When it comes to high-end desktop CPUs, AMD (AMD) is intent on being seen as a premium brand.
While the last couple of years have already done a lot to change AMD's historical reputation as a low-end, "discount" CPU brand, the contrast between the product launches that AMD and Intel (INTC) have made this fall for their high-end desktop, or HEDT, CPU lineups is still pretty stunning.
In October, Intel launched its Cascade Lake-X line of HEDT CPUs. The chips, which are sold under the Core i9 brand and pack between 10 and 18 cores, deliver only modest performance gains relative to predecessors in the Skylake-X line that was launched a year earlier.
However, the chips are priced far more aggressively, and thus deliver a lot more bang for the buck. Whereas 10-core and 18-core Skylake-X CPUs respectively carried list prices of $989 and $1,979, their Cascade Lake-X successors respectively list for $590 and $979.
On Thursday, AMD unveiled the first third-gen chips for its Threadripper HEDT CPU family: A 24-core product known as the Threadripper 3960X, and a 32-core product known as the Threadripper 3970X. Notably, with list prices of $1,399 and $1,999, the 3960X and 3970X cost $100 and $200 more, respectively, than the 24-core and 32-core offerings within the second-gen Threadripper line that launched last year.
In addition, given that the 24-core and 32-core second-gen Threadrippers were respectively known as the 2970WX and 2990WX, the numbers that AMD chose for the third-gen products suggests that more powerful (and more costly) Threadrippers will arrive in time. If the rumor mill is right, we might eventually see a 48-core Threadripper 3980X and a 64-core Threadripper 3990X.
The 24-core and 32-core third-gen Threadrippers should still easily offer more performance per dollar than their cheaper, second-gen counterparts. Among other things, their base clock speeds are more than 20% higher, their CPU cores are based on an improved microarchitecture (known as Zen 2) and they pack more cache memory. Nonetheless, it's telling that at a time when Intel launched HEDT CPUs that are a lot cheaper than their predecessors on a per-core basis, AMD felt comfortable charging more per core for its latest offerings.
It's also telling that when it comes to battling Cascade Lake-X for more cost-sensitive high-end desktop users, AMD (for now at least) isn't offering third-gen Threadrippers, but rather products from its standard third-gen Ryzen family. Specifically, the 16-core, $749, Ryzen 9 3950X, which following a delay will be available on Nov. 25th, and the 12-core, $499, Ryzen 9 3900X, which has often been sold out at major retailers since launching in July.
Given 3960X and 3970X's core counts, pricing and likely performance gains relative to comparable second-gen Threadripper CPUs, as well as the likelihood that 48-core and 64-core CPUs will eventually arrive, large parts of the third-gen Threadripper line might end up competing less against Cascade Lake-X than against Intel's Xeon W CPU family for professional workstations. And unless Intel carries out some big price cuts, third-gen Threadripper looks pretty competitive with Xeon W.
The latest Xeon W line, known as the W-2200, features CPUs packing between 4 and 18 cores, and which are priced between $294 and $1,333. An 18-core Xeon W-2200 CPU sells for $1,333, or just $66 less than the 24-core Threadripper 3960X, while featuring a much lower base clock speed (3GHz vs. 3.8GHz).
There's also a costlier and more feature-rich Xeon W-3200 line that scales up to 28 cores and was launched in June. Here, AMD has a pretty big price-performance lead. Intel's 24-core Xeon W-3200 CPU lists for $3,349, while a 28-core CPU sells for $4,449. Both CPUs feature base clock speeds well below those of the 3960X and 3970X.
This might not be an apples-to-apples comparison for some would-be workstation buyers: A lot of businesses still swear by Intel, and features such as support for Intel's AVX-512 instruction set and Optane next-gen memory, as well as various security and reliability features, could act as key selling points in certain cases. But in terms of raw price/performance, third-gen Threadripper's sales pitch looks very strong.
There are some parallels here with the often-huge price/performance leads (as shown by third-party tests) that AMD's second-gen Epyc server CPUs (codenamed Rome) have shown relative to comparable Intel Xeon server CPUs since launching in August. This edge appears to be fueling particularly strong demand for the most powerful CPUs in AMD's Rome lineup, which pack 48 or 64 cores. During AMD's Q3 earnings call, CEO Lisa Su mentioned that relative to first-gen Epyc (codenamed Naples), AMD is seeing a greater initial mix of high-end CPUs, and that this is leading Rome's average selling price (ASP) to be above Naples'.
The elephant in the drawing room here: The major delays that Intel has seen in commercializing its 10-nanometer (10nm) manufacturing process node have (with the help of manufacturing partner Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) ) given AMD's latest desktop and server CPUs a valuable manufacturing tech advantage.
Together with microarchitecture advances and the use of a modular "chiplet" architecture that makes it easier to create CPUs featuring large core counts, this manufacturing edge has given AMD an opportunity to drive meaningful ASP increases while still maintaining a healthy price/performance lead - at least unless Intel responds with large price cuts.
To a time-traveler from, say, 2015, all of this would be pretty hard to fathom.