In Theory: Can AMD Ryzen break the Intel CPU monopoly?

This week, we reviewed the Core i5 7600K, the latest mainstream gaming processor from Intel. The verdict? In line with every Intel Core i5 release since 2012, it’s the fastest offering available in its price bracket and therefore the best buy. However, Intel has effectively had no rival for years now, leading to only small jumps in performance from one year to the next while graphics power has moved on from strength to strength. Genuine advances in CPU power are lacking to the point where Ars Technica wonders whether the desktop CPU is dead. We’d prefer to be a little more optimistic, and there are some promising signs that the processor market will get the shake-up it needs over the next 12-18 months. For starters, AMD is returning with a new ‘Ryzen’ CPU – and it’s looking very promising.

Little has been seen of the Ryzen processors’ capabilities outside of controlled demos, but the impression AMD wants to give is that an eight core, 16 thread Ryzen processor is faster than an Intel equivalent. Multi-threaded benchmarks shown by AMD have revealed a 10 per cent advantage compared to an equivalent Core i7 6900K, something we’ve seen recently in an on-stage demo of video encoding using x264/x265 tool, Handbrake (video embedded below). The Ryzen chip was shown running at 3.4GHz with turbo disabled, while the Intel chip was operating at its stock performance of between 3.2GHz to 3.7GHz, depending on how the workload affects its turbo state.

There are a few caveats to these demos – it would have been easy to lock the 6900K to the same 3.4GHz as the Ryzen chip for example, and it’s direct IPC head-to-heads that are often most illuminating. Secondly, we have to wonder what market segment AMD is choosing for its Ryzen debut – by targeting the Core i7 6900K, it’s attacking a highly lucrative market sector, the $1000 premium-price CPU. What we don’t know is how much cheaper Ryzen will be, and what the timing is for taking on Intel in the mainstream gaming markets. An eight-core Ryzen chip for quad-core money seems… unlikely.

Competition in the gaming segments will come, but in the meantime, Intel still has an iron grip on this market – perhaps explaining the lack of ground-breaking innovation. However, with the arrival of its new desktop Kaby Lake processors, what we are seeing is – perhaps – the final iteration of Intel’s current mainstream i3/i5/i7 load-out of dual-core and quad-core chips. Kaby Lake features higher clocks and overclocking finally hits an attainable 5GHz, but we’re hitting the frequency wall and further architectural advances in the desktop space are years away – so where does Intel go next?