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Is An AMD Threadripper Worth It? Part 1 of 2

We discuss the origins, present and future of the legendary processor, asking if a Threadripper is still worth it for gaming and workstation use.

 

Is An AMD  Threadripper Worth It? Part 1 of 2

 

If you stand around long enough in the offices at CCL, you are certain to hear at least one conversation that starts “Is the AMD Threadripper worth it?”. It’s a valid question, and could be up there with the greatest questions of all time: -

“Superman vs. Batman”

“The Incredible Hulk vs. King Kong”

“1000 Chicken-sized Jeff Bezos vs. 1000 Jeff Bezos-sized chickens”

In this two-part series of articles we’re going to discuss the story of the Threadripper, starting with its concept in 2015, the first generation launches back in 2017 to the latest installments in the high-end processor Hall of Fame - the now great value AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2920X and epic Ryzen Threadripper 3990X.

We’re not just talking about the monster processor’s God-like status in gaming, either. The Threadripper has lent itself to a range of applications, such as deep learning, virtualisation and has been found to be just as useful in powerful server configurations.

In this article we’re also going to talk about the controversies, their part in AMD’s renewed appeal, and the many applications of this monster chip, hoping to find out if they are actually worth the expensive price tag.

Part One: Back to the Future?

Imagine, if you will, that you are a fly on the wall at AMD headquarters in 2015. Deep in the bowels of a high security building, the greatest minds are having a brainstorming session that will result in one CPU being hailed “Intel Killer”. Discussions that include phrases like “far beyond current specifications” and “ridiculous rendering speeds”, and “deep learning applications” are thrown around until somebody stands up and picks up a whiteboard marker to draw the very first schematics of what would be the 1950X and the 1920X.

Scores of AMD employees; directors, core design engineers and platform architects are ushered into the room to marvel at this monstrous creation, and a rudimentary curtain made of AMD white coats is hurriedly pulled away from the whiteboard to unveil Codename: Whitehaven. The smell of coffee and leftover pizza fills the air, and silence engulfs the room until the first clap is heard from the back of the room. A river of applause evolves quickly into cheers and whoops of elation. An eruption of hysteria-induced laughter, high fives and applause.

That’s how we hoped it went down, anyway.

In actual fact, the Threadripper team was a small team from AMD who wanted to build a chip that they would want in their fantasy high-end computer, and to have its very presence in the market give the Intel directors an ulcer.

"It’s not really a story of roadmaps" - Sarah Youngbauer

AMD Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Anderson, AMD Communications Team Member Sarah Youngbauer, Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Marketing John Taylor and AMD Senior Product Manager, James Prior were all interviewed by Forbes, and were pressed for information about this so-called “pet project”. The internet was alight with speculation, and the first official quotes from Sarah Youngbauer spread across the web like the fateful chimpanzee falling from a branch.

"It’s not really a story of roadmaps and long-term planning or huge R&D budgets - it’s a lot more personal than that and stemmed from a skunkworks project and a small group of AMD employees who had a vision of a processor they’d really want in terms of a high-performance PC." Youngbauer said.

"They worked on it in their spare time and it was really a passion project for about a year before they sought the green light from management, which is quite unusual – it was something they really cared about."

Jim Anderson, who joined AMD from Intel would be a significant part of the Threadripper story, being instrumental in green-lighting of the project in June 2016. It was not a traditional business case early on, however. Anderson said "I’ve never actually told anyone this, but Threadripper never had a business plan – that might raise some eyebrows, but we were building it because we knew it was awesome, because we could and to make it the best product we could; even the name had to be big."

Incidentally, the name Threadripper was the original codename for the project, but the team loved it so much it stuck.

James Prior, one of the more passionate members of the skunkworks team, also added "In fact, even though it was akin to a pet project [...] and had no official business plan, the actual feasibility study that took place later concludes it was one of the best-planned products they’d seen in a long time."

Ryzen Threadripper Design

The design began as a scale-down from EPYC, and when the talk of larger dies were suggested (to increase core counts) they were quickly thrown out.

James Prior said “We started off working out how we could leverage the existing product definition for EPYC and turn it into something else. We also considered working on making a larger die, but that would have put the launch time frame back two years. There’s not really a better example of utilizing the advantage of Zen core and Infinity Fabric to connect them than Threadripper, especially when you consider the time to market advantage and cost advantage. It makes it so much easier to manufacture and to define as well as test.”

The huge win for the Threadripper team was that they could use the existing Ryzen design, thereby negating the need for huge wafer runs, and keeping costs at a minimum. This also meant faster market penetration.

John Taylor said of this “If you go back a few years, our roadmap was focussed on building products like Ryzen 7 from our new Zen core, and we prioritized the desktop market for the first the simple reason that we felt enthusiasts had passionately waited for a new AMD high-performance desktop product for a long time. While Threadripper is a high-end desktop platform, Ryzen 7 was also designed to disrupt the HEDT market as its eight cores were only matched by Intel’s Core i7-6900K – an HEDT product.”

“However, we still left the leadership crown with Intel as it obviously had the Core i7-6950X, which is a 10-core product. AMDers like James and Jim realized that Infinity Fabric and the EPYC package allowed us to define a version of Ryzen that was even more powerful than Ryzen itself, and used the basics of the EPYC platform to take that ultimate performance crown.”

