Are More Cores Better?
6 March 2020
If you’ve been looking at buying a new CPU and have been checking out a few reviews or Youtube videos, you’d have seen that AMD has been receiving a lot of positive attention with its latest Ryzen 3000 series of processors. They offer very good value by offering more cores and threads at ever more affordable price points. They also have good thermal and power consumption characteristics, which means there’s no need to go with an extravagant cooling solution (many models even come with a decent CPU cooler). They have some class-leading features such as PCI Express 4.0 support and an advanced 7-nanometer manufacturing process, which is a major reason why AMD is able to pack more cores into its Ryzen and ultra-high-end Threadripper series of CPUs. Having more cores looks good on paper, but is having more cores better in the real world? The answer is generally yes, though it depends primarily on what your typical workloads or tasks are. With tasks that can make use of them, more cores are definitely advantageous, and some cases can provide almost linear increases in performance.
AMD is bringing more cores to every price point
AMD uses a multi-chip-module topology which means the CPUs house more than one chip under the heatspreader. In the case of AMD’s Zen 2 based Ryzen 3000 series CPUs, there are up to three dies per CPU, two of which are 8-core chiplets, which are joined by a central I/O die which functions as the interconnect and memory controller. Most of AMD’s Ryzen 3000 series are based on its Zen 2 architecture, though there are a few 3000 models that are built with an older architecture, including the 3200G and 3400G APUs. The improved Zen 2 models starts with 6-core/12 thread Ryzen 5 3600 and go up to 16 cores/32 threads in the case of the Ryzen 9 3950X.
AMD’s approach to chip design gives it a lot of flexibility, and making CPUs with core counts higher than 16 is relatively simple. Late 2019 saw the release of the Threadripper 3 series, which began with the 24-core 3960X and 32-core 3970X. Both of these CPUs pack in 4 of the 8-core dies, with the 3960X fusing off two of the cores per die. That’s not all though, AMD can pack up eight(!) core complexes for up to 64-cores, and we saw this CPU launched in February, the mighty 3990X. It’s something of an engineering masterpiece, packing in over 33 billion transistors and offering the kind of multi-threaded grunt that only very expensive multi socket servers could previously match.
That brings us full circle to our question. How many cores do you really need? It depends on your usage patterns.
Are you predominantly gaming?
In 2020, a quality 6-core CPU such as a Ryzen 5 3600 will deliver excellent gaming performance. Going higher in the range offers the added benefit of higher boost clock speeds to go along with more cores. Any Ryzen 3000 series CPU will offer excellent gaming performance, but as is usually the case, the graphics card has a much bigger impact overall, so you don’t really need to go with an overpowered CPU at the expense of stepping up to a better GPU. An 8-core 3700X or 3800X with a Radeon RX 5700XT will outperform a 3950X with a Radeon RX 5600XT in games.
In fact, some games actually perform worse on very high core count CPUs, such as Threadripper. The percentage of the market running such CPUs and using them for gaming is a tiny fraction of a fraction, so that’s not really a surprise. Keep in mind how games must be designed. When you consider that most of the PC Gaming market consists of systems equipped with dual or quad-core CPUs, including the vast numbers of laptops out there, then obviously software developers must design their games to function at their best with those millions of users in mind.
Of course, even if you want to game on a Threadripper 3 system without compromise, AMD’s Ryzen Master software features a function that allows you to disable cores. If the game you’re running does struggle with 24 or more cores, then disabling a bunch of them means you’ll be able to enjoy uncompromised gaming. It’s a simple, yet highly effective way to enjoy playing games on a mega CPU when it isn’t number crunching!
Perhaps you’re more into creating content?
For a long time, dual-core CPUs were adequate for most users. A typical PC might have been used for internet access, word processing or playing a game, but now users do so much more on their PC. A dual-core just doesn’t cut it anymore. Think high-resolution gaming, HD video processing (or even 4K), streaming, content-rich internet and social media content creation. That’s without mentioning professional type workloads like rendering, compilation, prototyping, simulation and virtual machines.
In this case, more cores are clearly beneficial. More cores are also better for multi-tasking. For example, gaming and streaming at the same time while running discord, a browser with dozens of tabs open and a media player too. Having all these processes spread out over more cores leads to less lag and stuttering and hence a smooth and responsive PC. Ryzen 9 3950X or Threadripper 3000 series should be considered a desirable CPU for users who can make use of all that parallel processing power. If you have the right workloads, you’ll be rewarded with amazing performance, and as they say, time is money. If you can perform your tasks faster, it will make the boss happier!
Most users will be perfectly happy with a 6 or 8-core CPU. Think of where we were just a couple of years ago, when a quad-core was regarded as high end. Today’s CPUs with more cores offer more power than ever before. Going to the likes of the 3900X or 3950X will bring higher boost clocks and generally better performance, but the true advantages of these CPUs really becomes apparent when fed with appropriately coded software that can take advantage of all those cores. Let’s hope that developers start to make software and specifically games that can leverage that grunt.
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