The big selling point for Advanced Micro Devices' (NASDAQ:AMD) Ryzen line of PC CPUs, which the company launched in 2017, was many cores for not a lot of money. The chips excelled at tasks that could take full advantage of a lot of cores. The problem for AMD was that PC gaming is generally not one of those tasks.
AMD's first three generations of Ryzen processors offered compelling value for certain types of users, but rival Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) remained in the lead in terms of single-threaded performance. Modern PC games can use multiple cores to varying degrees, but the performance of a single core is often more important than the number of cores for overall performance.
With the Ryzen 5000 series, AMD's fourth generation of Ryzen desktop CPUs, the company has finally erased the one advantage that Intel has retained throughout the Ryzen era. Not only do the new Ryzen chips continue to do well in heavily multithreaded tasks, but they have also overtaken Intel in gaming performance. That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The new CPU king
"Coming out the other end of this review, it's hard to believe the extent to which some of AMD's performance numbers have grown in the last five years," reads the website AnandTech's in-depth review of AMD's new Ryzen chips.
AnandTech confirmed that AMD's claims about single-threaded performance gains were accurate. AMD had said that the Zen 3 architecture on which the new Ryzen chips are built would deliver a 19% jump in instructions per cycle, or IPC, over the previous generation.
Single-threaded performance is a combination of how many instructions a CPU core can process per cycle and the number of cycles the CPU core can run through each second. AnandTech found a 24% single-threaded performance gain on average for the new chips, with faster frequencies compounding with the impressive IPC gains.
That single-threaded performance gain translates directly into gaming performance. AnandTech tested a large suite of games, finding that AMD's new processors often come out on top. In some cases, even the $299 Ryzen 5 5600X beats out the much more expensive i9-10900K from Intel.
Tom's Hardware sums up the problem for Intel in its own review of the higher-end Ryzen 5000 chips: "For now, there's no reason to recommend an Intel Comet Lake processor on the high end unless you need integrated graphics, so we'll have to wait until Intel slashes pricing to reflect the reality that it is now the budget alternative."
Intel will try to fight back next year
Intel is planning to launch new Rocket Lake desktop chips early next year aimed at competing with AMD's now-dominant Ryzen chips. Those new chips will bring Intel closer to AMD in performance, but it may not be enough for Intel to retake the lead.
Rocket Lake chips will only go up to 8 cores, while AMD's $799 Ryzen 5950X has 16 cores. Rocket Lake will also be built on Intel's 14nm manufacturing process, which at this point is very mature and heavily optimized, but the fact of the matter is that it's been in use since 2014 as Intel has struggled with volume production on its 10nm process. AMD uses a now-mature 7nm manufacturing process from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing for its Ryzen 5000 chips.
With Intel losing the gaming crown to AMD, lower prices may be the only play the company has to make if it wants to blunt AMD's market share gains ahead of the launch of better-performing CPUs. AMD has raised prices with its latest Ryzen chips, reflecting the fact that Ryzen is now the cream of the crop. That gives Intel some room to play with its own prices to better compete.
For the first time in a long time, Intel chips are not the best choice for PC gaming. A combination of good products from AMD and bad execution from Intel has dramatically shifted the balance of power in the PC CPU market. That's good news for gamers and AMD, and very bad news for Intel.