For over two years the collective AMD vs Intel personal computer battle has been sitting on the edge of its seat. Back in 2014 when AMD first announced it was pursuing an all-new microarchitecture, old hands recalled the days when the battle between AMD and Intel was fun to be a part of, and users were happy that the competition led to innovation: not soon after, the Core microarchitecture became the dominant force in modern personal computing today. Through the various press release cycles from AMD stemming from that original Zen announcement, the industry is in a whipped frenzy waiting to see if AMD, through rehiring guru Jim Keller and laying the foundations of a wide and deep processor team for the next decade, can hold the incumbent to account. With AMD’s first use of a 14nm FinFET node on CPUs, today is the day Zen hits the shelves and benchmark results can be published: Game On!

[A side note for anyone reading this on March 2nd. Most of the review is done, bar an edit pass or two. Most of the results pages have graphs, but no text. Please have patience while we finish.]

Launching a CPU is like an Onion: There are Layers

As AnandTech moves into its 20th anniversary, it seems poignant to note that one of our first big review pieces that gained notoriety, back in 1997, was on a new AMD processor launch. Our style and testing regime since then has expanded and diversified through performance, gaming, microarchitecture, design, feature-set and debugging marketing strategy. (Fair play to Anand, he was only 14 years old back then…!). Our review for Ryzen aims to encompass many of the areas we feel pertinent to the scale of today’s launch.

An Interview with Dr Lisa Su, CEO of AMD
The Product Launch: A Small Stack of CPUs
Microarchitecture: Front-End, Back-End, micro-op cache, GloFo 14nm LP
Chipsets and Motherboards: AM4 and 300-series
Stock Coolers and Memory: Wraith and DDR4
Benchmarking Performance: Our New 2017 CPU Benchmark Suite

Before the official launch, AMD held a traditional ‘Tech Day’ for key press and analysts in the past week over in San Francisco. The goal of the Tech Day was to explain Zen to the press, before the press explain it to everyone else. AMD likes doing Tech Days, with recent events in memory covering Polaris and Carrizo, and I don’t blame them: alongside the usual slide presentations recapping what is already known or ISSCC/Hot Chips papers, we also get a chance to sit down with the VPs and C-Level executives as well as the key senior engineers involved in the products. Some of the information in this piece we would have published before: AMD’s machine of tickle-out information means that we know a good deal behind the design already, but the Tech Day helps us ask those final questions, along with the official launch details.

So, What Is Zen? Or Ryzen?

A Brief Backstory and Context 

The world of main system processors, or CPUs in this case, is governed at a high level by architecture (x86, ARM), microarchitecture (how the silicon is laid out), and process node (such as 28HPM and 16FF+ from TSMC, or 14LP from GloFo). Beyond these we have issues of die area, power consumption, transistor leakage, cost, compatibility, dark silicon, frequency, supported features and time to market.

Over the past decade, both AMD and their main competitor Intel have been competing for the desktop and server computer markets with processors based on the x86 CPU architecture. Intel moved to its leading Core microarchitecture on 32nm around 2010, and is now currently in its seventh generation of it at 14nm, with each generation implementing various front-end/back-end changes and design adjustments to caches and/or modularity (it’s actually a lot more complex than this). By comparison, AMD is running its fourth/fifth generation of Bulldozer microarchitecture, split between its high-end CPUs (running an older 2nd Generation on 32nm), its mainstream graphics focused APUs (running 4th/5th Generation on 28nm), and laptop-based APUs (on 5th Generation).

