While historically, these posts about computers and technology aren’t my best performing ones, I want to take a minute out from talking solely about games to a related hobby that enables my gaming – the technologies underpinning them.
To throw a bone to tie it back to WoW, here is some unexpected news from the patch last week – Blizzard has made engine improvements in 8.1.5 that further enhance performance, after the updates launched in 8.1 and the implementation of DirectX 12 support in 8.0. Firstly, there is a new multi-threaded renderer for the DirectX 11 version of the game, meaning the 8.1 performance boosts are now more widely available! I haven’t tested the DX11 client myself yet, but if it even stays with the boosts made in DX12 in 8.1, this client will give you notably better performance and smoothness in-game with most PCs that meet requirements today. Blizzard also, somehow, convinced Microsoft to enable support for DirectX 12 on Windows 7, despite its end of life status! They’ve also made some tweaks to the DirectX 12 client that further improve performance, although not nearly to the margin of the 8.1 updates. This was a bit of cool news, and when I logged in to try the patch content, I was greeted with better performance yet again, two patches in a row! Check those settings out and also make sure your graphics settings are where you want them prior to judging – mine reset from the 10 preset to 7, so my initial impression was colored by that!
Anyways, with the WoW specifics out of the way, I want to talk about something that is really exciting to me as a tech enthusiast who loves building and maintaining his own PC – the resurgence of AMD.
For decades now, the chief competition in CPUs for desktop computers has boiled down to just two companies – Intel and AMD. Intel is infamous, first for the Pentium brand in the 90s, which was the first CPU branding to really capture attention from average consumers, later for shady business practices in the early 2000s as they were losing on performance and resulting in marketing and partner programs with kickbacks that were designed to aggressively push AMD out of the market, and lately for a nearly 10-year streak of being back on top of the market, with higher-performing CPUs than AMD from the early days of the Core branding through to today.
AMD has been a bit scrappier and always smaller, but has remained a necessary thorn in Intel’s side. Coming to prominence as a carbon-copier of Intel’s early x86 CPU designs, leading to a cross-licensing agreement that persists to this day, AMD began its mainstream existence as a second-source supplier to the likes of IBM for CPUs, in the event Intel could not meet demand. From that humble beginning, in the 90s AMD went on to launch the successful K6 lineup of CPUs, culminating in the Pentium III-beating Athlon lineup, cementing that dominance for around 7 years with iterations of the Athlon XP product line and implementing the first 64-bit desktop processors in the Athlon 64, before being roundly beaten by Intel’s Core 2 lineup and slipping further behind the performance curve, leading to the disastrous FX-series CPUs in 2011, which persisted in various iterations until 2017.
2017 changed things, however.
In 2017, after a 5-year development cycle and numerous leadership shakeups, AMD launched the Zen CPU core, which in the desktop market is branded Ryzen (get it?). Ryzen was intended to be a return to prominence for AMD, with CPU technology that could match Intel, if not in raw per-clock performance or speed, at least with core counts and improvements in the other two categories. While it did not outclass Intel, it did come within a few percentage points of matching Intel’s performance in most common workloads including games, while offering near-identical or better performance in productivity workloads, like video rendering or other multi-threaded tasks. Intel responded by increasing core count on their Core i7 lineup for 2017, releasing a 6-core CPU that held its own against the top end 8-core Ryzen CPUs and extended Intel’s market dominance for at least another year.
In 2018, AMD released the Zen+ core architecture, and with it the desktop Ryzen 2xxx CPUs, which offered slightly lower power consumption, which AMD used to increase clock speeds further, while also making small tweaks to the core design, leading to per-clock performance gains of around 3% while also pushing up clock speeds. While it wasn’t enough to beat the Intel Core i7 series, or the 2018-released Core i9 series with 8 cores, the new Ryzen processors did begin to close the gap with Intel in a really exciting way, while being cheaper. The choice when I built my system last summer was clear – save 10% in cost for 10% less gaming performance but a marginal increase over the Intel part in productivity work, and the value of an included cooler (which I did not use, but has done great work on my girlfriend’s much lower power Ryzen 2200G!). At the same time, the value AMD has offered with Ryzen is hard to pass up – while Intel changes socket design roughly every two years, requiring a new motherboard and with it a new copy of Windows, AMD pledged to support the AM4 socket and all motherboards for it with new CPU designs through 2020, meaning a motherboard purchased in 2017 for the very first Ryzen CPUs will still work with this year’s releases and most likely next year’s as well (depending on how AMD defines “through 2020”). This allows you to invest only the cost of a new CPU to unlock increases in performance. The first option, from Zen architecture to Zen+, was a minor leap, but still an improvement.
