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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.

amd is ryzen
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung

After a decade of fielding ho-hum FX-series processors, AMD’s finally released its highly disruptive Ryzen chips, throwing down the gauntlet and challenging Intel’s supremacy in high-end computing.

AMD’s new Ryzen chips include several CPUs (and CPU families) of various levels of potency. What’s more, Ryzen introduces a completely new motherboard platform, and the processors require different memory and coolers than their predecessors. There’s a lot to sift through—so let’s sift!

Here’s everything you need to know about AMD’s Ryzen.

Meet AMD’s Ryzen CPUs

AMD Ryzen 7 prices Mark Hachman

High-level Ryzen 7 specs and prices.

Let’s begin with the stars of the show: the Ryzen chips themselves.

AMD’s Ryzen chips will be split across three families. The top-of-the-line Ryzen 7 processors launched first, with 8 cores, 16 threads, and price points that undercut the comparable 8-core Intel Extreme Edition by a whopping $500. Sweet holy moly. The initial Ryzen 7 lineup consists of the $500 Ryzen 7 1800X, the $400 Ryzen 7 1700X, and the $330 Ryzen 7 1700.

amd ryzen pricing AMD

AMD's Ryzen 5 chips will start at $169 for the 1400 and go up to $249 for the 1600X, staying with range of Intel's Core i5.

The more affordable Ryzen 5 series will launch on April 11 with more variation among processors than you’ll find in the 7 series. The $249 Ryzen 5 1600X is a 6-core, 12-thread processor capable of boosting to 4GHz, the same max speed as the Ryzen 7 1800X. The $219 Ryzen 5 1600 is a 6-core, 12-thread chip that tops out at 3.6GHz. The rest of the Ryzen 5 lineup consists of quad-core, 8-thread CPUs, with the $189 Ryzen 5 1500X hitting 3.7GHz with boost and the $169 Ryzen 5 1400 hanging between 3.2GHz and 3.4GHz.

Finally, the only thing AMD’s said about the more affordable Ryzen 3 chips is that they’ll launch at some point in the second half of the year. We’d expect these to challenge Intel’s Core i3 lineup.

Ryzen technologies and performance

sensemi AMD

Icons for the various SenseMI technologies.

AMD imbued Ryzen chips with SenseMI technology consisting of separate parts: Pure Power, Precision Boost, Extended Frequency Range (XFR), Neural Net Prediction, and Smart Prefetch.

  • Pure Power measures hundreds of on-chip sensors to optimize temperatures and power use while maintaining performance.
  • On the flip side, Precision Boost offers fine-grained, automated frequency control that can nudge performance up by 25MHz increments (versus 100MHz for Intel) to boost performance without consuming more power.
  • Extended Frequency Range (XFR) can nudge clocks speeds past their official maximum if Ryzen detects advanced CPU cooling, such as liquid-cooling or liquid nitrogen, for your chip. At Ryzen’s launch XFR only adds a paltry 100MHz overclock in chips.
  • Neural Net Prediction examines your usage and “primes your processor to tackle your app workload more efficiently.”
  • Smart Prefetch works hand-in-hand with Neural Net Prediction, identifying how your applications behave and preloading data that it expects you to need for faster performance.

Every AMD Ryzen processor can also be overclocked with a compatible motherboard. Chips with an “X” designation at the end support SenseMI’s Extended Frequency Range technology full 100MHz boost, while non-X CPUs have the potential for a mere 50MHz boost.

amd ryzen 1800x build 7 Brad Chacos

The pinnacle of AMD PC performance: the Ryzen 7 1800X and Radeon Fury X.

So how does it all work in practice? Well. Damned well.

PCWorld’s exhaustive AMD Ryzen review compared the $500 Ryzen 7 1800X and $330 Ryzen 7 1700 against their FX predecessors and Intel’s latest, greatest chips. AMD’s chips went blow-for-blow or outright bested the $1,050 Core i7-6900K—Intel’s cheapest 8-core, 16-thread processor—in every content-creation and productivity task we threw at them, giving Ryzen downright outrageous price-to-performance value for folks who need more cores. Heck, for the price of the Core i7-6900K, you could buy a Ryzen 7 1800X and a swanky GeForce GTX 1080 and still have $50 left in your pocket.

You’d probably want a powerful graphics card if you plan to game on Ryzen, too. Benchmarks revealed that while Ryzen certainly isn’t bad at gaming, it definitely lags behind Intel processors—even older ones—in raw frames per second in some games. That disparity’s most pronounced when you’re using modest graphics cards at 1080p resolution, or on a monitor with an especially high refresh rate. That said, the CPU gaming performance gap’s felt less if you toss in more potent GPUs and crank the resolution to higher levels, since that effectively moves the system’s gaming bottleneck from the processor to your graphics card, “hiding” the AMD chip’s slower-than-Intel frame rates.

Overclocking Ryzen chips can also provide significant performance increases in gaming, reviews have shown. AMD's even released a powerful, yet easy to use overclocking tool for the new chips. Check out PCWorld's guide to Ryzen Master to dive into the performance-boosting, heat-increasing world of overclocking.

Streamers and YouTubers will no doubt appreciate Ryzen’s extra cores, as well. Ryzen 7’s major niche is productivity and content creation tasks.

AMD says gaming performance “will only get better” over time as more game developers optimize their titles for Ryzen. “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,” AMD’s John Taylor told PCWorld. Not-so-coincidentally, AMD also announced a partnership with Bethesda the same week Ryzen launched, designed to implement the low-level Vulkan graphics API in multiple game.

Finally, all Ryzen chips also support business-grade ECC memory out of the box—though it hasn’t been validated on the initial wave of consumer motherboards.

Next page: What you need to upgrade to Ryzen, performance tips and tweaks

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