Ryzen CPUs explained: Everything you need to know about AMD's disruptive multicore chips

AMD's powerful Ryzen processors democratize CPU cores and challenge Intel's high-end chips.

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What you need to upgrade for Ryzen

Speaking of motherboards, you’ll need a new one for Ryzen. AMD’s ditching its old platforms and unifying its processors around motherboards using the new AM4 socket.

Ryzen motherboards drag AMD systems into the current era, with support for modern amenities such as 10Gbps USB 3.1 gen. 2 ports, NVMe storage, M.2 SSDs, et cetera. There are several different chipsets available for AM4 motherboards that can significantly affect your system’s features, however. For example, A320 motherboards won’t let you overclock your processor, while multiple graphics cards are only supported by X370-based motherboards. Be sure to read PCWorld’s guide to AMD Ryzen motherboards for a no-nonsense breakdown of what each AM4 chipset offers.

New AM4 motherboards based on a fresh X400 chipset will launch alongside Ryzen+ CPUs releasing in early 2018. Details are unknown, and the new processors will also work on existing AM4 motherboards after a BIOS update. All major motherboard vendors released BIOS updates to support AMD’s Ryzen APUs at launch.

amd ryzen 1800x build 6 Brad Chacos

Gigabyte’s Aorus AX370-Gaming 5 motherboard.

You’ll need more than a new motherboard though. With Ryzen, AMD systems are moving from DDR3 to faster, more energy-efficient DDR4 memory, so you won’t be able to transfer over the RAM from your old PC unless you’re migrating from an Intel Skylake, Kaby Lake, or recent Extreme Edition machine. The bad news: Memory is expensive this year. 

Ryzen’s performance is sensitive to memory speeds, and the Vega graphics cores in Ryzen APUs are even more so. Be sure to hop into your system BIOS and ensure your RAM is running at its advertised speeds. Most systems will run it at JDEC-standard 2133MHz by default rather than the rated timings and voltages for your specific kit. While hitting high memory speeds used to be finicky on AM4 motherboards, the release of new AMD software in May 2017 alleviated those headaches. Overclocking memory is much easier now, assuming you’re running a recent BIOS revision that includes the AGESA updates.

You might need a new CPU cooler as well. The 1331-pin AM4 socket (so close to 1337!) has about 100 more pins than older AM3 boards, so it needs new mounting hardware, and hence, new coolers. Existing AM3 coolers that secure to the processor using clips rather than bolts through the motherboard should still work with Ryzen, however, and many third-party manufacturers of older AM3 CPU coolers will send you AM4 mounting brackets if you ask. If you’ve already dropped big money on cooling for an existing AMD system, the high-end Asus Crosshair VI Hero motherboard ($255 on Amazon) includes both AM3 and AM4 mounting holes to support all sorts of coolers.

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The various AMD Wraith coolers available for Ryzen chips.

You might not need to worry about cooling if you buy the right processor, though. Every Ryzen chip besides the Ryzen 7 1800X, 1700X, and Ryzen 5 1600X ships with one of AMD’s Wraith coolers. The Ryzen 7 1700, Ryzen 5 1500X, and Ryzen 5 1600 include the Wraith Spire, while the Ryzen 5 1400, Ryzen 5 2400G APU, and Ryzen 3 220G APU include the Wraith Stealth.

AMD sold the Wraith Max separately at e-tailers. A fancier Wraith Prism cooler around the time of Ryzen+’s launch, upgrading the Wraith Max’s single-color LED ring of the original to a circle of fully controllable RGB lights, along with some other minor tweaks.

Ryzen operating systems

Windows 10 is the only Microsoft operating system supported by Ryzen. (Linux works, too.) You’ll still be able to install Windows 7 or 8 on a Ryzen PC if you want, but if something goes wrong—and that’s very possible with a new CPU architecture on a new motherboard platform—you won’t get any technical assistance from Microsoft, AMD, or anybody else. There won’t be any official Windows 7 drivers released for Ryzen, either.

Ongoing support is something you definitely want with a fresh platform, too. For instance, AMD pushed out a Ryzen-optimized “Balanced” power plan for Windows 10 that helped the chips behave better with the operating system, improving performance in games by an average of 5 percent (and as much as 21.6 percent).

Ryzen performance tips and build guides

ryzen 1600x build 10 Brad Chacos

That’s all you need to know about buying a Ryzen processor. But if you pick one up, there are several tweaks—some straight from AMD—that might help you eke out even more power from this fresh-faced new platform. (Once again: Overclocking can really bolster Ryzen’s speed.)

Be sure to check out PCWorld’s 7 Ryzen tips and tricks to maximize your PC’s performance to discover which knobs to turn and settings to tweak to push the processors even further. Because for as well as Ryzen performs out of the box, a mere hour or so of fine tuning can make it that much better.

Still planning out your PC? PCWorld’s trio of Ryzen builds can also help if you’re looking for more concrete guidance to constructing an AMD machine:

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