High-Performance and Mainstream
x86 Microarchitectures
AMD Year Intel
Zen 14FF 2017   ?
Excavator v2 GF28A 2016 14+FF Kaby Lake
Excavator GF28A 2015 14FF Skylake
Steamroller 28SHP 2014 14FF Broadwell
- - 2013 22FF Haswell
Piledriver 32 SOI 2012 22FF Ivy Bridge
Bulldozer 32nm 2011 32nm Sandy Bridge
- - 2010 32nm Westmere
K10 45nm Other 45nm Nehalem

AMD’s Bulldozer-based design was an ambitious goal: typically a processor core will have a single instruction entry point leading to a decode then dispatch to separate integer or floating point schedulers. Bulldozer doubled the integer scheduler and throughput capabilities, and allowed the module to accept two threads of instructions - this meant that integer heavy workloads could perform well, other bottlenecks notwithstanding. The perception was that most OS-based workloads are invariably integer/whole number based, such as loop iterations or true/false Boolean comparisons or predicates. Unfortunately the design ended up with a couple of key issues: OS-based workloads ended up getting more floating-point heavy, traditional OSes didn’t understand how to dispatch work given a dual-thread module leading to overloaded modules (this was fixed with an update), general throughput of a single thread was a small (if any) upgrade over the previous microarchitecture design, and power consumption was high. A number of leading analysts pointed to design philosophies in the Bulldozer design, such as a write-through L1 cache and a shared L2 cache within a module lead to higher latencies and increased power consumption. A good chunk of the deficit to the competition was the lack of a micro-op cache that can help bypass instruction decode power and latency, as well as a process node disadvantage and the incumbent’s strong memory pre-fetch/branch prediction capabilities.

The latest generation of Bulldozer, using ‘Excavator’ cores under the Carrizo name for the chip as a whole, is actually quite a large jump from the original Bulldozer design. We have had extensive reviews of Carrizo for laptops, as well as a review of the sole Carrizo-based desktop CPU, and the final variant performed much better for a Bulldozer design than expected. The fundamental base philosophy was unchanged, however the use of new GPUs, a new metal stack in the silicon design, new monitoring technology, new threading/dispatch algorithms and new internal analysis techniques led to a lower power, higher performance version. This was at the expense of super high-end performance above35W, and so the chip was engineered to focus at more mainstream prices, but many of the technologies helped pave the way for the new Zen floorplan.

Zen is AMD’s new microarchitecture based on x86. Building a new base microarchitecture is not easy – it typically means a large paradigm shift in the way of thinking between the old design and new design in key areas. In recent years, Intel alternates key microarchitecture changes between two separate CPU design teams in the US and Israel. For Zen, AMD made strides to build a team suitable to return to the high-end. Perhaps the most prominent key hire was CPU Architect and all-around praised design guru Jim Keller. Jim has a prominent history in chip design, starting with the likes of Freescale, to developing chips for AMD when they fighting tooth and nail with Intel in the early 2000s, then moving on to Apple to work on the A5/A6 designs. AMD were able to re-hire Jim and put a fire in his belly with the phrase: ‘Make a new high-performance x86 CPU’ (not in those exact simple words…. I hope).

From left to right: Mark Papermaster (CTO AMD), Dr Lisa Su (CEO AMD),
Simon Segars (CEO ARM) and Jim Keller (former AMD, now Tesla)

Jim’s goal was to build the team and lay the groundwork for the new microarchitecture, which for the long-term will revolve around AMD Processor Architect Michael (Mike) Clark. Former Intel engineer Sam Naffziger, who was already working with AMD when the Zen team was put together, worked in tandem with the Carrizo and Zen teams on building internal metrics to assist with power as well. Mark Papermaster, CTO, has stated that over 300 dedicated engineers and two million man-hours have been put into Zen since its inception.

As mentioned, the goal was to lay down a framework. Jim Keller spent three years at AMD on Zen, before leaving to take a position under Elon Musk at Tesla. When we reported that Jim had left AMD, a number of people in the industry seemed confused: Zen wasn’t due for another year at best, so why had he left? The answers we had from AMD were simple – Jim and others had built the team, and laid the groundwork for Zen. With all the major building blocks in place, and simulations showing good results, all that was needed was fine tuning. Fine tuning is more complex than it sounds: getting caches to behave properly, moving data around the fabric at higher speeds, getting the desired memory and latency performance, getting power under control, working with Microsoft to ensure OS compatibility, and working with the semiconductor fabs (in this case, GlobalFoundries) to improve yields. None of this is typically influenced by the man at the top, so Jim’s job was done.

