AMD's Ryzen 3 - Making Four Cores The Entry-level
Ryzen 7 - Eight Cores, Sixteen Threads. Ryzen 5 - 4-6 Cores, 8-12 Threads. Now it's the turn of Ryzen 3 to take centre stage in AMD's latest desktop CPU launch, bringing with it four full-fat cores to the entry-level for the first time.
AMD’s Ryzen CPUs have had, it's fair to say, a successful few months. Launching with the 8-core Ryzen 7 models in March, and following-up with mid-range 6-core and 4-core Ryzen 5 SKUs in April, the only major mainstream desktop market as yet not catered to has been the entry level. Frequent platform firmware updates, including the recent AGESA 126.96.36.199 have also bolstered performance, stability and consumer confidence. But today we’re back to hardware releases, as AMD fill that gap in their range and offer what they hope are compelling new alternatives that put pressure on Intel’s Core i3 lineup.
AMD’s Ryzen 3 CPUs are, in essence, slimmed down versions of exactly the same silicon you currently see used to great effect in the Ryzen 5 and 7 ranges. They replace low-end Bulldozer and Excavator models which aggressively competed on price/performance, but utilised a relatively inefficient core architecture. Two models are launched today – the Ryzen 3 1300X and Ryzen 3 1200 – with some scope for additional models at a later date. However there are a few twists to the formula to differentiate the line from low-end quad-core Ryzen 5’s, and of course a brand new price point for the architecture.
AMD are pitching the Ryzen 3 CPUs aggressively from the start. The Ryzen 3 1200 launches at just $109, pitting it against the $119 Core i3-7100; meanwhile the Ryzen 3 1300X is sitting pretty at $129, squeezing the Core i3-7200 which retails for $149. Add in the inexpensive nature of AMD’s motherboard platform and you already have the makings of budget system that’s pretty tasty on paper.
Both Ryzen 3 1300X and 1200 are quad-core CPUs which utilise the dual-CCX design familiar from Ryzen 5 and 7. In this instance two cores per CCX are disabled for a total of four enabled cores per chip, similar to the Ryzen 5 1400. On the other hand, for the first time AMD have opted to disable Simultaneous Multithreading, limiting the CPU to four independent threads. Still, that’s potentially a more robust multi-threading solution than Intel’s Core i3’s, which only support four threads via Hyperthreading.
Compensating somewhat for the lack of SMT is a pretty hefty core frequency on the Ryzen 3 1300X in particular. This CPU sits at 3.4GHz and a zippy 3.7GHz in boost mode, and like the Ryzen 5 1500X has the maximum XFR (single-core) boost of 200MHz. Clearly AMD recognise that they cannot be conservative with single-core performance, especially at this end of the market, and so are juicing the chips a little to gain a competitive edge. This further explains why both the R3 1300X and R3 1200 retain a 65W estimated TDP rather than hitting a lower power envelope.
AMD's XFR is made possible through SenseMI technology. This amalgam of high precision sensors, power delivery, and predictive analysis on the impact of increasing voltages and clock speeds, allows the CPU to dynamically clock above it's 'baseline' level to increase performance when overhead is available. Proper binning allows AMD to give an XFR extent that the CPU is comfortably capable of, without breaching sensible thermal or voltage limits.
The level three cache available on the Ryzen 3 CPUs is also relatively limited, at least compared to the quad-core Ryzen 5 1500X. The latter had 16MB L3 cache as it essentially had access to the entirety of the chips available L3 cache; however Ryzen 3's, like the Ryzen 5 1400, only have access to 8MB. The real-world impact may or may not be negligible, but it shows just how aggressively AMD are binning their silicon to fit neatly into different SKUs (and hence price brackets).
As with previous Ryzen launches AMD are highlighting their multi-threaded performance credentials, and that’s no surprise. The question is whether this workload is prevalent at this end of the market. What we do know however is that gaming will be a factor, and in this case AMD believes that each new Ryzen CPU is at least on par with competing CPUs in terms of performance at 1080p in modern games, a key metric for budget gamers.
We should note however that Ryzen CPUs currently don't feature integrated graphics, and instead need to rely on discrete graphics. It's debatable how important this feature is to the majority of those buying in this price bracket, especially those who are involved in gaming, but it would be remiss of us not to mention that fact.
Of course, Ryzen also has its trump card – Overclocking. Every Ryzen CPU released thus far has multiplier and DRAM overclocking enabled and the Ryzen 3 is no different, all the user needs to do is pair it with a B350 or X370 motherboard and go to town. Ryzen 3 could potentially herald a renaissance in budget enthusiast overclocking, a segment which in recent years have been poorly catered for by Intel’s locked CPUs and AMD’s less competitive Bulldozer-derived designs.
