Which Ryzen CPU should you buy?

The more Ryzen chips we test, the more we start to appreciate their value. AMD’s latest generation has taken a turn for the better after the less-than-stellar Bulldozer chips that launched in 2011, providing better per-core performance, power efficiency, and support for more modern technology. Of course, the question remains — which Ryzen CPU should you buy?

The Ryzen family is broken into three branches, with many chips in each to choose from, which makes choosing the “best chip” a bit of a trick. With the Ryzen 3 family arriving in the form of the $110 Ryzen 3 1200 and $130 Ryzen 3 1300X, it’s finally time to move past the question of whether you should buy a Ryzen chip, and move onto which one you should buy.

Buy Ryzen 7 for maximum multi-thread performance

When we discuss computational performance, we try and cover a wide spread of tasks a modern CPU might be asked to complete. To that end, we ran each of the Ryzen processors through a series of synthetic and real-world tasks.

These single-core tests should be taken with a grain of salt. Less cores means faster clock speed on each core, so the results are going to vary based on how many cores each chip has, whether it’s equipped with AMD’s Extended Frequency Range — denoted by an X after the number — and a splash of luck for having a highly-stable single core.

Aside from that, it’s rare to see a single-core workload that’s intensive in modern programs. Most programs not coded to use multiple threads will need minimal CPU power. There are exceptions – gaming can still be cited as an example – but we’ll dive into that later.

The multi-core scores, below, are a more direct evaluation of how much power each chip can produce in an ideal scenario, with a fully optimized workload. You’re unlikely to see that sort of use case in the real world, but it at least shows that the extra cores are working properly, considering there are more of them than Intel offers at the same price point.

Our first practical test, Handbrake, sets apart the chips by family quite succinctly. More cores mean more power, particularly when it comes to encoding video, and the most expensive Ryzen 7 1800X manages to crank out a much faster time than chips with less cores.

The Cinebench test, a benchmark created by Maxon, the developer behind Cinema 4D, delivers a gut check to your system’s rendering capabilities, and then sees how fast it can deal with it. The complex set of tasks benefits immensely from extra cores, and once again, the Ryzen 7 chips take a strong lead over even the well-equipped Ryzen 5 offerings.

Finally, the two browser tests are a bit scattershot, but they do reveal interesting trends between chips of the same family. The chips with extended frequency range all take a strong lead over their counterparts without an X after their name. Browsers aren’t typically capable of stressing more than one core, so the extra power left over from the other cores left idle can extended the working core’s frequency. The extended frequency range doesn’t always come into play, but in some workloads, it can make a difference.

The takeaway here is that users who demand a fast processor will see the Ryzen family’s performance laid out as the pricing suggests. Ryzen 3 is entry-level, and not really suited for such tasks, while the best Ryzen 7 chips run away from the pack.

However, the field is more compact if you have modest needs. You’ll see very little value out of a Ryzen 7 if you don’t put its extra cores to work. Even the Ryzen 3 is far beyond adequate for the everyday routine of checking emails, browsing the web, and watching video.

Yes, demanding workloads are also needed to see the most out Intel’s Core i5 and i7 desktop chips, but Ryzen’s reliance on core count for high-end performance creates an even less dramatic spread in single-core tests. A Core i7-7700K beats the snot out of a Core i3-7100 or a Core i5-7400 even in single-core tests. With Ryzen, the gap in single-core performance is smaller.

Buy Ryzen 3 for mid-range gaming, Ryzen 5 for the rest

Ryzen is obviously great for multi-core scenarios, but it’s also been marketed as a gaming processor. That seems odd, because games usually don’t benefit much from extremely high core counts.

To get to the heart of the matter, we’ve chosen the MSI Gaming X+ RX 580, a mid-range option, and the beefy Zotac GTX 1080 Ti AMP! Edition, to power our gaming tests.

Let’s get started with 3DMark, a synthetic test.

The 3DMark Time Spy benchmark pushes all our hardware to its limits, and the results are a bit boring. The scores slide up the scale in mostly equal increments, with a slight jump on the two highest-end chips when paired with the GTX 1080 Ti. Frankly, the results are what you would expect. More expensive processors score better.

While these scores represent each pairing’s potential power, it isn’t always indicative of real-world gaming, which is where our real-world game tests come into play.

Ah – now it gets interesting.

As we’ve seen before, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Ti conquers even the heavyweight Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, with performance sliding and wobbling a bit. That said, the difference in frame rate is only about a 15 percent swing from top to bottom, if you exclude the the lowest-end Ryzen 3 1200.

AMD Rizen CPU 1600X on board Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Pairing the Ryzen 3 1300X with a GTX 1080 Ti might seem notes, and we’d agree it’s not quite the right balance. However, it does show that, in this game, a fast video card is much more important than a fast CPU. If you had only $600 to spend on both, it might make sense to buy the $130 Ryzen 3 1300X, and spend the remaining money on a GTX 1070 (if you can find a graphics card at MSRP, which is hard right now).