This means that in the past year or so, AMD has been working on that fine tuning. This is why we’ve slowly seen more and more information coming out of AMD regarding microarchitecture and new features as the fine-tuning slots into place. All this culminates in Ryzen, the official name for today’s launch.

Along with the new microarchitecture, Zen is the first CPU from AMD to be launched on GlobalFoundries’ 14nm process, which is semi-licenced from Samsung. At a base overview, the process should offer 30% better efficiency over the 28nm HKMG (high-k metal gate) process used at TSMC for previous products. One of the issues facing AMD these past few years has been Intel’s prowess in manufacturing, first at 22nm and then at 14nm - both using iterative FinFET generations. This gave an efficiency and die-size deficit to AMD through no real fault of their own: redesigning older Bulldozer-derived products for a smaller process is both difficult and gives a lot of waste, depending on how the microarchitecture as designed. Moving to GloFo’ 14nm on FinFET, along with a new microarchitecture designed for this specific node, is one stepping stone to playing the game of high-end CPU performance.

But returning to high-end CPU performance is difficult. There are two crude ways to measure performance: overall throughput, or per-core throughput. Having a low per-core throughput but using lots and lots of cores to increase overall throughput already has a prime example in graphics cards, which are mainly many small dedicated vector processors in a single chip. For general purpose computing, we see designs such as ThunderX putting 64+ ARM cores in a single chip, or Intel’s own Xeon Phi that has up to 72 x86 cores as a host processor (among others). All of these have relatively low general purpose single-core performance, either due to the fact that they focus on specific workloads, their architecture, or they have to run at super-low frequency to be within a particular power budget. They’re still high-performance, but the true crown lies with a good per-core performance. Per-core is where Intel has been winning, and the latest Skylake/Kaby Lake microarchitecture holds the lead due to the way the core is designed, tuned, and produced on arguably the most competitive manufacturing process node geared towards high performance and efficiency.

With the Zen microarchitecture, AMD’s goal was to return to high-end CPU performance, or specifically having a competitive per-core performance again. Trying to compete with high frequency while blowing the power budget, as seen with the FX-9000 series running at 220W, was not going to cut it. The base design had to be efficient, low latency, be able to operate at high frequency, and scale performance with frequency. Typically per-core performance is measured in terms of ‘IPC’, or instructions per clock: a processor that can perform more operations or instructions per Hz or MHz has a higher performance when all other factors are equal. In AMD’s initial announcements on Zen, the goal of a 40% gain in IPC was put into the ecosystem, with no increase in power. It is pertinent to say that there were doubts, and many enthusiasts/analysts were reluctant to claim that AMD had the resources or nous to both increase IPC by 40% and maintain power consumption. In normal circumstances, without a significant paradigm shift in the design philosophy, a 40% gain in efficiency can be a wild goose chase. Then it was realised that AMD were suggesting a +40% gain compared to the best version of Bulldozer, which raised even more question marks. At the formal launch last week, AMD stated that the end goal was achieved with +52% in industry standard benchmarks such as SPEC from Piledriver cores (with an L3 cache) or +64% from Excavator cores (no L3 cache).

Moving nearer to the launch, and with more details under our belts, it was clear that AMD were not joking but actually being realistic. Analyzing what we were told about the core design (we weren’t told everything to begin with) would seem to suggest that AMD, through this long-term CPU team and core design plan, have all the blocks in place necessary to do the deed. Aside from getting an actual chip on hand to test, analysts were still concerned about AMD’s ability to execute both on time and sufficiently to make a dent and recreate a highly competitive x86 market.

Throughout the lifetime of the Zen concept at AMD, they have seen a couple of corporate restructurings, changes at the high C-level executives, time when the company value dipped below the company asset value, restructuring of manufacturing and wafer deals with GlobalFoundries (which was spun out of AMD before Zen), sale and re-lease of major corporate buildings, and the integration/de-integration of the graphics team within the company. Within all that, Bulldozer didn’t make the impact it needed to, in part due to pre-launch hype and underwhelming results. Sales volumes have been declining (partly due to lower global PC demand), and server-based revenues have dropped to almost nil as we’ve not seen a new Opteron in five years. In short, revenue has been decreasing. AMD’s ability to get their finances under control, and then focus and execute, has been under question.

