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.

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

ryzen details AMD

Details about the AMD Ryzen chips announced thus far.

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.

The more affordable Ryzen 5 series will land at some point in the second quarter with more variation among processors than you’ll find in the 7 series. The Ryzen 5 1600X is a 6-core, 12-thread processor capable of boosting to 4GHz, while the quad-core, 8-thread Ryzen 5 1500X tops out at 3.7GHz. Pricing for the Ryzen 5 lineup hasn’t been announced, but you can see the high-level tech specs for both chips (as well as the Ryzen 7 trio) in the image above. Expect these to compete with Intel’s Core i5 chips.

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.

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, however.
  • 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, though only chips with an “X” designation at the end support SenseMI’s Extended Frequency Range technology.

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. That disparity’s more pronounced when you’re using modest graphics cards at 1080p resolution. That said, Ryzen draws even with Intel chips 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. Overclocking Ryzen chips can also provide significant performance increases in gaming, reviews have shown.

Streamers and YouTubers will no doubt appreciate Ryzen’s extra cores, as well.

AMD ryzen pcs Adam Patrick Murray

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.

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.

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.

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.

ryzen wraith coolers AMD

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 and 1700X ships with AMD’s Wraith Spire cooler—fancy RGB lights and all.

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.

Good luck.

Ryzen performance tips and tweaks

That’s all you need to know about buying a Ryzen processor. But if you pick one up, here are five tips and tricks—most straight from AMD—that might help you eke out even more power from this fresh-faced new platform.

1. Use a clean Windows installation rather than a Windows image configured on another processor.

2. Switch Windows 10’s power plan from the default “balanced” to “high performance.”

The high-performance plan—found in the Power Options section of the Windows Control Panel—ensures “that the SenseMI Pure Power and Precision Boost technologies have the ability to respond to varying workloads as quickly as 1ms,” AMD says. “The default ‘Balanced’ permits the operating system to request which P-State (or clock speed) to use, which typically trends to a 30ms response time. Selecting ‘High Performance’ hands over control from the OS to the processor completely, allowing fine-grain control and maximum performance of the processor.”

windows 10 power plans IDG

Windows 10’s power plans.

In PCWorld’s testing, we saw up to 5 percent more performance on the high-performance power plan, depending on the workload.

3. Disable the Windows High Precision Event Timer.

“Make sure the system has Windows High Precision Event Timer (HPET) disabled,” AMD says. “HPET can often be disabled in the BIOS. Alternatively: From Windows, open an administrative command shell and type: bcdedit /deletevalue useplatformclock—this can improve performance by 5 to 8 percent.”

Now for the bad news: AMD’s own Ryzen Master overclocking tool relies on HPET for accurate chip measurements, so if you take this step to improve gaming performance, you won’t be able to make use of this feature. Pick your poison.

4. Disable simultaneous multithreading in the BIOS.

Simultaneous multithreading—the equivalent of Intel’s hyperthreading, essentially—is one of Ryzen’s major new additions. SMT turns Ryzen’s eight cores into 16 computing threads and is crucial to Ryzen’s appeal in content-creation and productivity tasks. That said, if you’re looking to squeeze a wee bit more juice out of Ryzen’s gaming performance, AMD says disabling SMT in your system’s BIOS does just that.

ryzen 2 Gordon Mah Ung

AMD Ryzen’s retail packaging.

GamersNexus tested Ryzen with SMT enabled and disabled and found the gain to be fairly modest in everything but Total War: Warhammer, though. We’d recommend that the vast majority of people leave SMT enabled.

5. Update your motherboard BIOS.

Usually we strongly recommend leaving your motherboard BIOS alone if your computer’s running well, since a mistake during updating can potentially brick your hardware.

But!

AMD’s Ryzen is a brand-new architecture running on a brand-new AM4 motherboard platform. Motherboard BIOS revisions released during the review process greatly increased speed and stability for the chips, and we wouldn’t be surprised if additional updates roll out in the weeks and months to come with further improvements. Because of that, you may want to keep an eye out for new BIOS revisions on the support and downloads page of your chosen motherboard. If something major appears, consider installing it.

PCWorld’s guide to updating your BIOS can walk you through the procedure. But before you start the procedure, enter your computer’s BIOS (a button prompt during your PC’s start-up process will explain how) and use your motherboard’s firmware update tool or flashing tool to back up the existing firmware to your flash drive—just in case something goes wrong.

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Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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