Thoughts on Threadripper: What we know and how AMD can compete

AMD recently announced that their new 16 core / 32 thread Threadripper 1950X CPU will retail for $999, while the 12 core / 24 thread 1920X CPU will come in at $799. These sums seem kingly until you realize that they’re meant to compete with Intel’s 18 core / 36 thread i9 7980XE CPU ($1,999) and 16 core / 32 thread i9 7960X ($1,699).  For the cost of one i9 7980XE, you can get two Threadripper 1950X CPUs.

Slam dunk for AMD! Game over for Blue Team, right?!

Not so fast. While the Ryzen 7 line offered fantastic multicore performance for the price, it lagged behind in gaming performance, which is usually a lightly threaded endeavor. Despite the numerical nomenclature, the Ryzen 7’s game performance was more comparable to the Core i5 line, not the Core i7, leaving many gamers disappointed. Game patches, BIOS updates, and fast RAM helped shrink but never quite close the gap.

How AMD can compete

So are AMD processors ever the "right" choice for gamers? That depends very much on your perspective. If price is no object when it comes to building PCs, then you’ll want to go with Intel’s Core i9. Despite some heating issues due to poor thermal interface material (TIM), the i9 consistently benchmarks better than the Ryzen 7 and Core i7 lines. After all, poor TIM is nothing a little delidding can’t fix (though be careful if you choose to delid, as it’s a risky business perhaps best left to professionals).

If you’re like most folks, price to performance ratio (P2PR) matters a great deal. If you’re going to reach that far outside the orbit of the standard $200-$300 Core i5 processor, you want to get your money’s worth. Unfortunately, paying 500% more doesn’t give you a 500% performance boost. Diminishing returns hit very hard after a certain price point. If P2PR in gaming is your primary concern, then maxing out your core count doesn’t make sense. The vast majority of Steam users are gaming on 2-4 cores.

As of June 2017, folks operating on five to nine cores represent a miniscule 1.93% of their ~125 million strong userbase. Folks using more than ten cores represent an even smaller .04%. To make 10+ core users happy (which still represents five million users), AMD needs to do a few things:

They need to get chips into the hands of game developers extremely quickly, and ensure that they can optimize their games for Threadripper’s strengths and quirks. When the Ashes of the Singularity dev team released a patch that took advantage of Ryzen’s extra cores, we saw a newsworthy performance jump. Threadripper will hopefully have strong dev support out of the gate, or at least find it very quickly. AMD faces something of a catch-22 on this issue. Without wide adoption, game devs won’t bother to optimize for their hardware. Without optimization, their CPUs won’t shine the way they ought to. It’s a difficult balancing act, and game devs are caught in the middle.

They also need to ensure that there are no wonky RAM issues. It’s not like AMD doesn’t know what’s going to go be sitting next to their chips on the mobo. The same goes for the BIOS.

They also need to maintain the same level of openness and communication that they have throughout Ryzen’s launch and adoption. When there were problems, AMD didn’t run from them. Aside from the usual pre-launch marketing hype (which no one should believe from either CPU manufacturer), they spoke clearly and honestly about all of these issues.

Finally, the company will do well to avoid heating issues that have plagued the new Core i9 chips. If Threadripper stumbles here, it’ll have an even larger set of issues to contend with, given that its large size limits it to specially-built coolers.

If Threadripper wants to compete in the high-end desktop space, it needs to do more than just pile on cores more cheaply than Intel. Ryzen succeeded because its price and performance landed in a sweet (and heretofore vacant) spot between the i5 and i7. As logicalincrements.com puts it, “Gaming performance is about 10-20% lower than the target competition from Intel, but the price is 30-50% lower!” That exclamation point is well-earned, and performance like that is an achievement that merits AMD’s 620% stock price jump over last year. Will Threadripper discover another sweet spot between the i7 and i9 lines? Only time will tell, but I am hoping hard.

Regardless of which side of the CPU wars you’re on, competition is great for all of us, driving performance up and prices down. It would be an awesome time to build a new PC if it wasn’t for all the Ethereum mining driving up the cost of GPUs. Personally, I’m hoping this craze will wear off and dump a bunch of used GTX 1060s and 1070s into the market just in time for Christmas.

Update: The section on Steam hardware stats and the number of users of different cores has been corrected and updated for clarity.