In the past few months, that outlook has changed. The top four executives involved in Zen, Dr. Lisa Su (CEO), Mark Papermaster (CTO), Jim Anderson (CVP Client) and Forrest Norrod (CVP Server), have been stable in the company for a few years, and all four have that air of quiet confidence. It is rather surprising to see three traditional processor engineers at the top of the chain for a CPU launch, rather than a sales or marketing focused executive – typically an engineer releasing a product with a grin on their face is often a good sign. Apart from that, AMD’s semi-custom revenues have increased through securing deals with the leading consoles, the GPU side of the company (Radeon Technology Group, headed under Raja Koduri) successfully executed at 14nm with mainstream parts in 2016, and for that confidence has AMD now trading at over $12/share, just under their 2004/2005 peak. At the minute a large number of individuals and companies are invested in AMD succeeding, both consumers and financials alike, and recent performance on execution has been a positive factor.

Since August, AMD has been previewing the Zen microarchitecture in actual pre-production silicon, running Windows and running benchmarks. With the 40%+ gain in IPC constantly being quoted, and now a +52% being presented, most users and interested parties want to know exactly where it sits compared to an equivalent Intel product. Back in August AMD performed a single, almost entirely dismissible, benchmark showing equivalent IPC of Zen with Broadwell-E (read our write up on that here, and reasons why it’s difficult to interpret a single benchmark). AMD had a ‘New Horizons’ (Ho-Ryzen, get it?) event in December and announcements at CES in January showing performance in gaming and encoding, in particular Handbrake. It is worth noting that Intel, as you would expect any competitor, went through each open source project AMD had used an implemented updates to assist dead/bad code (e.g. coalescing read/writes to comply with AMD/Intel design guidelines) or offer improvements (adding in 256-bit vector codes to combine consecutive 128-bit compute*), which is why some of the results from the launch today are different from what AMD has shown. (If anyone thinks this is ‘unfair’, it begs a bigger question as to how IPC is a good measure of performance if the code is IPC limiting itself, which is a topic for another day.) At the Tech Day, AMD went into further detail regarding various internal benchmarks, both CPU and gaming related, showing either near parity or a fair distribution of win/loss metrics, but ultimately giving better price/performance.

*In this instance, having 4 x 128-bit vector math usually creates 4 ops. Arranging code to 256-bit can give 2 x 256-bit for two ops, which takes two cycles on Zen per core but only one cycle on Intel’s latest.

Recently AMD held a talk at ISSCC (the International Solid State Circuits Conference), which we’ll go into as part of this review, but one thing is worth mentioning here. Along with AMD requiring Zen to have good single thread performance, they also wanted something small. At ISSCC, AMD showed a slide comparing a Zen die shot to a ‘competitor’ (probably Skylake) die area:

Here AMD is comparing a four-core part to a four-core part, showing that while AMD’s L2 is bigger, the fin pitch is larger, the metal pitch is larger, and its SRAM cells are larger, the quad core design on 14nm GloFo is smaller than 14nm Intel. This is practically due to the way the Zen cores are designed vs. Intel cores – the simple explanation is that the Intel cores have wider execution ports (such as processing a 256-bit vector in one micro-op rather than two) and, we suspect, a larger area dedicated to pre-fetch logic. There’s also the consideration of dark silicon, to help assist the thermal environment around the logic units, which is undisclosed.

I mention this because one of AMD’s goals, aside from the main one of 40%+ IPC, is to have small cores. As a result, as we’ll see in this review, various trade-offs are made. Rather than dedicating a larger die area to execution ports that support AVX in one go, AMD decided to use 2x128-bit vector support (as 1x256) but increase the size of the L2 cache. A larger L2 will ensure fewer cache misses in varied code, perhaps at the expense of high-end compute which can take advantage of larger vectors. The larger L2 will help with single thread performance (all other factors being equal), and AMD knows that Intel’s cache is high performance, so we will see other trade-offs like this in the design. This is obviously combined with AMD’s recent work on having high-density libraries for cache and compute.

