lot of desktop innovation out there tied more to lower power, smaller form factors and integrated GPU improvements. There hasn’t been a ton of action in raw CPU gains at the high end and AMD sees the opportunity with desktop Ryzen. It believe is a big opportunity for AMD.
So who can take advantage of raw desktop CPU performance today? Digital media creators, gamers who stream and PC enthusiasts.
With digital media it’s a very simple equation. Creators who want to convert video from one format to another at very high quality use many CPU cores to accomplish this. So literally, when it comes to applications like Blender, Handbrake and POV-Ray, AMD is throwing a lot of high-quality cores at the workload. In many circumstances, they are throwing more cores at it than Intel. While I only had my unit for 24 hours, you can march over to PC Perspective and see their benchmarks and assessment. I like their assessment for many reasons, and they did a very sharp “performance per dollar” assessment. I want to make one point very clear- Ryzen 7 1800x doesn’t win on every benchmark. Intel’s single-threaded performance is still better with its latest Kaby Lake.
By the way, throwing more cores at the workload also helps for intense multitaskers, like me. Right now on my Ryzen desktop I have 2 displays, one 4K and the other 3K with about 20 programs open and with Chrome browser open with 25 tabs. More cores matter here. For what it’s worth, my Maingear Ryzen 7 1800x system feels very fast and as I have been evaluating systems for 25 years, I can spot a slowdown. There are none for me so far.
With gamers, Ryzen is a little more complicated of an equation. Most games today take advantage of only four CPU cores and are graphics-limited at their higher resolutions. This would say plow your money into a graphics beast of a card and the best four core CPU you can.
Eight Ryzen desktop CPU cores are more relevant if you are simultaneously gaming and streaming your game-play to Twitch, YouTube or Facebook. You would be surprised at just how many people do this. My 14-year-old son and his friends do this every weekend and would do it seven days a week if he could. Millions are doing this today and is not an isolated use case. In the future, I believe Ryzen will drive more game developers to code their games to eight cores to improve the game-play experience and AMD is already aligning itself to do this.Some review sites are benchmarking certain games like Tomb Raider at 1080P at “normal” settings and Intel is winning by a fair margin, but then again, who would buy a $499 CPU and game at 1080P at lowest settings? Not many, but with the Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 3 that would be the case and AMD will need to address this going forward. PC World’s Gordon Mah Ung did a great write up and assessment of Ryzen gaming performance at low and high resolutions. Gordon sums it up by saying “at realistic settings, it doesn’t matter”. The “it” is that at low gaming resolutions at low settings on some games, the 1080X is comparatively weaker. Brad Chacos did a gaming assessment of the Ryzen 7 1700 here. Moving forward, I’d like to see reviewers do game testing while streaming, also, and am surprised this wasn’t done.
Enthusiasts are also a target for desktop Ryzen. PC enthusiasts, like car enthusiasts, like to tune, tweak and trick-out their rigs. In the PC context, that means overclocking and even underclocking the processor and system memory as well as modifying the voltage. It’s also about adding RGB light kits to make the system the envy of your friends. AMD has “unlocked” all their Ryzen desktop processors, meaning that buyers can overclock them to their heart’s content (and the limitations of the processor’s silicon). During last week’s analyst, press and reviewer event, overclockers using liquid nitrogen, took the Ryzen 7 1800X CPU from 3.6Ghz to over 5.35GHz, breaking a record in the 8-core CPU category. It also ran Cinebench R15 and R11.5 tests with scores of 2454 and 27.40.
For less aggressive overclockers who don’t keep liquid nitrogen handy, AMD has developed a software program called “Ryzen Master” where you can underclock and overclock the CPU, voltage and memory. Since I have had my Ryzen system less than 24 hours, I wasn’t able to run any benchmarks or do any over-clocking.
Ryzen 7 and now Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 3
Last week, AMD announced their top of the stack, the Ryzen 7 1800x and the 1700X and the 1700 processors. AMD is announcing today the addition of the Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 3 family of processors, which will address lower performance, power and prices. This must mean AMD has some confidence in GlobalFoundries to deliver the volumes they need.
System integrators and DIY first, Dell, HP, Lenovo later
AMD is starting with DIY (do it yourself) and system integrators (SI). Think of DIY as ordering Ryzen and a motherboard from Amazon.com or JD.com and potentially putting it together with your own case, memory, power supply and graphics card. Some examples of SIs are Maingear, Origin, and Cyberpower. Think of these folks as small assemblers and boutiques who differentiate on their customization and support.
My system was built by Maingear and it was even signed by the assemblers with a checklist of the tests and the checks that were done. They even ran benchmarks to make sure the system was performing well. I loved that. It’s a beautiful system, nearly-silent with a translucent side door with lights inside that I can control with a remote. As I said before, I’ve had my system less than 24 hours so I haven’t had the chance to run any tests.
Dell, HP Inc. and Lenovo were all present at the event last week, showing off future Ryzen systems. I was surprised at just how open these folks were and that all the “big three” are committed at least productizing desktop Ryzen. I can’t show you any pictures or even talk about the form factors, but I can say I saw some very premium, not cheap designs. While this doesn’t guarantee tens of millions of Ryzen units from the big three, it is a good start. AMD will need to work very hard, particularly in consumer marketing, to be fully successful with this crowd. Retail is a particularly challenging environment in traditional regions as big-box retail is very expensive and requires “shelving fees” just like any retail product. Intel’s capabilities in box-box retail are immense and should never be under-estimated. What AMD has on their side is that retailers know they can maximize their marketing funding from everyone by bringing in competition. I’m also expecting AMD to show their commercial play soon where, with their previous generation processors, they are in dell, HP Inc and Lenovo systems.
After nearly a decade, AMD is competitive again in the premium desktop CPU market. Ryzen 7 1080X desktop processor doesn’t sweep every benchmark and are still behind in single-threaded performance and low res, low quality gaming in specific titles, but when it comes to multi-threaded performance per dollar and higher quality gaming and gaming while streaming, AMD does great. AMD accomplished all this in part with a new architecture called Zen which delivers a measured 50% instructions per clock improvement combined with a competitive frequency at a competitive power draw.
I believe Ryzen adds value to the enthusiast, gamer and digital media content creator at a crazy price of a maximum of $499 and include fun tweaking tools and features. I think AMD could have priced Ryzen higher, but I believe they wanted to pre-empt a competitive price move, own the multi-threaded price-performance equation and drive some serious volume, not just launch enthusiast eye candy.
Two variables we don’t know yet are the volumes GlobalFoundries can produce and of course, the competitive response. The partners I talked to last week at AMD’s launch event didn’t express any concerns over volume which, anecdotally, is a good sign, but not empirical. Ironically, if Ryzen is a runaway hit through monster sales, AMD creates their own availability issues. I’m hoping AMD will announce at some point how many Ryzen processors they have actually shipped like Apple does with iPhones. Competitively, it doesn’t make sense for Intel to lower prices until they have exhausted big marketing programs espousing the benefits of their own desktop processors and to see just how many Ryzen can be manufactured. Isn’t competition great?
AMD deserves an incredible amount of kudos for desktop Ryzen. AMD Senior Vice President Jim Anderson and CTO and SVP Mark Papermaster and their teams have done a stellar job with Ryzen desktop. AMD needs to quickly drive the volume with desktop Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 3 and then shift their sights to the notebook market for the back to school selling season and then on to server. Don’t forget, Zen will also make its way into those consoles and embedded markets. The high performance desktop market is a competitive market, but I’m expecting an ever bigger fight in notebooks and servers.