However, 2019 is shaping up to be a huge gain in performance.
While much of it is still shrouded in rumors and mystery, at the beginning of January 2019, AMD demonstrated their new Ryzen 3xxx CPUs based on the brand-new Zen 2 architecture. Zen 2 is a massive leap in performance, with a new design based on chiplets, which separate pieces of the CPU into multiple physical components to improve part binning and allow more CPUs at a lower cost. The number of rumors around this launch are many, but the general design seems to be offering a few advantages – it uses a smaller chip design thanks to smaller transistors and the splitting of components, which could pave the way for a standard desktop CPU with 16 cores (!), the shrink in chip size also means power savings to deliver more performance at the same power consumption, which is rumored to result in a possible 5 GHz (!) core speed, and the improvements to the design of the CPU are said to result in a per-clock performance improvement that is rumored (with less certainty, so grain of salt here) to result in an up to 15% performance uplift clock for clock. In theory, this is very exciting, because it means that even if the number of cores and clock speed stay exactly the same, you could still see a 15% performance gain. Combined with what amounts to a nearly 20% core speed gain and between 50-100% more cores, and well, you have one of the biggest single-generation performance leaps in history.
Intel currently offers the best performing desktop CPU, the Core i9 9900k. It currently sells for $550 or so and can hit speeds of 4.7 GHz on all of its 8 cores, or can boost two of them to 5 GHz while keeping the others at or around stock performance. The demo at CES in January showed an 8-core design of the new Ryzen 3xxx CPUs beating that Intel part ever so slightly, while also using half the power for the CPU. If rumor holds, however, the unit demonstrated would end up being a mid-range part from AMD, selling for less than half the cost of the Intel model it was compared to! Further, the rumors point to that AMD demo being conducted at a lower clock speed than the Intel part (anywhere from 4.1 GHz to 4.5 GHz was rumored, against the 4.7 GHz all-core speed of the Intel part).
Now, I want to be clear that there are a lot of unknowns around this new stuff – the demo unit did not have a clock speed disclosed, while they’ve said we can expect more cores, the only demo units that have had leaked benchmarks are an 8 core and a 12 core, and the clock speed rumors are optimistic but realistic – the process technology AMD will be using could theoretically hit 5 GHz with ease, but across the number of CPU cores they’ll pack in, it is harder to say for sure – however, the 5 GHz mark is rumored as a boost clock, which would likely mean only 1 or 2 cores total would hit that speed while the others run slower.
However, as a gamer, this is very exciting news. I got the Ryzen 7 2700x because it was the best value for the amount of money I wanted to spend, and it has held up very well. However, it also gave me access to a future path to upgrade, which is something that has a lot of value to me. This summer, when the parts are supposedly launching, I can easily spend only $300 to increase the performance of my existing PC drastically, and it would be a drop-in upgrade that would take only around 15 minutes and require no other changes – my existing motherboard, CPU liquid cooler, memory, storage, and graphics card can all stay the same and I would still be able to see a huge uplift in overall performance.
