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AMD's 16-core CPU and other exciting stuff

Attention: Read this before you buy a new PC!

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Yes, yes, a 16-core CPU is likely-going-on-definitely irrelevant for PC gaming. But it’s an exciting notion in simple technological terms and it represents something that certainly is important for gaming, namely that the PC as a platform has woken up again. Along with that mega-CPU from AMD, we also have the imminent prospect of new graphics card families from both AMD and Nvidia, new CPUs from Intel in response to AMD Ryzen assault, an intriguing new APU, again from AMD, that could just make for some nice cheapo laptops with genuine gaming chops and, well, plenty more. And the annual Computex tech shindig hasn’t even kicked off yet…

AMD’s saucy new 16-core Threadripper (yes, really) processor, then. What’s it all about? Socking it to Intel, quite simply. I can’t imagine that AMD is going to sell very many of these new 16-core beasts to desktop PC enthusiasts. But beating Intel on core count and (possibly but not quite certainly) for outright performance in certain metrics has significant PR value.

For the record, this 16-core / 32-thread chip will apparently be branded Ryzen 9 and the full range will also include 14-core, 12-core and 10-core models. It’s also mated to its own new socket, much like Intel’s high-end desktop CPUs, so it’s not cross compatible with existing Ryzen CPUs and their AM4 socket.

Clockspeeds are expected to be surprisingly high, with a baseclock of 3.5GHz and 3.9GHz Turbo for the top 16-core Ryzen 9 Threadripper. Thus, you can have your single-threaded performance cake and eat the multi-core goodness at the same time. In other words, if you can afford what will undoubtedly be a very expensive chip, it’ll likely be decent for gaming and killer for almost everything else. One chip to rule them all, perhaps.

Threadripper will likely be a pair of AMD’s eight-core Ryzen CPU dies crammed into a single package…

For real-world gamers, the existing Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 models still make much more sense. But Ryzen 9’s impact will be felt in terms of how it pushes the market on in general, regards both performance and pricing. Even if you never buy a Ryzen 9, it’ll probably make whatever you do buy a bit faster or a bit cheaper.

Indeed, it’s no surprise to learn that Intel is planning a riposte. The web has been alive with reports of a new high-end 12-core Intel CPU for the desktop, branded predictably enough Core i9, plus a pair of slightly odd-ball quad-core CPUs that eschew integrated graphics and slot into Intel’s high-end LGA2011 socket.

But for me, it’s what Intel does with its mainstream LGA1151 socket, the one that accepts chips like the £200/$200-odd Core i5-7600K, that’s of more interest. The expectation here is for the debut of a six-core processor as part of the upcoming Coffee Lake family later this year. That’s a big deal given that mainstream Intel desktop CPUs have topped out at four cores ever since they were split off into a separate socket eight long years ago.

Even if you’re not convinced that six cores will have much impact on game performance, inserting a new six-core model as the de facto top rung of the mainstream Intel CPU line should push the four-core models down the stack a little and make them more affordable.

AMD’s mainstream AM4 socket that appeared with the Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 5 CPUs isn’t compatible with the new Threadripper megachips

Another fun-sounding new CPU, or rather APU, due soon is Raven Ridge. It’s basically an AMD Ryzen CPU in dual up to quad-core trim with a slice of AMD’s next-generation Vega graphics all squeezed into a single chip. Nothing is certain, but leaked AMD docs indicate it will have 11 so-called Vega graphics cores, which should work out at about 700 pixel-prettifying shaders or roughly the same as the original Xbox One console.

Imagine all of that in a genuinely cheap, thin and light laptop PC and I suggest you are now quite interested. At the very least, Raven Ridge should massively lift the bar for entry-level integrated graphics performance. It might just be the first APU that’s genuinely gaming capable. Dare we hope for, say, a $400 / £400 laptop with decent gaming chops? Fingers crossed.

On the graphics side of the equation AMD still has an awful lot of catching up to do. At the high end, it’s a full generation behind AMD’s Pascal graphics cards, such as the GeForce GTX 1080.

AMD has had no response to Nvidia’s high-end Pascal cards, like the GTX 1080 Ti

In fact, Nvidia even beat AMD to the punch with its recent announcement of the first GPU from its next generation Volta family of graphics tech. It’s a chip aimed at high-end compute and machine learning rather than gaming. But as a member of the new Volta family, it’s fully two generations advantage over AMD’s last high-end GPU, the Radeon Fury.

In fairness, it was only a week later that AMD rolled out its own new high-end GPU for compute and in turn the first member of its long-awaited Vega series of graphics cards. The Radeon Vega Froniter Edition, as its known, gives a sneak peak of what to expect from AMD’s next high-end gaming cards. And what we can apparently expect is a GPU that depends on high clocks to achieve its performance edge.

If that’s accurate, then it may explain why Vega is so late to launch (yes, late you naughty people in the comments below). Perhaps AMD is struggling to get the clocks up to sufficiently competitive speeds. We’ll find out the truth soon enough as I expect a fairly substantial Vega reveal from AMD in the coming weeks.

Anyway, the sum total of all this is that by year end the PC landscape will likely look very different. At any given price point, both CPU and GPU performance will have stepped up fairly dramatically on the desktop and there’s also a half decent chance that new generation of cheap gameable laptops may have arrived.

With all that in mind, my broad advice re upgrading your PC or buying a new rig is a very firm hold, currently. Recent years have seen fairly long periods of stagnation in terms of key PC hardware, which meant you may as well buy sooner rather than later. But right now looks very much like a moment where holding off for three to six months could pay significant long-term dividends. Watch this space.

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Jeremy Laird

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