Over the last decade, PC gamers deciding what should be in their systems have had to answer only one question: Which Intel processor should I go with? Frankly, it has been that long since AMD mounted a serious challenge to Intel for the heart of gaming PCs. The decade-long march of Intel's performance dominance has given it an 80 percent market share among gamers.
Now, with AMD's new Ryzen processors, everything is changing. Ryzen is not the fastest gaming processor you can buy. It's not even the fastest gaming CPU for the price. But it's close, and it's markedly faster than anything Intel has to offer at a similar price for everything outside of gaming, like video editing, or encrypting and compressing your files. This makes Ryzen a great buy, and while it may take years for AMD to claw back all that market share, the unexpectedly great Ryzen processors are already changing the enthusiast PC landscape.
The years when PC enthusiasts could safely ignore AMD CPUs are over.
It's all about cores and threads
With the exception of extremely expensive high-end workstation-class parts, performance-minded consumers have been stuck primarily using quad-core CPUs for ten years. Intel keeps making the cores faster, but improving the performance of a single core is really tough and expensive. Adding more cores is, by comparison, cheap.
All the Ryzen 7 series CPUs feature 8 cores with 16 threads, and cost between $300 and $500. (A thread is a sequence of related instructions, and many modern PC CPUs can manage two threads on each core, to more fully utilize that core's capabilities). And you can get a 6-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 for less than $250. Intel's 6-core processors cost at least double, with more expensive motherboards.
This is a significant shift. The most demanding PC tasks—video editing, encryption, CAD, 3D rendering—perform better as you throw more cores at them. Yet games haven't really followed the trend. Most of the tools, middleware, and game engines are optimized for 4 cores and 8 threads at most, and are tuned to Intel's architecture in particular. And why not, if gamers are overwhelmingly buying quad-core Intel chips?
Ryzen has already proven fast enough and popular enough in its early days to start to change that. For games to run great on Ryzen, they are going to need to run well on lots of cores and threads, and be optimized for AMD's new architecture. That sort of optimization is now taking place, and will eventually filter out through the game development ecosystem. And that's even good for Intel fans, because Intel can more easily make bigger jumps in performance by adding cores than by making each core faster. Games that make good use of lots of cores will be good for everyone.
Gamers don't just play games
Yes, if you want to do nothing but run a game as fast as possible, you're still better off with a Core i5 or i7 processor. At comparable price points, Intel's latest CPUs deliver somewhat higher frame rates than the new Ryzen chips do. Fewer but faster cores are just better for games right now (though that should change over time). At low resolutions, the Intel advantage is significant, and it trails off as you run games at higher resolutions and detail settings (because the graphics card becomes the performance bottleneck).
But PC gamers don't just play games anymore. They play games while simultaneously surfing the web for hints and cheats. They stream gameplay to Twitch or Mixer with sophisticated broadcasting software that superimposes their webcam shot over the game, while keeping one eye on a chat window. They edit videos for their YouTube gaming channels. The whole "gamers as content creators" phenomenon is so big now that streaming is built right into Windows 10, Playstation, and Xbox consoles.
With Ryzen, AMD asks gamers to be satisfied with "really good" gaming performance that isn't quite as fast as the similarly-priced Intel chip, while delivering way better performance when doing all that other stuff. It's a tradeoff that increasingly looks like a really good deal.
Oh, and Ryzen's doing all this with lower power consumption and cooler temperatures, too.
Real competition benefits everyone
At the start of the year, Intel released its best gaming CPU yet, the first in its 7th generation desktop processor family: the Core i7 7700K. It's a great chip for gaming, because it has high clock speeds, but it's not really all that different from what came before. Reviews featured headlines that asked, "Is the desktop CPU dead?"
Weeks later, on the verge of Ryzen's release, Intel dramatically slashed prices on a whole bunch of CPUs. Coincidence? Of course not.
Now, AMD is readying it's Ryzen Threadripper CPUs (yes, that's really the name) for launch later this summer. These are really high-end processors aimed at performance enthusiasts, with up to 16 cores and 32 threads. It goes along with a new platform that gives you quad-channel memory and 64 PCI Express lanes (the current Ryzen platform offers only dual-channel memory and 40 PCI Express lanes). That means double the memory bandwidth and all the I/O bandwidth necessary to fully make use of multiple graphics cards, solid state drives, and other expansion cards. It's a freaking monster. Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but it's expected to be under $1,000 (about double the 8-core Ryzen 7 parts). Intel's biggest consumer CPU right now is the Core i7-6950X, which only has 10 cores and costs a whopping $1800. How long do you think that sort of pricing is going to last?
In fact, Intel has announced a bunch of new processors under the "Core i9" banner, going all the way up to 18 cores and 36 threads! Only, that particular model won't be released for a while, and it plugs into a new type of CPU socket that means buying all new motherboards, and the thermals are really high, and… well it's painfully obvious to everyone who watches enthusiast PC hardware that these new processors are a direct response to AMD's Ryzen Threadripper.
No matter who comes out on top, it's safe to say that Intel would still be pushing high-priced quad core CPUs at gamers and enthusiasts if it weren't for AMD. It has barely been three months since Ryzen hit the shelves and we're already seeing price drops and new products from Intel in response.
The Ryzen story has barely begun, and it's already having an impact. From an increased focus on multi-threaded games and multitasking, to lower prices, and the introduction of powerful new high-end hardware.
And that's why you should get to know AMD's Ryzen. Even if you're an avid Intel fan, you should hope that AMD keeps delivering real performance and value like this for years. If the boring desktop CPU market got this exciting in just a few months, just imagine what a couple years of serious competition could do.