AMD has already set out a roadmap for different markets with products based on the Zen microarchitecture. Today’s launch is the first product line, namely desktop-class processors under the Ryzen 7 family name. Following Ryzen 7 will be Ryzen 5 (Q2) and Ryzen 3 (2H17) for the desktop. There is also AMD’s new server platform, Naples, featuring up to 32 cores on a single CPU (we’ll discuss Naples later in the review). We expect Naples to be in the Q2/Q3 timeframe. In the second half of this year (Q3/Q4), AMD is planning to launch mobile processors based on Zen, called Raven Ridge. This processor line-up will most likely be with integrated graphics, and it will be interesting to see how well the microarchitecture scales down into low power. As Ryzen CPUs are geared towards a more performance focused audience, and the fact that they lack integrated graphics, AMD will also maintain its line of ‘Bristol Ridge’ platform (Excavator based processors that also support the 300-series socket). The goal of Bristol Ridge is to fill in at the low end, or for systems that want the option of discrete graphics. Given what we’ve seen in benchmarks, despite recent statements from AMD to the contrary, the FX-line of AM3+ CPUs seems to be coming to an end.

For users looking to go buy parts today, here’s the pertinent information you need to know. The Ryzen CPUs will form part of the ‘Summit Ridge’ platform – ‘Summit Ridge’ indicates a Ryzen CPU with a 300-series chipset (X370, B350, A320). Both Bristol Ridge and Summit Ridge, and thus Ryzen, mean that AMD makes the jump to a desktop platform that supports DDR4 and a high-end desktop platform that supports PCIe 3.0 natively. These CPUs use the AM4 socket on the 300-series motherboards, which is not compatible with any of AMD’s previous socket designs, and also has slightly different socket hole distances for CPU coolers that don’t use AMD’s latch mechanism. Despite the socket hole size change, AMD has kept the latch mechanism in the same place, but coolers that have their own backplates will need new supporting plates to be able to be used (we’ve got a bit on this later in the review as well).

An Interview with Dr. Lisa Su, CEO of AMD
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  • Meteor2 - Friday, March 3, 2017 - link

    ...In which case you'd be better off with a 7700K, looking at the benchmark results. Cheaper too.
  • ddriver - Thursday, March 2, 2017 - link

    Ryzen offers the same performance at half the cost. More pci-e lanes is good for io, however quad channel memory is pretty much pointless, aside of pointless synthetic benches. Ryzen might not make it to my personal workstation due to the low pci-e lane count, but it has enough to replace my aging 3770k farm nodes, to which it will be a significant upgrade, provided the chip and platform turn out to be stable and bug free,

    Intel has gotten lazy and sloppy, bricking products, chipset bugs, they haven't really done anything new architecture wise for years, milking the same old cow.

    It is rather silly to assume that gaming dictates CPU prices, this IS NOT a gaming product, if your ass-logic is to be followed, the intel needs to drop the 7700k price to 168, because in games it is barely any faster than the i3-7350K, and has the same pathetic, even lower than ryzen, number of pci-e lanes.

    This is a chip for HPC, which gaming is NOT. Go back to the kiddie garden, eight core chips are for grown ups ;)
  • imaheadcase - Thursday, March 2, 2017 - link

    People compare it to gaming, because its the main driving for these type of CPUs, its not even gaming specfic but VR, Graphics modeling, etc. You honestly think people are buying these for offices or industry for complex math problems? lol
  • ddriver - Thursday, March 2, 2017 - link

    It is not "people" but "fanboys", and they cling to gaming because it is the only workload where intel can offer better performance for the price, albeit by comparing products from different tiers, which is quite frankly moronic.

    Cars are faster than trucks, so who in the world needs to spend money on trucks? That's the kind of retarded logic you are advocating...