One of the more interesting facts about the design process is when Jim Anderson went full Tony Stark and “really wanted the retail packaging to be illuminated. Sadly, John [Taylor] and others told me the retail kits would miss the summer target I’d set if they included lighting, [...] but as a compromise, the press kits were illuminated.”

Threadripper Is Unleashed

When the Ryzen Threadripper 1920X and 1950X were unveiled and sold retail August 10th, 2017, then the lesser priced 1900X twenty days later, it came as no surprise that the gaming community immediately saw the CPUs as being the answer to all their prayers, and could finally build a rig to play Crysis on Ultra settings.

The first generation chips to hit the market had seriously impressive stats:

 

List of 1st-Gen Ryzen Threadrippers from wikichip.org

Source: wikichip.org

 

These behemoths were compatible with motherboards from ASRock, Asus, Gigabyte and MSI, so there was no shortage of compatible components to bottleneck sales. As of right now, there are sixteen boards that you can match with a Threadripper 1920X.

From 2018, the sales of AMD chips began their meteoric rise.

 

Chart plotting sales of AMD chips since 2018

Source: Thomson Reuters Elkon

 

We can absolutely chart the peaks alongside Threadripper releases, but it would be remiss of us to not acknowledge the Ryzen 9 in its own right. There’s no denying it has created a new no man’s land where most new PC builders (and some veterans) can stand and ask the age-old question “AMD or Intel?”. And there are genuinely valid arguments for both sides yet again, thanks to the Ryzen design.

The Next Generation

The launches of the 2900-Series Threadripper in 2018 featured a conservative memory and frequency improvement, and would still use the sTR4 socket of the first gen.

 

List of 2nd-Gen Ryzen Threadrippers from wikichip.org

Source: https://wikichip.org

 

Importantly, these were higher core count models (albeit with the drawback of a much higher TDP (Thermal Design Power). In essence, the higher the TDP, the better cooling system you are going to need. The Threadripper WX was rated at 250W, while Threadripper X rated 180W. This was substantially more than the average workstation CPU in 2018, and - notably - higher than Intel’s top-end server processor such as the 18-core Intel Xeon Gold 6154 (rated at 200W).

The 2900-Series had indeed doubled the core count from 16 to 32 cores and broke Reddit with the announcement of their brand spanking new automatic “overclocking” feature which AMD dubbed Precision Boost Overdrive. PBO is an extremely controversial topic among overclockers, not least because of the confusion between PBO and Precision Boost. Patrick Lathan at Gamer Nexus covered this incredibly well, however, so if you’re interested in this topic we recommend having a read of this article.

Ryzen 3rd Gen Threadripper

The third generation of Threadripper launched in 2019, based on the Zen 2 microarchitecture, and brought with them a 15% IPC (Instructions Per Clock) improvement, and a frequency improvement to boot. 3rd Gen Threadrippers did not continue with the backwards compatibility, using a new sTRX4 socket, which supports much higher TDPs and I/O, and new support for PCIe Gen 4.

 

AMD 3rd Generation Ryzen Threadripper description from AMD

Source: AMD

 

Incidentally, the recommended sTRX4/TRX40 motherboards that appear on the AMD website are masterpieces: -

? ASUS ROG Zenith II Extreme

? GIGABYTE TRX40 AORUS XTREME

? MSI Creator TRX40

? ASRock TRX40 Taichi

 

GIGABYTE TRX40 AORUS XTREME

Pictured: GIGABYTE TRX40 AORUS XTREME

 

AMD Ryzen Threadripper 'Chagal/Genesis Peak' HEDT CPUs

Here we stand at an incredible crossroads with the next generation on the horizon - rumours aside, the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 'Chagal/Genesis Peak' HEDT CPUs powered by Zen 3 cores were originally scheduled for release in August 2021 with retail availability planned for September 2021 rollout. The Ryzen Threadripper 5000 CPU release has been put back until 2022, and AMD have not announced much information other than that. This is perhaps to make way for the celebrations surrounding the 3D V-Cache processors.

AMD Zen 3 Threadripper "Genesis Peak"

  • Release Date: Delayed to 2022
  • Codename: Genesis Peak / Chagall
  • Built on Zen 3 CPU cores
  • 24 cores, 32 cores and 64 cores
  • TDP of 280 W
  • 8-channel DDR4 memory
  • 128 PCIe 4.0 lanes on workstation, 64 on HEDT

4th Gen Ryzen Threadripper microprocessors will be compatible with the existing TRX40 motherboards but a BIOS update will be required.

The current generation, launched 2019 - 2020, includes the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X 2.9GHz; the world’s first 64 Core processor. Current pricing of this discontinued 64 Core Threadripper is around £3600, but the WX version - the AMD Ryzen Threadripper PRO 3995WX 2.7GHz 64 Core - is priced around £4800 at the time of writing:

 

List of 3rd-Gen Ryzen Threadrippers from wikichip.org

Source: wikichip.org

 

The earlier released 3rd Gen chips, the 3960X and the 3970X are both also still available, and with the future release of the 4th Gen this month (August 2021), are hovering in good price brackets for those who wish to make the move into the higher echelons of the PC Master Race.

 

AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X Zen 2 CPU

 

Next Time

In the next installment of this two part article, we’re going to look at the various use cases and applications of the Threadripper processors. We’ll also ask why the AMD Threadripper so expensive to begin with, and who actually uses them?

Read Part 2 here