Ryzen review: AMD is back

AMD's vaunted Ryzen CPU is a multithreaded monster with one glaring weakness.

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So what the hell is going on?

Presented with the most confusing CPU results I’ve seen in 15 years, I asked AMD what could possibly be the issue. I was given an updated BIOS, which had no impact. I was asked if I had a clean install of Windows, which I did. What about turning off the SMT? Umm, and why give up the performance? Was it my motherboard? The result of my using lower JEDEC 2133 RAM speeds vs. 2933? Not exactly.

I did test the Core i7-7700K at DDR4/2933 speeds alongside the Ryzen 7 1800X. While the 1800X jumped from 82 fps to 136 fps, the Kaby Lake chip went from 87 fps to 181 fps. I frankly have no idea why my gaming performance on Ryzen isn’t where I’d expect it to be. My gut says it’s some kind of plumbing issue with PCIe or somewhere outside the cores themselves.

I also ran Sid Meier’s Civilization VI’s AI test. It measures how long it takes to calculate between moves. The result was pretty much a tie (except for FX, of course). I still don’t know what's going on. 

(For the record, Brad Chacos experienced similar baffling results in his own tests of the Ryzen 7 1700.)

ryzen civ 6 ai benchmark PCWorld

The Civ VI test measures how long it takes between moves on each platform. The result was a tie.

At ‘realistic’ settings it doesn’t matter

But here’s why the anomalies may not bother many (although it probably should): At actual practical resolutions and game settings, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Most of AMD’s public presentations were at 4K resolution using two cards or a mighty Titan X Pascal card. In those scenarios, it was pretty much a tie. You don’t, after all, buy a $500 CPU and $500 GPU to run at 1920x1080 at “normal” settings. Those settings would be great for integrated graphics, but a GeForce GTX 1080? No. And here’s proof: In Tomb Raider, for example, once you move up to the Ultimate preset, they're all even.

ryzen tomb raider 19x10 ultimate PCWorld

Tomb Raider using the Ultimate setting puts everyone on the same page.

Once you move Rise of the Tomb Raider up to 2560x1600 resolution, Ryzen is right there with Core i7.

ryzen rise of the tomb raider 26x16 very high PCWorld

At 2560x1600, Rise of the Tomb Raider sees the gap close up.

And yes, here’s Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six at 1920x1080 resolution using the Ultra setting. You can again see that everything’s okay, right? 

ryzen rainbow six 19x10 ultra PCWorld

Sure, you’re looking at the charts above and fist-bumping AMD fans, but the odd performance at lower game settings should still disturb you. Based on the charts above, for example, you’d think it would be fine to buy an Athlon FX-8370 chip.

Very late in the review process, AMD’s John Taylor reached out to PCWorld with a comment on the odd performance we were seeing.

ryzen back Gordon Mah Ung

Ryzen kicks much butt at multi-threaded tasks but gaming performance is puzzling.

Here’s why, AMD says

“As we presented at Ryzen Tech Day, we are supporting 300+ developer kits with game development studios to optimize current and future game releases for the all-new Ryzen CPU. We are on track for 1,000+ developer systems in 2017. For example, Bethesda at GDC yesterday announced its strategic relationship with AMD to optimize for Ryzen CPUs, primarily through Vulkan low-level API optimizations, for a new generation of games, DLC and VR experiences,” Taylor said. “Oxide Games also provided a public statement today on the significant performance uplift observed when optimizing for the 8-core, 16-thread Ryzen 7 CPU design—optimizations not yet reflected in Ashes of the Singularity benchmarking. Creative Assembly, developers of the Total War series, made a similar statement today related to upcoming Ryzen optimizations.

“CPU benchmarking deficits to the competition in certain games at 1080p resolution can be attributed to the development and optimization of the game uniquely to Intel platforms—until now. Even without optimizations in place, Ryzen delivers high, smooth frame rates on all ‘CPU-bound’ games, as well as overall smooth frame rates and great experiences in GPU-bound gaming and VR. With developers taking advantage of Ryzen architecture and the extra cores and threads, we expect benchmarks to only get better, and enable Ryzen to excel at next-generation gaming experiences as well. Game performance will be optimized for Ryzen and continue to improve from at-launch frame rate scores.”

To boil it down: Game developers basically develop for two platforms: Intel’s small socket or Intel’s large socket. AMD, as much as it pains the faithful, has been invisible outside of the budget realm, and the results are showing up in the tests. Whether that's what’s really going on I can’t say for sure, and I doubt anyone can at the moment, but it’s at least plausible.

Watch PCWorld's Full Nerd crew discuss Ryzen benchmarks, performance vs. Intel processors, the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, and more.

Conclusion

In the end, AMD’s Ryzen is arguably the most disruptive CPU we’ve seen in a long time for those who need more cores. The CPU basically sells itself when you consider that for the same price as an Intel 8-core Core i7-6900K, you can have an 8-core Ryzen 7 1800X and a GeForce GTX 1080. Hell, you can go a step further and give up a little performance with the Ryzen 7 1700 but step up to a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti—for the same price as that Intel chip. Damn.

But that’s the world Intel has wrought by keeping 8-core CPUs at what many would say are artificially high prices for so long.

Ryzen, however, isn’t a knockout. The gaming disparities at 1080p are sure to spook some buyers. In fact, if you read our Ryzen 7 1700 build against a 5-year-old Core i5 Intel box, you’ll likely be filled with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Is this really just a game optimization problem as AMD says, or is it some deeper flaw that can’t be corrected?

Still, let’s give AMD credit for what it has pulled off today in essentially democratizing CPU core counts.

ryzen5 Gordon Mah Ung

Do we need to say anything other than you can buy a Ryzen with a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti for almost the same price as a single 8-core Intel CPU?

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