Reviews depend on narratives – at least, most consumer product reviews do.
Tech enthusiasts read reviews for a lot of reasons – but many of us read and watch reviews for entertainment. I’ve checked out reviews for around 10 times as many products as I’ve actually purchased, just because it is interesting and fun to understand the ways in which technology is advancing and moving.
So, in many ways, yesterday’s Ryzen 3rd generation launch was tailor-made for those wanting to be entertained by a review. Narratives are very common in reviews, and not altogether indicative of any malice or intent to harm from the reviewer. If my job is to get eyeballs on my videos or written reviews, then it is imperative that I design the content in a way that brings entertainment to those who come to my content.
The launch of the new Ryzen CPUs from AMD had a lot of built-in narratives, just the same as the original Ryzen launch in 2017. Will AMD topple Intel in gaming? How will the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X perform relative to the similarly priced Intel Core i9 9900k 8-core processor? How big of a lead does the new AMD hardware maintain in productivity tasks? How much do these new parts beat the prior generation Ryzen by?
In 2017, when AMD launched Ryzen 1st generation, they were coming out of a 5+ year slump lead by the awful Bulldozer architecture and its derivatives. In that same window, Intel had launched their now-legendary Sandy Bridge architecture, taking a huge lead over AMD after around 5 years of mostly small leads on AMD’s more competitive CPUs, and then continued to iterate up until Skylake in 2016. The reviews then were highly anticpated and viewed, because the narrative going in was strong and clear – in much the same way as yesterday’s launch, actually. The question everyone wanted answered was the same – “does AMD beat Intel at gaming?”
The answer then was a solid “no, but close” – 1st generation Ryzen had successfully closed a lot of the gap between AMD and Intel, while offering more cores which made the Ryzen offering more compelling for productivity workloads – appealing to the audience of streamers and video editors and especially for those like myself wanting to buy a CPU with the fantasy of doing these things but not actually doing the work and ending up just using them to game anyways.
Zen+ and the second generation Ryzen parts missed a lot of this coverage because it was clear going in that there was no strong narrative to cover – would it beat Intel? No, of course not – AMD was promoting a very modest 3% IPC gain due mostly to efficiency, coupled with a small increase in top-end boost clockspeed and improvements to their boosting algorithm to ensure higher average clockspeeds, but even combined, these improvements put second-generation Ryzen in the same place as the first generation parts – slightly higher than what came before, but below Intel.
So, does Ryzen third-generation finally leapfrog Intel?
Well…yes, and no.
Many gaming benchmarks show Intel on top still, albeit by much smaller margins. Double-digit percentage leads have closed in to single-digit leads, and in a few cases, AMD has moved past Intel – it’s hard to tell just how good the whole product stack is at this point as AMD only sampled the 8-core 3700X and the 12-core 3900X, leaving the higher-clocked 3800X and the budget 3600 and 3600X six-cores out of the conversation – save for a few outlets that secured the 3600 through unofficial means in order to test. There are some oddities that come with a new architecture, especially one with as big a shift as the chiplet design – intercore latencies are creeping up as an issue, although testing shows that the latency in nanoseconds is actually lower than the prior generation Ryzen parts and the latency for cores in the same chiplet and CCX are lower on-average than the latency of the 9900K. Many of these issues boil down to the Windows scheduler, while better than before with Ryzen topology awareness, still not being fully tuned for the layout of these processors.
Productivity benchmarks absolutely showed how good the design was, with the 12-core 3900X racking up massive wins, with 40-50% over the 9900K in many tests and even managing to brute-force frequency-sensitive benchmarks to single-digit margins with Intel still squeaking out a win here and there due to their higher single and dual-core boost frequencies.
Then, there were some interesting rumors floating around – some reviewers might have had beta BIOSes for the motherboards used, which affected performance and boost frequency negatively. One outlet reported hardware errors in Windows when using the new processors with GeForce graphics cards – setups the majority of reviewers used. There are outliers in nearly every test used, and while it is tempting to attribute that to some of these reported errors, I came away impressed overall.
Even if we assume that every benchmark had no issues, AMD delivered as promised with the Ryzen third-generation parts. Better single-core performance, higher overall clockspeeds, meaningful tweaks like latency reductions, memory support, and a more robust ecosystem of motherboards and supporting hardware. Productivity benchmarks show that Ryzen is still the best overall choice for most content creators – if you plan to stream with CPU-based video encoding, record videos with CPU-encoding, or render video output on your gaming rig, the Ryzen CPUs offer better value with the 3700X performing on-par with the 9900K for $170 less, and the 3900X performing far better than the 9900K for only $15 more. In gaming, the benchmarks show what AMD did at their Next Horizon gaming event at E3 – in many cases, they’ve matched or slightly passed Intel, and where they haven’t, they’ve brought the margin so close that it doesn’t really make sense to pony up the extra cash for the Intel parts unless literally all you are doing is gaming with high-refresh rates (144hz+) – a task which the higher end Ryzen third-gen parts are mostly capable of as well. Lastly, the value of AMD giving away their excellent Wraith Prism cooler with their full high-end lineup helps a lot – at price-points where Intel only sells a CPU and you have to spend extra for a cooler – often adding $50 or more for a great solution like a Noctua tower cooler or a closed-loop liquid cooler. The Wraith Prism works well enough out of the box to get you going even with some mild overclocking, although you are still well-served to upgrade to something beefier.
Better still, if any of the rumored performance-reducers are accurate, better BIOSes, newer Windows updates, and improved software all stand to further improve the Ryzen 3rd-generation performance from the already-excellent baseline the reviews published establish.
Which is good, because, against my better judgment, I stayed up until midnight on Sunday to buy a Ryzen 9 3900X.
Friday cannot get here soon enough!