AMD's Ryzen 7 CPUs are arguably its best ever. Our tests show that the Zen microarchitecture can deliver single-threaded performance that's about on par with Intel's Broadwell core. In fact, AMD exceeded its ambitious 40% instructions-per-clock improvement target. Some of our directed tests actually showed as much as a 50% single-core boost from Piledriver to Zen. AMD is deservedly proud of this accomplishment.
Zen's impressive single-thread potential is tempered by the delivered clock speeds of the eight-core, sixteen-thread parts that AMD is debuting today, however. The Ryzen 7 1800X trades blows with Intel's Broadwell-E parts by dint of its high base and boost speeds, but that parity is a ceiling for the Ryzen lineup, not a floor. Lower-clocked Ryzen 7s seem to perform somewhere between Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge Core i7s in lightly-threaded tasks. As a result, they won't feel like a substantial upgrade from an older Sandy or Ivy system while browsing Facebook and Twitter—out of the box, at least.
In an exciting hat tip to PC enthusiasts, all Ryzen CPUs will have unlocked multipliers for easy overclocking, so it might be simple enough to claw back some clock speed with a relatively affordable CPU. Remember those good old days? On early firmware, we got our $330 Ryzen 7 1700 up to a 3.9 GHz all-core overclock using just the modest AMD Wraith cooler. With those settings, the mildest Ryzen turns into a rather brisk single-threaded performer and a real fire-breather on the cheap for multithreaded workloads. We expect buyers willing to tweak a bit will be happy with the performance they can extract from a Ryzen 7 1700 and an affordable tower heatsink like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo. We didn't enjoy as much overclocking success with the already-speedy 1700X and 1800X parts, though. We'll be exploring Ryzen overclocking in-depth in a separate article at some point.
Although AMD would like builders to think that a Ryzen 7 1800X is like getting a Broadwell-E Core i7-6900K for half the price and so on down the line, the reality is more complicated. We were surprised by how many programs in our test suite now appear to take advantage of AVX instructions, and Ryzen can only achieve half the 256-bit SIMD throughput as its Intel competitors when running those operations. Memory-bandwidth-constrained applications like Euler3D can also run far better when paired with Haswell-E and Broadwell-E's quad-channel memory controller, where Ryzen seems to run into a bottleneck. That's not comforting for a chip with eight data-hungry cores to feed.
If an application can take advantage of AVX, as our DAWBench DSP test seems able to, Intel's high-end desktop parts can open a large lead on their Ryzen competitiors thanks to their beefier and higher-throughput SIMD hardware. Core-for-core, however, Ryzen still manages to hang pretty close with its Haswell-and-newer competitors like the Core i7-5960X despite this disadvantage. It helps that Ryzen CPUs are "discounted" far more than the percentage by which they trail the Intel competition, too.
Many of our other productivity tests didn't run into memory or SIMD bottlenecks, and in those cases, the Ryzen 7 lineup truly does bring a new class of computing performance to the $500-and-under price point. Going by our index, the $400 Ryzen 7 1700X is basically a Core i7-5960X for about a third of the coin, and the Ryzen 7 1800X provides even slightly higher performance overall for just $500. That's an incredible value in high-performance desktop computing, and we imagine that Intel won't be able to avoid dropping prices on some of its Broadwell-E CPUs in response. For non-gaming applications, we think these Ryzen 7 chips will be difficult to ignore for those with a need for sheer computing power.
Even though Ryzen redefines the performance available at a given price point for highly multithreaded applications, gamers looking for a similar revolution from Ryzen are likely out of luck. We've been trying to find more multithreaded games to test with of late, and Watch Dogs 2 certainly qualified. It seems that game favors high IPC, memory bandwidth, and clock speeds, though, and the Intel chips we tested offer more of some or all of those things. Heck, in the suite of six games plotted in our value chart above, the Core i7-6950X just barely ekes out the top spot. That may be a first for an Intel high-end desktop CPU. For play, Intel's Core i7-7700K remains the chip to beat, but the future seems to hold multithreaded promise, and that's good for AMD.
AMD countered our questions about Ryzen's performance at the modest resolutions we test CPU gaming prowess with by asserting that higher-resolution displays are becoming ever more popular. By extension, AMD seems to think the gaming market is moving toward being more graphics-card bound than CPU-bound. The Steam Hardware Survey doesn't support this argument, but it is true that gaming at higher resolutions will lessen the differences in performance between Ryzen chips and Intel's seventh-generation Core CPUs if a gamer chooses to play that way.
The company also suggested that the Core i7-7700K and its ilk will appeal more to "pure gamers" who just, well, play games. AMD sees Ryzen as a one-socket shop for those who want to game and stream to Twitch in the highest possible quality all at once. That may be, but we think gamers would rather not make a tradeoff between wide-shouldered grunt and the smoothness-enhancing goodness of high clock speeds and instructions-per-clock muscle. We probably owe it to ourselves to see how Ryzen and the Intel competition perform under those circumstances at some point to see just what the deal is, regardless.
Small wrinkles and our differences in performance priorities aside, it bears repeating that AMD is well and truly back in the high-performance x86 CPU game. If the company can further refine the Zen architecture over time, take advantage of future process improvements, and push clocks higher, we expect that future Ryzen chips will be competitive for many years to come. For now, we say bravo, AMD, and welcome back.