The RX 580 makes CPU’s lack of importance even more dramatic. Its results are completely static when it comes to average frame rate. The game is already using all the GPU’s power, so there’s nothing extra for the processor to offer. Even the Ryzen 3 1300X is more than capable of playing with the RX 580. Upgrading from it to the Ryzen 5, or Ryzen 7, would get you nothing. Good day, sir!

That’s a good sign for those eyeing the lowest-end chips to pair with mid-range video cards. If you asking yourself which Ryzen CPU you should buy for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and other graphics-intensive games, the answer is the Ryzen 3 1300X (if you have a RX 580 or GTX 1060), or a Ryzen 5 (if you have a faster video card).

However, these results represent just one game. Some titles put more strain on the processor.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI and its predecessors have been mainstays of our game benchmarking for years, and likely will be for years to come. Not only is every game in the series extremely popular, but it they place a lot more strain on the CPU than most games do, particularly when the field fills with units and cities.

Even the Ryzen 3 1300X is more than capable of playing with the RX 580 at 1080p.

Even still, the whole pack falls within about a 25-percent performance spread regardless of CPU, again throwing out the results from the Ryzen 3 1200, which is left behind. That chip falls another 20 percent behind the Ryzen 3 1300X when paired with the GTX 1080 Ti, although just slightly behind when paired with the RX 580.

Once again, there are diminishing returns for gaming after the six core Ryzen 5 1600X, which takes a lead in most of the practical gaming tests.

A 25-percent spread is nothing to laugh at, so it would still be wise to target at least a Ryzen 5 1500X if you intend to play this game on a system with a GTX 1080 Ti, or AMD’s upcoming Vega video card. If you are playing on a more affordable video card like the AMD Radeon RX 580, however, you could get away with buying the $130 Ryzen 3 1300X.

Which Ryzen CPU should you buy? The long story

It’s tricky to recommend just one Ryzen chip, as the family extends across a wide range of price points, and offer a very smooth performance scale as you spend a bit more. As always, you should carefully evaluate your current and potential workload, and then build a balanced system within your budget that fulfills those needs. That said, one way to look at choosing a CPU is picking based on value per dollar.

The moral of the story here is that the Ryzen 3 1300X and Ryzen 3 1200 are both an excellent value proposition compared to the highest-end chips which, at three or four times the price, don’t offer three or four times the performance in most cases. In fact, the new Ryzen 3 1300X is a standout value, posting incredible results for a $130 chip.

That’s no big surprise. There’s usually a premium attached to high-end performance, and the faster processor is, the steeper the value curve. Still, it’s good to see even the budget-friendly Ryzen 3 1300X, at $130, pairs excellently with mid-range $200 GPUs like the GTX 1060 and RX 570.

The budget-friendly Ryzen 1300X, at $130, pairs excellently with mid-range GPUs like the GTX 1060 and RX 570.

It’s impossible to deny the value that offers to gamers, and it looks even better if you take a glance at Intel’s competing chips. At similar pricing, you’ll end up with a Core i3-7100, which has only two cores with Hyper-Threading, for a total of four threads. The Core i3-7100 also can’t be overclocked, while the Ryzen 3 1300X can. Plus, Ryzen is on a newer platform, so there’s the potential to upgrade to a faster processor in a couple years, without replacing the motherboard. The Core i3-7100’s platform is over the hill, so it’s almost certain you’ll need to buy another motherboard when it comes time to upgrade.

We think most people build enthusiast desktops for gaming, and few power them except when launching Steam. Users looking to play games at 1080p with a GTX 1060 or RX 570 should pick up a Ryzen 3 1300X. Anyone looking to step up the gaming performance a bit with a GTX 1070, GTX 1080, or GTX 1080 Ti, should look to the Ryzen 5 1500X or 1600X to prevent bottlenecking.

On the other hand, if gaming is an afterthought, and encoding video or compressing files is the most important metric, we still think the Ryzen 7 1700 is an excellent choice. Its performance is extremely close to the Ryzen 7 1800X, which costs $170 more at MSRP, and $160 more current Newegg prices. That’s a price leap of about 50 percent, for a performance leap that, in our multi-core tests, hovered between 5 and 15 percent.

Which Ryzen CPU should you buy? The short story

If you still feel confused, don’t worry. We’ll break it down.

Building a budget rig, for gaming or otherwise? You want the Ryzen 3 1300X.

Putting together a mid-range to high-end gaming PC? Pick the Ryzen 5 1500X or 1600X, as budget allows.

Need a workstation? Then you want the Ryzen 7 1700.

Whatever you choose to buy, AMD fans will be happy to know the Ryzen line is competitive across the board. Intel still has advantages, like superior per-core performance. Still, whichever Ryzen CPU you buy, you will end up with hardware that’s extremely capable in today’s most demanding workloads.

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