The AMD Ryzen 7 1800X Performance Review
Could this finally be it? Throughout the course being drip fed information about AMD’s new Ryzen architecture over the last eighteen months, that question has been bouncing through the depths of my mind. Would this be the CPU architecture that finally pushes the missteps of Phenom K10 and Bulldozer out the proverbial window and leverages AMD back into competition with Intel? Could AMD relive its K7 and K8 microarchitecture glory days? Based on the slivers of hope delivered at countless press days and briefing calls the technology which was first explained as “something new”, then as Zen and Summit Ridge and now finally as Ryzen took shape.
A review of Ryzen can’t begin without bringing up the painful past of high expectations and subsequent crushing reality checks of AMD’s last five or so years. The Bulldozer, Steamroller, Piledriver and Excavator architectures effectively failed to live up to the hopes that Intel’s juggernaut would face some competition. Meanwhile, the efforts that were put into the APU Fusion initiative fizzled out in short order when the performance of those aforementioned processor cores acted as a dragging anchor for an entire lineup.
Despite those challenges, AMD persevered and had a hallelujah moment as they slowly but surely engineered a core technology that would leapfrog them back into a position of competitiveness. So here I am today and after taking this new architecture through the wringer and I couldn’t be happier. At the risk of blowing this review wide open at its onset let me say this: the wait for Ryzen and its Zen architecture has been well worth it.
At the onset of designing Zen about four years ago, AMD set out an extremely ambitious goal for themselves: they wanted to increase instructions per clock over their Excavator cores by about 40%. At first you may scoff at a number like that but remember Excavator was based upon the half-decade old Bulldozer architecture. In other words, it isn’t too far of a stretch to expect an intergenerational leap of 40% between a current processor design and one that’s five years old.
Now a 40% boost for Excavator in relation to what Intel was accomplishing with Broadwell, Skylake and Kaby Lake would certainly have put AMD into direct competition with some of the best CPUs on the market. However, as time went on there was a realization that Zen could accomplish quite a bit more. The end result is an incredible 52% IPC increase over Excavator. Not only should this be enough to overcome many of Intel’s current generation processors but Team Blue may be doing some serious soul searching about their upcoming 8th generation Core products as well.
Even before launch, there has been a bit of confusion over the naming scheme of AMD’s newest processors but it’s actually pretty straightforward. The Ryzen part of this equation is simply the model name designation for the enthusiast and prosumer level CPUs based upon the Zen microarchitecture. Meanwhile, the “7” point towards the model segment with –for the time being- Ryzen 7 being the top flight 8-core, 16-thread parts while other series like Ryzen 5 will be released later this year with 6-core (12 thread) and 4-core (8 core) variants.
Moving onto the 1700X in the example above with the 1xxx being a generation indicator and the 7 referring to the performance level of that particular chip. At launch, AMD will have 1800-series and 1700-series CPUs but expect lower tiers to quickly roll out as well. The double zero here is being used as extra space in case there’s additional speed bins of a processors launched in the future.
The last letter (or lack thereof) in this whole equation is perhaps the most important. An “X” means the processor utilizes the maximum implementation of AMD’s Extended Frequency Range (XFR) while the lack of a letter here denotes a so-called standard desktop processor. It doesn’t end there either. “G” means the processor has an integrated GPU while “T” and “S” are reserved for low power desktop processors without and with GPUs. Finally the “H”, “U” and “M” series will be reserved for high performance, standard and low voltage mobile CPUs.
With all of that setup out of the way, let’s take a look at what AMD is initially launching within the Ryzen lineup. Naturally, there are some common threads running throughout. The flagship Ryzen 7 series will consist of eight core, 16 thread (yes, AMD has finally enabled simultaneous multithreading) processors with 4MB of local L2 cache and 16MB of shared L3 cache along with DDR4 2400MHz support. Make sure you read page 5 of this article since that 2400MHz spec is tenuous at best due to official memory frequency support ranging from 1866MHz to 2667MHz depending on the type of DIMMs you use.
The key points of differentiation lie in the clock speeds with the $499 Ryzen 7 1800X featuring a Base clock 3.6GHz which runs up to 4GHz (or 4.1GHz if there’s thermal room for XFR to kick in). AMD bills this as the least expensive 16-thread processor on the market and it also happens to be -on paper at least- the most power efficient with a TDP of just 95W. Compare this to Intel’s $1100, 140W i7-6900K and it isn’t hard to see where this distinction comes from.
The Ryzen 7 1700X is effectively the same processor as the Ryzen 7 1800X but due to its slightly lower operational frequencies it will retail for just $399. Personally I think this will likely be the sweet spot of the Ryzen 7 lineup for the time being.
AMD’s initial launch is rounded out by the Ryzen 7 1700 which has a significantly lower Base clock than its bigger brothers but that also leads to a miniscule TDP of just 65W. With this processor you also get a lower XFR ratio of 50MHz versus 100MHz on the X-series parts but that $329 price point could compare favorably to Intel’s own $350 i7-7700K.
Much of AMD’s focus for Ryzen’s marketing efforts has been directed towards its price / performance ratio against Intel’s similar offerings. It is more than evident that Intel has been taking advantage of a commanding lead in the x86 market to keep processor prices high while rolling out limited innovations from one generation to the next. No better example of this can be seen than the $1100 i7-6900K and $1700 i7-6950X. AMD on the other hand is launching their Ryzen series with some extremely disruptive price positioning.
Disruptive is a great term but while they may seem inexpensive to everyone who has been force-fed Intel’s pricing structure for the last few years, all of these Ryzen 7 processors represent the most expensive AMD desktop offerings in recent memory. Like it or not $500 is still A LOT to pay for a processor. Hence why I think the 1700-series may quickly become the darlings of this particular launch.
For those of you who are used to AMD providing a simple drop-in upgrade solution for your age-old motherboard, start thinking of Ryzen as a top-to-bottom system upgrade. The new 1331-pin AM4 socket isn’t compatible with previous generation CPUs and you’ll need new DDR4 memory but this platform will form the basis of many AMD platforms to come. While Summit Ridge Ryzen CPUs are compatible right now, expect upcoming Raven Ridge APUs (which also use the Zen architecture alongside Vega graphics) to share the same AM4-based foundation. Indeed, many current AM4 motherboards have simple display outputs so they can be used for APUs as well. This is a big step away from the bifurcated and disjointed AM3/FM2 approach of yesteryear.
Before I move on from this already-too-long introduction, I need to talk about availability since that happens to be the biggest question surrounding every launch these days. AMD has already launched pre-orders for all of the CPUs I have mentioned above with an availability date of March 2nd. There’s no question AMD needs a strong launch to backstop what looks like a great architecture. Retailers and my contacts within the distribution channels have indicated there will be sufficient quantities of the Ryzen 7 1800X to fill pre orders while the other processors may initially be in short supply.
Regardless of intangibles like availability, the Ryzen launch is finally here and if you got to this point without jumping ahead to the benchmarks, congrats! There’s much more to this review than a simple introduction!
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