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Computer support question of the week: What is AMD Ryzen and what is all the fuss about?

 

If you were building or specifying a desktop computer or server over the past five or so years, there was only one real choice for the processor, Intel. It’s i5 and i7 series processors were the best around and had no real competition. That changes with the release of the AMD Ryzen range. It seems AMD has finally come of age.

As our computer support team have to learn all about new technologies in order to provide the kind of expertise Dave’s Computers is famous for, we decided to dig into AMD Ryzen to see what all the fuss is about. As a new processor is the heart of any computer, we thought we would share our findings with you dear reader.

What is AMD Ryzen?

So what is AMD Ryzen and how can it compete with Intel? AMD Ryzen is a brand new processor architecture that takes the fight to the incumbent. The first truly new processor from AMD in six years, it is a big deal for the company. Not only is it the first competitive processor for more than five years, it is also AMD’s main hope to get more market share.

The AMD FX series of processors were behind Intel from the very beginning. Even back in the days of Sandy Bridge, they just couldn’t keep up. Most benchmarks favored Intel and the vast majority of processor sales went to Intel as a result. AMD Ryzen seeks to change that.

As far as we know, there are three processors in two groups Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 5. The 1700, 1700X and 1800X in Ryzen 7 at the high end and Ryzen 5 taking care of the mid-range with the 1400, 1500X, 1600 and 1600X.

The Ryzen 1700 runs at 3.0MHz with a 16MB Level 3 cache. The 1700X runs at 3.4GHz and the 1800X at 3.6GHz. The ‘X’ means the chip is compatible AMD’s XFR, Extended Frequency Range which allows it to temporarily exceed the turbo clocking should you need it to. All three Ryzen 7 processors use 8 cores with 16 threads and have the same amount of Level 3 cache.

The Ryzen 5 series is slightly different. The 1400 chip has 4 cores and eight threads and 8MB of L3 cache. The 1500X has the same cores but 16MB of L3. The 1600 and 1600X  have 6 cores and 12 threads with 16MB of L3. They run at 3.2GHz, 3.5GHz, 3.2GHz and 3.6GHz respectively.

The Ryzen 1700 is designed to take on the i7-7700K while the 1700X takes the i7-6800K and the 1800X the i7-6900K. That is an ambitious target as the core i7s are very capable processors indeed. The Ryzen 5 series will take on i5 chips.

Chipsets

The AMD Ryzen range will use one of three chipsets, A320, B350 or X370 under the umbrella of the AM4 platform. It is a dual channel DDR4 setup with 1331 pins for the CPU itself. This gives multiple PCIe lanes for graphics and external devices.

At the high end, the X370 will likely be the main choice for gamers as it offers DDR4 RAM, PCI-E Gen 3, USB 3.1 Gen 2, NVMe and SATA Express support. With 16 lanes for the GPU and 2 x 8 lanes for other devices, there is a lot of potential here. The chipset will also support up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM. More importantly, it will support overclocking.

 

Why is Ryzen important?

With Intel being so dominant, any competition in the market will force improvements across the board. With Ryzen being much cheaper, it will also force Intel to look at pricing. The AMD vs Nvidia GPU race has kept the market moving forward at a very fast pace so we hope that Ryzen will do the same for processors.

Not only are there more cores and threads on a Ryzen, the power consumption is also low. The TDP is <100W for all chips with some of them marketed as being as low as 65W TDP. Until we get to test one, we will believe it when we see it.

According to AMD, the Ryzen architecture allows the CPU to perform 40% more work per clock cycle compared to its last generation chips. That is a serious gain considering power draw is exactly the same. Where AMD once could only compete on clock speed, now it can compete on efficiency too. This has ramifications for both enthusiasts and enterprise.

Benchmarking

A few IT specialist websites have tested the Ryzen chip against its contemporary Intel with mixed results. It seems both BIOS and drivers have yet to be released that can unleash the fully potential of Ryzen. We won’t join all those voices clamoring for updates. Instead we will bide our time and wait until drivers and BIOS are fully up to the task of giving the Ryzen full gas.

Pricing and availability

According to AMD the Ryzen range will be released on April 11. Pricing has been set at some very reasonable dollar amounts too.

  • Ryzen 7 1800X will cost $499
  • Ryzen 7 1700X will cost $399
  • Ryzen 7 1700 will cost $329
  • Ryzen 5 1600X will cost $249
  • Ryzen 5 1600 will cost $219
  • Ryzen 5 1500X will cost $189
  • Ryzen 5 1400 will cost $169

I don’t have specific costs for AM4 motherboards yet but expect them to be comparable to Intel Skylake or Kaby Lake boards.

Summary of AMD Ryzen

The computer support team here are quite excited about the new AMD chips. Not only do they seem to compare well to Intel i5 and i7, they are much cheaper. While you will need a new motherboard with the AM4 chipset, the overall cost of a gaming PC has just come down by anything up to $500. With low power demands, running costs should reduce too.

While reviews of the CPUs gaming performance are mixed, this is likely down to drivers and optimization. What reviewers have all been saying is for productivity, the Ryzen family has serious potential thanks to those cores and threads. Given that each processor fares well against its assigned Intel competitor, at half the price, we think the AMD Ryzen family is going to do very well indeed!