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Hands on with AMD’s cheaper Ryzen 5 CPUs

Cheap gaming chips from AMD

Serving up eight pukka CPU cores at a price mere mortals can afford was easily the most compelling part of the initial AMD Ryzen proposition. But there’s been some filling out of the Ryzen range since last we alighted the subject. Specifically, a load of quad-core and six-core models have hit retail. They’re significantly cheaper than the beefy eight-core beasts. Might they actually make more sense for gaming than those slightly flawed eight-core chips?

It’s little more than journalistic OCD and of absolutely no consequence to the end-user experience. But it very slightly winds me up that AMD, like Intel, spurns logic with its CPU nomenclature.

AMD has announced that Ryzen will come in three flavours for the foreseeable. Ryzen 7 is the performance king, Ryzen 5 balances price and performance and Ryzen majors on value. There are also - again for the foreseeable - three different basic configurations for Ryzen. Eight-core, six-core and quad-core.

You might think they map neatly and logically to Ryzen 7, 5 and 3. But no, that would make too much sense. Ryzen 5 includes both six and quad-core models. Ryzen 3 has yet to be detailed.

Anyway, the first thing to note about the latest quad and six-cores models is that some make a lot more sense in value terms than others. There’s about a £60 gap between the priciest six-core Ryzen, the £260 Ryzen 5 1600X, and the cheapest eight-core chip, the Ryzen 7 1700, for instance. Add about 5% to those numbers (and all the prices that follow, for that matter) for US $ prices.

Given that you’re certainly going to also need a new motherboard and very likely some sticks of memory, too, the 1700 is the no brainer in that comparison. After all, you’re looking at perhaps £150 minimum for a decent X370 motherboard plus maybe £75 for 8GB of memory and perhaps a few more quid for sundry items like a new cooler.

Factor in the motherboard, RAM and more and the cost of upgrading to Ryzen certainly adds up

The plain old Ryzen 5 1600 non-X surely makes more sense at £219 given that it’s also six cores and likewise unlocked for easy overclocking, if you care about that sort of thing. It’s fully a £100 jump to the cheapest eight-core model from the Ryzen 5 1600.

A similar logic applies to the quad-core models. The Ryzen 5 1500X clocks in at £179, which looks likes poor value when you can have 50% more cores for just £40 extra. To be honest, even the £159 Ryzen 5 1400 quad-core chip looks like marginal value when you factor in the overall costs of upgrading to Ryzen.

Predictably, I’ve had a go with the two most difficult to justify models in the Ryzen 5 range, the 1600X and the 1500X. The former is clocked at 3.7GHz base and 4GHz Turbo, the latter at 3.5Ghz base and 3.7GHz Turbo. Both are a little quicker than their core-count-parity but cheaper siblings, the 1600 and 1400. But the point is that they’re broadly representative of the gaming experience you can expect from the six and quad-core breeds.

Gaming joy in a small box?

As it happens, when Ryzen was originally announced it seemed like the six core models could be the bang-for-buck sweet spot. Relatively affordable, reasonably high clocks for single threaded performance, plenty of cores and threads for multi-threading. Remember, every Ryzen can process two software threads in parallel per core.

That’s pretty much how it pans out in practice. The 1600X makes similarly priced Intel processors look very, very silly in any software that’s multi-threaded, like video encoding. The catch, as it has been from the get go with Ryzen, is that the gaming performance is ever so slightly patchy.

All Ryzen CPUs use the full eight-core processor die and disable cores in the two quad-core modules within the chip in symmetrical pairs. So, the configurations are therefore 4:4, 3:3, and 2:2

The benchmark numbers mostly look solid. But there’s no getting away from the fact that some games run tangibly less smooth on Ryzen than Intel CPUs. I had a good hard look, for instance, at Total War: Attila and every Ryzen chip I’ve dabbled with exhibits some stutter from which Intel processors simply don’t suffer. I even sense checked what I was seeing with passing colleagues. It's unmistakable. And you simply wouldn’t spot it in the relatively small gap in average frame rate.

It’s not a total deal breaker and most games run without such hitches. But for me, it slightly undermines Ryzen’s appeal for a dedicated gaming rig. As it happens, the quad-core Ryzen chip is no worse and indeed knocks out similar frame rates to the six-core model in most games. So, of all the existing Ryzen processors, it’s perhaps the quad-core 1400 that’s most compelling. It's cheapest and you lose little in games.

For the same price from Intel you’re looking at the quad-core, quad-thread Core i5-7400, which rocks in at 3GHz base and 3.5GHz Turbo but no scope for significant overclocking. Overall, the choice between the Core i5-7400 and Ryzen 5 1400 is awfully tough. But if the decision is being driven primarily by gaming concerns, then with a somewhat heavy heart I still lean Intel.

As things stand, I think you’re probably guaranteed a great gaming experience even with that relatively lowly Intel Core i5 processor. To be sure, the Ryzen chip will mostly be just as good. But just occasionally it will frustrate.

The problem, therefore, is this. I reckon the mere knowledge that the Ryzen option might occasionally underperform can be quite damaging to one’s subjective enjoyment. I’m pretty sure every time a game felt a bit juddery I’d be wondering if the Ryzen CPU was to blame, even when the bottleneck was likely elsewhere.

It’s a similar psychology that has always put me off multi-card graphics - that constant, niggling doubt whether it’s working properly. There’s not a lot in it, let’s be clear about that. But Intel retains its status as the go-to CPU option for gamers for now.

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