AMD Threadripper 2
AMD 2ND GEN RYZEN
AMD is on a roll that started with the Zen-core Ryzen, and now we have what is potentially the most powerful consumer/prosumer CPU you can buy.
I say potentially, because while the new Threadripper 2 (‘TR2’) now stands as the record holder in the core department with up to 32 of them plus another 32 threads, it still isn’t a clean-sweep winner because in gaming in single core performance it still lags just behind Intel’s 8th-gen, though we’re talking virtually insigni cant single-digit percentage margins, and this isn’t a CPU intended for gaming, strictly speaking. Getting that slightly tiresome and mostly irrelevant point out of the way, for people that do run apps that can leverage this abundance of processing power, Threadripper 2 is true wonder of the computing world.
It’s pleasing to see AMD’s continued con dence in the Zen core, and with that, its drive to keep pushing. It’s only been just over a year since Ryzen launched, though it feels like longer. AMD has just reported a 50% revenue growth so this aggressive engineering and marketing push is clearly working for the company and all this keeps us glued with interest at the continually invigorated CPU market, and of course, Intel’s obligation to respond in kind with better products at lower prices. As AMD’s Jim Anderson, the SVP and GM for AMD’s Computing and Graphics division told us “Threadripper 2 is the absolute top end for high performance and has raised the competitive energy in the industry”. He’s not wrong.
It’s a cool to remember, too, that Threadripper was never originally part of the Zen roadmap, and was a passion project put together by AMD’s engineers on the side that when presented to management, was so compelling that the company got behind it and made it a reality. Or so the story AMD likes to have us believe goes, anyway.
WHAT YOU CAN HAVE
Architecturally, AMD has doubled the Threadripper’s core count, without sacri cing frequencies, and it’s still cheaper than the Intel i9 nearest equivalent. Fun fact: it’s also the heaviest consumer CPU ever.
AMD has split TR2 into the ‘entry level’ X series, and those are the rst chips off the block launching right now. In October we’ll see the bee er WX series TR2s.
There are two SKUs in each series. The baselevel 2920X is a 12 core/24 thread part running at 3.5GHz base and up to 4.3GHz boosted. It’s US$649. Next up is the 2950X, with 16/32 cores also with a base clock of 3.5GHz and an ever so slightly faster 4.4GHz boost. That one’s US$899. At the time of writing only US prices had been announced for these two CPUs.
October’s WX series starts with the $1,349 2970WX, with 24 cores and 48 threads, and at the top step is the $2,699 2990WX with the record-breaking 32 threads / 64 cores, running at the same frequencies as the lower WX CPU.
All are built using a 12nm process. They’re power hungry little monsters, which isn’t in the least bit surprising or disappointing, at 180W for the X series and 250W for WX chips. The cores themselves are Zen+, which we rst saw with Ryzen 2. Little has changed with the cores themselves. AMD talked of improved algorithms for better boost performance, but the bigger deal has been the tweaks (which Ryzen has also seen) which smooth out performance for those few odd apps that didn’t play well with Zen when it rst launched.
TR2 retains the common In nity Fabric architecture that underlies all AMD CPU and GPU design. That means no new motherboard is needed if you’re running a TR4 board. That’s a huge win and sticks it to Intel and its forced motherboard upgrades with every new generation over the last few years. On the
ipside, it means AMD couldn’t tweak In nity Fabric to link all four channels of memory to the CPU, just two banks link directly, but in almost every usage scenario there’s bandwidth to spare on the bus to keep all four channels well fed, AMD tell us, though testing will bear that out.
All three levels of CPU cache have also been sped up a bit, by around 15% on average.
THE BIG DEALS
TR2 comes out of the gates with several compelling aspects in its favor. First there’s the motherboard commonality, so for existing TR1 owners all that’s needed is a BIOS update. That’s a sweet prospect for both home users and commercial operations already sold on the bene ts of Threadripper’s many core concept.
Dollar for dollar, once again it sits well against Intel’s i9 range, offering more potential performance for a lower cost. As the bechmarks show, for those specialised apps that can eat up all this power it’s a killer, and there’s an ever-growing base of industries and professions that can indeed leverage such a high core count.
You still get up to 64 PCIe lanes so there’s really no practical limitation on building an outrageously specced machine, one with, perhaps, four GPUs and a nasty array or RAIDed NVMe storage, and all the USB bandwidth you’ll need too.
It’s a practical CPU. TR4 will run perfectly well on air cooling, and with its launch comes a new Wraith HSF developed by Cooler Master.
SO WHO’S IT FOR?
Threadripper 2 is for enthusiasts that want something extreme. It’s also a very capable gaming CPU, but that’s not the primary market for this one. Mainly, this is a massively powerful data crunching machine for creators and innovators. Those that do 3D modelling, rendering, 4k video editing or large scale virtualisation. It’s for software developers, for those doing compute intensive tasks like raytracing,
3D VR animation and simulation, character modelling... and all that. In other words, a very large slice of the professional market.
And even while it’s still fractionally still behind Intel for pure gaming frames – what TR2 DOES bring to that party is having cores to spare for streamers. Technically that’s a very speci c and legitimate use, as anyone knows that has seen a stream where frames drop off or the stream itself is jerky. This is not a small market easily dismissed, either, and let’s not forget the halo effect of having your favourite streamer ‘powered by Threadripper’ and the ow on sales that will generate.
