A computer buyer’s guide: The processor

2017 update

It’s been almost a year since I wrote this piece and quite a few things have changed for people looking to purchase a new computer, so it’s a good idea to write a somewhat brief round-up of the things to keep in ming when you’re shopping for a new CPU in 2017.

Let’s get this out of the gate right away: if you’ve purchased a somewhat high-end CPU or a computer with such a chip in the last 5 years or so, you won’t see huge performance jumps going from your current set up to a shiny new processor, but this year has marked a significant release for AMD. If you recall, last year I suggested against purchasing an AMD CPU because their lineup was stagnant since at least 2017. With the release of their new Ryzen processors, however, things have changed quite a bit.

AMD Ryzen

In case you’ve missed all the latest development in CPU releases, AMD has recently launched their Ryzen lineup of processors, which on paper promised to be competitive with high-end Intel offerings. I was personally skeptical of that claim, since AMD hadn’t been really competing with Intel for five years, but when the reviews for the new chips came out, I had to change my mind completely: Ryzen 7 CPUs delivered on their promise of bridging the gap with Intel CPUs while being a lot cheaper (Intel’s Core i7 6950X retails for almost 2000 €, whereas a top of the line Ryzen 7 1800X costs less than 700 €). Sure, single-threaded performance isn’t quite on par with Intel, but AMD’s new products are a lot more palatable from a price to performance standpoint and I surely can appreciate that.

Ryzen highlights

New Ryzen processors require motherboards with an AM4 socket and are not backwards compatible with previous AM3 motherboards. Ryzen brings about a few notable improvements to the table, specifically:

  • Support for DDR4 RAM;
  • Native support for USB 3.0, 3.1 and Type C;
  • Support for M.2 peripherals.

The good

But as impressive octa-core Ryzen 7 processors are, the real game changer is the Ryzen 5 lineup, which is redefining what you can expect for the 200 € price point, the one that most of my readers (and even I, to be honest) will tend to gravitate to. As you know, that price point has been dominated by Core i5s, which are generally quad core processors with Turbo Boost and no Hyper Threading, meaning they have pretty good single core performance, but lag behind with multi core workloads, such as photo and video editing.

Ryzen 5s, on the other hand, are quad cores or exa cores with Hyper Threading, allowing the CPUs in this lineup to run eight or twelve concurrent threads, giving these chips a huge performance advantage in multithreaded workloads. If Intel wishes to remain competitive in the mainstream CPU market, their upcoming Coffee Lake architecture should offer Hyper Threaded Core i5 even on desktop platform. It’s not unreasonable, since they’ve already released two Hyper Threaded Pentium processors in the current generation.

The bad

Of course, as amazing as Ryzen processors are, there is a rather big downside to them: they do not include an integrated graphics processor, meaning you’ll have to purchase a separate video card in order to get any video output. Don’t be fooled by the inclusion of graphics ports in the current motherboard lineup: those are meant for compatibility with upcoming APUs (Accelerated Processing Units, the name AMD gives to their processors with integrated graphics) based on Ryzen, which are slated for release in 2018.

This makes suggesting to purchase a Ryzen CPU slightly harder than it normally would, since even a basic graphics card, such as the NVidia GT 210, is going to drive the price up, albeit slightly. By comparison, Core i5 CPUs do not require a dedicated graphics card for video output. However, if you’re going to do some serious content creation with Photoshop, Premiere Pro or the like, a mid-range dedicated graphics card such as the Nvidia GTX 1060 or AMD RX 580 is a no-brainer.


About Andrea Luciano Damico 137 Articles
Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy. He runs Let's Translate.it and Tech4Freelancers.net.