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In Theory: How AMD's Ryzen will disrupt the gaming CPU market


It’s been 11 years since Intel released its first Core 2 Duo processors and a decade since the arrival of the epoch-making Core 2 Quad. It’s been a period of complete domination, with multiple AMD architectures failing to break Intel’s monopoly on the x86 market. But within weeks, the red team’s Ryzen line will be with us, new leaks are arriving by the day and they all tell us the same thing – the price to performance ratio looks astonishing.

Recently, we ran an article on the immediate future of CPU technology – and the prognosis wasn’t hugely optimistic. Intel’s Kaby Lake saw frequencies pushed to their limits, with no new fabrication node to move onto and no changes to the core architecture whatsoever. The products remain excellent in performance terms, but innovation is stagnant. We wondered how Ryzen could shake things up, bearing in mind that the only processor we’d seen appeared to be targeting Intel’s octo-core i7 6900K – a $1000 CPU. It seemed reasonable to assume that AMD would target this premium market first before moving onto mainstream processors, but the reality is now clear: Ryzen is set to be a major disruptive force with highly aggressive pricing across the entire stack. Multiple leaks are suggesting that AMD’s top-tier Ryzen processors start at $320 – in the same price range as the Core i7 7700K.

AMD isn’t stopping there, as the entire product stack has leaked, from the top-tier Ryzen 7 1800X, right down to the Ryzen 3 1100. The naming convention is clearly intentional; the stack is designed to line up with and compete against Core i3, i5 and i7 mainstream Intel processors. We expect a launch soon based on the top-end Ryzen 7 octo-core parts, but when the full stack is on the market, we should see AMD offering more cores, more threads and more power – assuming that the red team’s claims and demos are borne out in real-world testing. Leaked benchmarks certainly look promising.

Starting at the top-end, Ryzen 7 offers twice the number of cores and threads as the Core i7 7700K, with prices in the same ballpark. AMD’s more budget-orientated Ryzen i3 faces off against Core i3, offering a pure quad-core part, apparently with prices starting at just $129, if the leaks are to be believed. But it’s Ryzen 5 where things get interesting for gamers – there we see a mixture of six-core/12-thread and four-core/eight-thread processors for Core i5 money. This is the gamer’s heartland, and the arrival of a well-priced six-core CPU that can compete with Intel is significant for reasons we’ll go into shortly.

amd
CPU Cores/Threads Base Clock Boost Clock XFR Clock Price
Ryzen 7 1800X 8/16 3.6GHz 4.0GHz 4.0GHz+ $495
Ryzen 7 1700X 8/16 3.4GHz 3.8GHz 3.8GHz+ $389
Ryzen 7 1700 8/16 3.0GHz 3.7GHz $319
Ryzen 5 1600X 6/12 3.3GHz 3.7GHz 3.7GHz+ $259
Ryzen 5 1500 6/12 3.2GHz 3.5GHz $229
Ryzen 5 1400X 4/8 3.5GHz 3.9GHz 3.9GHz+ $199
Ryzen 5 1300 4/8 3.2GHz 3.5GHz $175
Ryzen 3 1200X 4/4 3.4GHz 3.8GHz 3.8GHz+ $149
Ryzen 3 1100 4/4 3.2GHz 3.5GHz $129

Looking at the leaked stack, there are some interesting stats to assess. We have base frequencies for each processor, along with turbo clock (an auto-overclock designed to operate within TDP – Intel has something very similar) plus a new variable: XFR clock. The idea with XFR is that attaching a custom cooling solution gives the processor further auto-overclocking headroom, and that’s intriguing, because AMD has confirmed that all Ryzen processors can be overclocked – there are no K chips or equivalent here, which begs the question of what the difference is between X and non-X processors. Not included in the table is a further line of ‘Pro’ chips – and quite what sets them apart isn’t clear, though support for enterprise features seems like a reasonable guess.

So on paper at least, Ryzen is looking sensational in terms of price vs performance, and various leaked synthetic benchmarks have appeared showing the architecture competitive with Intel’s eight-core behemoths, such as the Core i7 5960X, based on the Haswell architecture – and its Broadwell-based successor, the Core i7 6900K. Which leads us onto two questions: firstly, how will gaming performance pan out, and secondly – just how is a much smaller company able to undercut Intel so massively? Has Intel really been ripping us off over the last decade?

To address gaming performance first, two variables are at play – IPC (instructions per clock) and frequency. Having fast single-thread performance compared with high clock speeds tends to be vey important for gaming, which explains why the Core i7 6700K managed to narrowly beat out both the six-core i7 5820K and the eight-core 5960X in our gaming CPU face-off last year. Two generations of IPC improvements along with higher clocks – remarkably – proved to be far more beneficial than more cores. Based on AMD’s own tests, still to be confirmed outside of controlled conditions, Ryzen has single-thread performance on par with Intel’s older Broadwell architecture and the stated clocks are lower than the new i7 7700K.