    Smart people buy whatever suits their needs. Obviously, if all you do is play games you wouldn't be buying ryzen or a lga2011 system. Just get an unlocked i5 and overclock it, best bang for the buck. You must realize that even if you don't, other people use computers for tasks other than gaming. And for a large portion of them ryzen will be the best deal, because it is versatile - it is good enough for gaming too, while still offering significant performance advantage compare to an intel quad in tasks that are time staking, and are very much competitive with intel's 8 and 10 core chips while delivering more than twice the value, which is important for everyone who doesn't have money to throw away.

    Claiming that "gaming is the main driving for these type of CPUs" is foolish to say the least, because games don't benefit from that particular type of CPUs. Most of the games can't even property utilize 4 threads. And this is not likely to change soon, because the overhead of complexity and thread synchronization is not worth it for non-performance demanding tasks such as games.
  • Lord-Bryan - Thursday, March 2, 2017 - link

    That's one really well thought out argument
  • rarson - Thursday, March 2, 2017 - link

    Ryzen's versatility and price are the two biggest factors that make it so good. It might not beat the very best gaming CPU that Intel has, or the very best multi-threaded monster that Intel has in every scenario, but it's competitive with both at half the price of the high-end stuff. Hence, while I do game some and want to build a computer to use for gaming, I also do other stuff like audio production that benefits greatly from Ryzen's multi-threaded performance. To me, it's a no-brainer: Ryzen right now is the best bang-for-the-buck chip for someone who wants all-around high-end performance, by far. Maybe not the 1800X, I kind of think the 1700X is a better value, but still, for most people who want multiple-use performance instead of absolute maximum gaming performance, Ryzen is the clear choice.

    Ryzen's max clock speeds seem, like Intel's, to be hindered by the total number of cores on chip, so it should be extremely interesting to see how the 4- and 6-core chips overclock once they arrive, and what kind of performance they'll achieve. I actually think that, like Intel, a 4-core Ryzen might be a better gaming chip than the 8-core, and if that's the case, then it might be really darn close to Intel's best Kaby Lake, because like you pointed out, most games aren't threaded well at all.

    Additionally, from a gaming perspective, it seems like AMD has done more to push technology forward in that respect than anyone else. They've worked on Mantle, Vulkan, FreeSync, TrueAudio, and others. They've always tried to give performance value by offering more cores, but software has been slow to take advantage of them. Intel is content to stagnate by offering extremely incremental increases because performance is "good enough" so developers have no reason to really try to take advantage of extra cores aside from outside use cases. With Ryzen, AMD is pushing chips towards higher core counts (much like they did with the Athlon X2) but this time, they're trying harder to get developers on board and help them achieve good results. So while it always takes forever for software to better utilize the hardware, once the hardware becomes more common the software will start to follow and you'll see the actual gaming performance improve. Is that a valid reason to buy Ryzen today if your sole focus is gaming? Of course not, but it does bode well for Ryzen owners in the future. The performance can only get better. Can the same be said about Intel? Well, probably not if you're using one of the 4-core chips. It's pretty much a known quantity.

    I had high hopes for Bulldozer and Ryzen is the exact opposite of what Bulldozer was. I feel like the CPU market has been stagnant for years and now suddenly there's a reason to be excited. This makes AMD competitive again, which will be good for pricing even if you're an Intel fan. It's been a long wait, but it was worth it, this is a good product.
  • Notmyusualid - Friday, March 3, 2017 - link
  • Makaveli - Thursday, March 2, 2017 - link

    +1 ddriver you destroyed that kid with your logic well done.
  • khanikun - Friday, March 3, 2017 - link

    Gaming definitely isn't the main driving force for CPUs, as use case changes. I bought a 7700K for my gaming rig. I'd get a 1700 for a VM host, as I'd like to start building a lab again. It won't be this round though. I'd rather wait for AMD to iron our any kinks and buy the next generation. It's something the 7700K could do, but more cores would definitely make it a much better lab.
  • Meteor2 - Friday, March 3, 2017 - link

    Nobody buys mid/high-end consumer chips for HPC. They buy them for gaming. A few for video production. That's it.

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