Overclocking can be performed via the BIOS, or the Ryzen Master utility. Which you use is up to you.
A Slight Bugbear – ‘VR Ready’ VS ‘VR Ready Premium’
AMD are classing their Ryzen 3 CPUs as VR Ready, and are reclassifying Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 as VR Ready Premium. The distinction is due to Ryzen 3 meeting Oculus & HTC VIVE’s minimum specification for VR, whereas the Ryzen 5 and above meet the recommended specification, but we can’t say that this sort of a hedge is particularly appealing.
Just like with ‘HD Ready’ and ‘Full HD’ Televisions in the mid-2000’s this feels like the very definition of ‘technically correct, but absolutely confusing’. Furthermore minimum specifications for an application tend to run along a razor’s edge of viability these days, something that would be wholly inadequate in VR due to the often nauseating effect of dropped frames and slow response times.
Eliminating customer confusion should be something that we strive for, but this naming policy seems to do the opposite. Of course AMD can't take sole blame - Oculus have continuously expressed a creeping brief when it comes to minimum specifications for VR, potentially as a reflection of the plans for a lower spec HMD in the near future. That said, preferably AMD would more strongly communicate what these terms mean and what experience consumers should expect from the respective hardware, and frankly is reflects poorly on the VR HMD manufacturers that they also do not communicate this.
Wraith For All
At launch retail models of both Ryzen 3 CPUs will be bundled with the Wraith Stealth cooler, a compact model without RGB lighting that uses push-screws for a secure fit. These coolers are rated for 65W, and so will be more than adequate for these CPUs running at stock settings.
AMD’s Wraith coolers – The Wraith MAX, Spire and Stealth - have been rated pretty highly in general, and the whole Wraith cooler range has turned out to be some of the best and most importantly quietest OEM coolers available with CPUs. Due to popular demand AMD have decided to sell the Wraith Max separately in the very near future.
The Wraith MAX is a cooler rated at 95W with a near-silent fan. The retail model will come with the clip mounting mechanism, so it will be compatible with FM and AM3+ sockets as well as AM4. Furthermore, the RGB lighting on the Wraith MAX is compatible with a wide range of 3rd-party LED controllers including ASUS AURA Sync, GIGABYTE RGB Fusion and MSI Mystic Light Sync.
The A-Series Strikes Back
In a low-key move alongside the launch of Ryzen 3 AMD are also announcing availability of ‘Bristol Ridge’ A-Series AM4 APUs through retail channels. Previously these models had been exclusive to system integrators and OEMs, but with the 300-series motherboards now a quite mature platform the time is right to push APUs too. These APUs will typically retail for less than $99, and come bundled with the cooler designated internally as ‘D1’, a precursor to the Wraith designs.
AMD’s Bristol Ridge A-series ranges from 35W to 65W and features an unlocked multiplier. These processors aren’t compatible with the AMD Ryzen overclocking software however, and so overclocking is typically only supported via the BIOS.
It should be noted that Bristol Ridge doesn’t feature AMD’s latest graphics and CPU architecture, but they remain affordable models with graphics horsepower that compares well with similarly priced Intel iGPU models. Also included are Athlon X4 models without graphics, starting with the X4 950 at $59 and continuing with the X4 940 and 970 in the near future.
AMD’s Raven Ridge APUs, which are expected to feature both Zen CPU architecture and 4th generation GCN graphics, will launch later this year.
In Summary – Rounding Out Ryzen
With the launch of Ryzen 3 CPUs AMD have finally filled out the entirety of their mainstream desktop lineup. Taken as a whole, they range from quad-core without SMT through to 8-core with SMT, and hence support from four all the way up to sixteen independent threads. Previous to AMD’s new CPU range the mainstream desktop market typically only supported four threads via two or four physical cores, and only reached eight threads/four cores at the top end.
Undoubtedly AMD have been enormously disruptive to what has been in recent years a pretty staid market, and that has the potential to really drive forward mainstream software development and consumer creativity. Games studios can now be assured of having access to four CPU cores, ensuring that there is a pay-off for developing with a multi-threaded approach, whilst developers of content creation tools that are already well-threaded will also have a larger market to target.
The question of whether Ryzen 3 has the potential to take the fight to Intel can only be assessed through thorough reviews, but on paper things are looking good for AMD right now. They will not be able to rest easy however – Threadripper and RX Vega are both imminent, and Intel themselves are unlikely let Ryzen rise unchallenged.