AMD did it. It produced a ridiculously fast series of CPUs that use a lot less power than their competitors and predecessors while also being cheaper and adding some bonus features, like PCIe 4.0 support, only hardcore PC users need. The new $500 Ryzen 9 3900X and $330 Ryzen 7 3700X deliver on many of AMD’s promises about power and price from the last several years.
(I should note right at the outset that there’s a catch in the form of a very annoying flaw that could ruin installation for first time builders. It’s minor, if potentially devastating, so I won’t detail the complaint until the end of this review.)
The new Ryzens are the first widely released x86 CPUs based on a 7nm process. What’s that soup mean? “x86” is an architecture used by processors that power nearly every laptop and desktop made today. “7nm” refers to the process node. Historically, this number is used to correspond to the distance between transistor gates on the processor itself. A shorter distance means information on the processor itself has less distance to travel and requires less energy to do so, which in theory, translates to improvements in speed and power efficiency.
So AMD’s new 7nm processors based on the Zen 2 microarchitecture should be faster and more power efficient than the previous Zen+ 12nm generation and Intel’s 9th generation based on the 14nm process.
In my tests, the theory appears to reflect reality. The competitors were:
- $500 Ryzen 9 3900X based on the Zen 2 microarchitecture. It has 12 cores and 24 threads and 105W TDP.
- $330 Ryzen 7 3700X based on the Zen 2 microarchitecture. It has 8 cores, 16 threads, and 65W TDP.
- Ryzen Threadripper 2950X based on the Zen+ microarchitecture. It can be found for as low as $600 but typically sells for around $800 to $900. It has 16 cores, 32 threads, and 180W TDP
- $500 Intel i9-9900K based on Intel’s 14nm 9th generation microarchitecture. It has 8 cores, 16 threads, and 95W TDP.
We tested all four using similar 256GB SSDs, 16GB of RAM, and the same Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU. The benchmarks posted below paint an interesting picture.
Intel’s i9-9900K did significantly better in tasks that use a single core. So in the Geekbench 4 single core benchmark and WebXPRT 2015 (a synthetic benchmark used to test how quickly a browser completes tasks), the Intel part beat all three AMD CPUs. AMD has been struggling for years to match Intel in core to core performance, and it seems clear from these benchmarks it still has work to do. A lot of applications, like web browsers and some game functions, generally rely on a single core for performance, so AMD’s lag will be felt by more general users even as power users appreciate the sheer number of cores.
AMD’s magic lies in its ability to cram a lot more cores onto a processor and charge a lot less than Intel. Its processors do best in power hungry applications. Think video rendering or significant number crunching. That bears out in the results too. In our Blender benchmark, in which we time how long the 3D program takes to render an image, and in Handbrake, in which we time how long it takes to convert a 4K video to 1080p, the new AMD CPUs performed very well. In fact, the Ryzen 9 beat the Threadripper in the Handbrake benchmark and came in just 8 seconds behind in Blender. That’s despite having four fewer cores.
Surprisingly the Ryzen 7 competed well with the more expensive i9. It beat it in Handbrake, and just barely lost to it on the Blender benchmark. Being that the Ryzen 7 isn’t just cheaper, but also uses less power than the i9, it seems like the clear choice for people on a budget. The Ryzen 7 performs so admirably compared to the i9-9900K, it seems unfair to even try and compare to other cheaper processors as they’ll all be much slower.
Now for the catch I alluded to at the top of this review: I beg you, do not use the heatsink and fan combo cooler AMD has included with the latest generation of Ryzen processors. A cooler is necessary, but there are plenty of better alternatives than the one AMD provides gratis. It’s ostensibly a quality cooler. It has LEDs and can sync with Razer Chroma software, but it’s also very loud, and there’s way too much of the unusually sticky thermal compound pre-applied. It’s so sticky that it will essentially glue the cooler to the CPU. That’s not the worst thing; a good seal between the two is great for optimal cooling.
Here’s why it’s a recipe for disaster. AMD’s CPU connects to the motherboard through a series of super delicate pins. Bend any of them, and you have a busted CPU that isn’t covered by AMD’s warranty. The cooler, meanwhile, attaches to the motherboard via two hooks. You hook one side of the cooler onto the board, tilt it onto the CPU, and then hook the other side on using a little metal arm. The metal arm is constructed of cheap metal and can get stuck. You may feel like you need to wiggle it to get it working and connected correctly. But one wrong wiggle and the cooler can unseat the CPU and bend pins.
If you’re a first time builder, you’ll want to invest in a separate cooler—one that screws in instead of relying on hooks (~$50). But you’ll still want to invest in the AMD processors over rivals from Intel. This latest generation of Ryzen processors is fast and affordable, and for once, they won’t hog all the energy the power supply puts out.
- AMD’s latest processors can’t compete with Intel’s on a core by core basis.
- They’re still faster, and cheaper.