I’ve been following the rumour mill of AMD’s upoming Ryzen CPU product range quite closely over the last few weeks, and I’m honestly amazed by what I’m seeing.
For starters, there’s the sheer number of products. The leaks pointed at nearly 20 different CPUs, with four, six, or eight cores and up to 16 threads. This isn’t a small move at gaining some market share, this is an entire range of CPUs. Obviously, the massively exciting thing is that, if the performance figures are to be believed, we’ll be seeing some real competition again and have real choice between AMD and Intel, especially as the AM4 boards for Ryzen seem to be on par with their Intel equivalents too.
This is something that we haven’t seen in over a decade, and many of you may not have been buying hardware that long. Having been building my own PCs since the 1990s, I saw AMD's rise and fall. It’s easy to imagine, though – just think of the AMD and Nvidia scenario (at least in the mid-range) but with CPUs. It’s good for competition, it’s good for the consumer, and my hope is also that we’ll see some new apps and games across the board that make use of the increasing core counts.
However, the price rumours are another thing that caught my eye. AMD was always a little cheaper than Intel. It was the same even when the two were in competition in the pre-Intel Core architecture days when the likes of AMD’s Thunderbirds were doing the rounds against Pentium 3s and Pentium 4s. However, the gap this time could be astronomical. The latest rumours point at some AMD Ryzen SKUs being up to 70 percent cheaper than their Intel counterparts, despite sporting the same core and thread counts and similar frequencies. In fact, since writing this, AMD has confirmed a $499 price point for the Ryzen 7 1800X that's set to go head-to-head with Intel's $1,050 Core i7-6900K.
There are two main possibilities here. Either Intel has been over-charging for its products for a while, and AMD is simply offering a reset, or the latter has simply found a cheaper way to do things. There is a third option too, of course, which is that the rumours are way off, and it’s probably a bit of all three to be honest.
However, I love the fact that AMD’s SenseMI Technology, for example, seems to actually be encompassing features that could offer real benefits and be interesting to as well as sought after by enthusiasts. Intel really hasn’t taken advantage of things here. For example, its Turbo Boost Max 3.0 feature was very interesting but poorly implemented - it could have been very useful, and not just for its flagship CPUs.
Apart from this, there has been very little to be excited about with Intel for a long time. Yes, it has been gradually adding more IPC and some interesting things to its chipsets, but really, no one big standout feature has surfaced since the awesome overclocking and performance that Sandy Bridge offered. There have been plenty of enhancements since then, but we’re still only dealing with four cores for mainstream K-series CPUs, and as of Kaby Lake, these now cost well over £200, even for the Core i5-7600K.
Intel's mainstream desktop CPUs such as the Core i7-7700K haven't moved on from quad-cores for nearly a decade, and AMD is taking advantage of this.
I’ve been saying for a long time that Intel wasn’t doing the enthusiast scene any favours here – I remember when the scene was thriving, largely because of cheaper, overclockable products that enticed new people into buying and building their own PCs. This has been all but decimated since the introduction of the K-series i5 and i7, yet the enthusiast scene survived, probably partly through die-hard AMD fans overclocking their toasty Phenoms and partly through the continued growth of PC gaming.
The main attraction of Ryzen is, of course, the fact that it looks like you'll be able to bag a CPU with four, six, or eight cores for much less than Intel's equivalents. It's important to realise I'm not saying that more cores are always better: Ryzen will offer additional grunt from more cores and threads, but AMD's previous generations of CPUs offered more cores and threads too. The issue there was that even in multi-threaded tests, six and eight-core AMD CPUs were being beaten by Intel four-core CPUs simply due to Intel's superior IPC, and it's something that many AMD owners simply refused to admit even in the face of irrefutable benchmark scores.
More cores and threads also don't automatically mean better performance in general, though, especially in games, but there is another factor coming into play here, and it's one that Intel appears to have missed: Enthusiasts want these features. They want to upgrade, and they want big performance boosts, and a lot of the time they're willing to pay for it too. This is why Ryzen has been gaining so much traction, and it's why the enthusiast scene, which encompasses gamers, eSports, modding, and overclocking, has survived the downturn in the PC market as a whole.
Ryzen’s pricing points at some serious competition for Intel, and to make things worse, Intel hasn’t really grasped what enthusiasts want and why they’ve been complaining. Or maybe it has, but with so little competition there’s been no need to put the dollars into battling against a near non-existent foe. Combined with the number of CPUs apparently on the horizon, it’s clear that AMD isn’t just planning to steal back a little market share with a couple of half-decent offerings. It’s planning a full battleship broadside against Intel that will shake the entire PC industry to its core. This is a good thing, but I just hope that the rumours are true. Thankfully, we'll know soon enough.