The unspoken part of the history I gave above is what Intel did from 2011 onwards, as they dominated the market while AMD released the disappointing FX series. Intel remained dominant over the period from the release of the Sandy Bridge Core lineup, with the Core i7 2600k being one of the best CPUs of all time, and fondly remembered by many, to the current Coffee Lake refresh based Core i9 lineup. However, in many ways, Intel rested on their laurels during this dominant streak, and the long time to completely retool and redesign from AMD led to a streak of very disappointing releases from Intel. While they continued to push forward past Sandy Bridge for a few years, the release of Skylake in August 2015 with the Core i7 6700k was the last time that Intel increased the per-clock performance of their processor lineup, and also the last time they shrunk their process node to deliver a lower-powered part. Since then, they have made strides towards power efficiency through chip layout and design, which have allowed them to gradually increase the clock speed of the subsequent releases and to cram more cores into the same basic design. While this isn’t altogether bad, for those years, Intel has kept the same basic design at the top of their lineup – a 4-core, 8-thread CPU with good clock speed and per-clock performance, with memory support and specific clock speeds being largely the only changes. With the introduction of Ryzen, more cores became available from Intel as well (to be clear, given product development cycles, this was likely the plan regardless of AMD’s action).
This resting has cost Intel, however – as for the first time in history, AMD will release a part on a smaller process node than Intel with the Ryzen 3xxx parts. In addition, it seems likely that for at least a few months, AMD will hold the per-clock performance crown, the core count crown, and Intel’s response is likely going to wait until the end of 2019, with some rumors placing new Intel desktop CPUs into 2020 instead (with the possibility of another refresh of their current architecture using 10 cores releasing in 2019 being a newer rumor)! The worst case for Intel is exactly that – if AMD has the best parts for 6 months or more, at a time when they’ve already begun taking back marketshare from Intel, it will be a bad situation for Intel, although they will likely still retain a market leading share of consumers.
Not the worst, however – Intel currently shows roughly 80% of the gaming market according to the Steam Hardware Survey, while AMD has climbed to 20%, a shift of around 5% from when Ryzen was introduced until now. While the shift is slow, it has accelerated with the Zen+ series as AMD has shaken of the stigma of the FX era. Where once AMD was “cheap with cause” and “you get what you pay for” they now represent an actual value to consumers, increasing the number of cores available to lower-budget consumers and offering meaningful integrated graphics options with the Ryzen 2200/2400g that can manage gaming for a low cost.
My history with AMD is relatively brief, but I have welcomed their increased market share and competition. My first PC in the early 2000’s was an Intel Celeron 333, the very first Celeron CPU, which I overclocked by using a jumper to change the bus speed. After that beaten old computer, the gaming machine that started my WoW fandom was an AMD Athlon XP 2500+ with a Radeon 9700, and that is the machine I used all the way up until the very end of vanilla, at which point I built my own rig from scratch with the Intel Core 2 Duo E6300. Since that point, I’ve used mostly Intel CPUs, as they were both highest performance and cheapest (the Core 2 Duo was $185, and while it was the bottom of Intel’s stack that generation, it worked great).
I went from that to a Core 2 Quad Q6600, then the first Core i7, the 920, before finally landing on the dual Xeon beast I had from 2011-2018, at which point I went to the AMD Ryzen 7 2700x. Why the history? Well, I think one thing stands out to me when I look at my Newegg purchase history for these systems – Intel was, due to the early 2000s performance wins from AMD, pricing competitively and pushing the envelope. The Core 2 Duo I bought was under $200 and winning because Intel knew they couldn’t overprice it. The Core 2 Quad was only around $60 more than what I paid for the Duo when I got it, and it pushed the envelope further. The Core i7 920 was a high end CPU, but was under $300 and had a full feature set. Once Intel pulled away from AMD, the market got measurably worse, and much of the 2010s have been Intel selling incremental upgrades at full prices and selling higher core count parts as high end, pricing them at $1,000+.
So I am glad to see that the CPU market has gotten a much-needed shakeup. AMD doing as well as they have despite a 6 year gap with products that weren’t particularly great is something that gamers and technology needed – there’s no longer a single easy answer. Today, the answer is still largely Intel – if all you do is game. But at certain price points, the AMD options are better, and if you want to stretch into content creation, then the AMD parts become even better options, as they offer more cores at lower cost pretty much all the way across the range of options.
But mostly, I’m just really excited to see a single mainstream desktop CPU match the number of cores I had in my two-socket Classified SR-2 system way back in 2011!