AMD has, of course, been working hard with game developers on two fronts – to get them coding more ef ciently for the Zen core, while also trying to move forward wider use of beyond-four-core utilisation. AMD really didn’t want to reveal speci cs about what’s working best right now but did tell me that the Oxide and Frostbite engines were the ones to watch for leading the way here.
There remain rare games that don’t play well with many cores, so as with Threadripper 1 there’s a user enabled compatibility mode that runs TR2 as an eight-core machine.
Still, bringing true massive-core bene ts to gaming is still a process that will take several years to fully eventuate, in part because there are many engines that are old and have a wide user base that doesn’t want to or need to upgrade.
This is why single core performance and IPC is of current and predominant importance. While a four-core CPU is enough for almost any current game, you will increasingly be running close to the limit as game engines evolve upwards, alongside your own potentially changing needs over the next year or three that you’ll likely run the same CPU.
“AMD has doubled the Threadripper’s core count, without sacrificing frequencies”
TWEAKING THE BEAST
Importantly, TR2 runs with respectable base clocks so it’s still a reliable gaming CPU workhorse, and the big win is not only for people that DO currently want extra cores above what they need for gaming NOW, but also those who will likely sit with this CPU for a couple of years or longer and don’t know what the future holds, but want to be ready. You’re getting extremely high end multithread performance in a scalable package.
AMD has improved its XFR 2 boost mode with better algorithms to reduce the sudden performance drop offs occasionally seen with TR1 and Ryzen when they throttled up or down with steep gradients, it now smoothes things out more. It also responds far better when ambient temperatures are on your side and really bene ts from good cooling, with a boost gain of around 5% if ambient temps drop from 30c to 20c, for example.
Worth remembering too, is that Threadripper uses AMD’s best binned cores, being the top 5% AMD told me during the Threadripper 2 launch.
As mentioned earlier, the only potential weakness in the architecture is having only two of the four channels of memory directly linked to CPU cores. It shouldn’t be a problem, though, servers like all memory linked but this isn’t a server chip, and AMD will sell you an Epyc if you want one of those. Any consumer apps that DO use close to 64 cores will likely also be tolerant to any memory latency issues. There’s 50GB/s of memory bandwidth (as 25GB/s die to die bandwidth (bi-directional)) to ensure it’s a “big pool of memory sloshing around” and TR2 spreads data in a highly symmetrical way, according to AMD.
Operationally in the real world much is dependent on the OS. Windows allocates memory rst to threads directly linked to the dies and lls up the remaining cores as they’re utilised. When CPU dies with no memory link are utilised, there’s an increase in parallel work going on and these can create longer latencies. It will be case by case if this has a real world effect, but all this allows AMD to continue its common architecture, and that means no need for a new motherboard so for the vast majority of users it’s a net win.
AMD expects to make gains in the workstation market with TR2. Its rendering speed represents signi cant productivity gains. As it spends less time working on a speci c task, it can thus can more quickly move onto a new task. By virtue of the sheer number of cores available, a TR2 machine can also allow a user to perform computationally intensive tasks – while leaving cores to spare for the operator to simultaneously get on with other work on the same machine. That high level of productivity means a quicker ROI.
Additionally for commercial users, typically the more cores you can get behind a single software license the better, because it saves money as fewer licenses are needed relative to the number of CPU cores that are utilised. Most software licenses work on a cost per PC basis, so being able to drop in a TR2 in an existing TR1 machine represents an immediate increase in compute power with no additional license cost, in most cases.
On top of that companies with high core count machines potentially need less rack space and a reduced networking infrastructure, as well as reduced power consumption overall if you compare otherwise identical TR1 to TR2 PCs.
For a company that CAN max out all 64 cores it’s a clear win, and there’s no better example than the specialised but widespread content creation eld. Look at Net ix and its massive spend on original content. Increasingly that’s Ultra HD and HDR coming out of the gate and creating that cost effectively is an area that makes TR2 so compelling for those types of businesses.
With TR2’s launch came a new air cooler. The new Wraith was developed with partner Cooler Master and has RGB accents, the logo is also in RGB. Apart from being what looks like a welldesigned HSF, it’s an important statement for AMD to have validated partner cooler at launch, letting the world know that this high performance insanely-cored CPU runs perfectly well on air. I asked AMD if there could be a partnered closed loop liquid cooler but that’s not likely, AMD view this as aftermarket territory where consumers mostly make their own choices.
AMD’s Ryzen Master desktop management app is also upgraded. More interestingly AMD’s StoreMI now available to ALL 399 motherboard users. It works some magic by fusing all memory, SSD, HDD into one pool. Algorithms manage it, allocating blocks as needed depending on what’s most often used and how quickly they’re needed. That includes games and OS les, and the stuff you do most of can go to DRAM too for a tangible performance gain delivering similar results to Intel’s Optane, though using a different approach.
There’s a new Precision Boost Overdrive (PBO) that allows more aggressive boosting via more granular frequency voltage and core management. It still voids warranty but you’ve got some con dence this wil be managed within sensible constraints because the overriding SenseMI manager stays in control. All this upgrade really does is expand the boost envelope (your individual results will vary based on core quality and ambient temps and workload impacts).
IN THE END
For a relatively reasonable cost AMD has once again expanded the CPU performance envelope. It is a technical triumph that shows the company isn’t about to rest on its laurels in either the marketplace of its engineering labs.
For those who do invest in Threadripper 2 the economics of the performance add up well. For the rest of us it is still truly exciting to see the CPU scene thriving, testing Intel, and giving us hardware enthusiasts a fun and fascinating game to watch along with technical achievement to appreciate.