In a battle of the 16-core-chips, we test AMD's Ryzen Threadripper 1950X against Intel's Core i9-7960X to see which would be best inside your next desktop PC.
Who makes the best 16-core CPU? We asked hardcore computing journalist from sister site PC World to find out. He worked with US-based boutique custom PC builder Falcon Northwest built a pair of nearly-identical rigs that could truly go head to head.
We've gone for 16-core chips as they offers the best mix of clock-speed, cores and price.
Our 16-core Falcon Northwest Talon specs
As Falcon Northwest is famous for, both Talon systems are over-the-top in specs and chassis. Each came equipped with:
- 128GB of DDR4 RAM
- Two Nvidia Titan Xp graphics cards in SLI
- A pair of Samsung 1TB 960 Pro SSDs
- A 6TB Western Digital hard drive
- Both feature the same 1,000-watt EVGA Super Nova G3 PSU and the same custom closed-loop cooler system. The number and type of system fans are the same as well.
Although both have the same storage subsystem, there is a slight variance. The pair of Samsung 960 Pro NVMe SSDs in the Intel system are configured as PCIe devices in RAID 0, while the AMD box keeps both Samsung 960 Pro drives as separate drives.
We settled for this variance so as not to hobble the Intel box. After all, at the time we requested the machines in early September, RAID 0 using NVMe drives was available only on the Intel platform (not VROC, but using the X299 chipset) not on AMD's X399. Since then, AMD has introduced support for NVMe RAID.
Looking at the read and write performance of both machines, the difference doesn't seem to matter much. The Intel system has somewhat higher read speeds, while the AMD system has somewhat higher write speeds.
We matched carefully in most other areas. Both CPUs are kept bone stock. At the time of our story, Falcon had qualified 128GB of RAM up to DDR4/3000 speeds for the Intel system, while the highest-clocked RAM on the Threadripper system when using 8 DIMMS was DDR4/2400. We decided to keep both machines at DDR4/2400 to match in price as well as capability.
Other than the CPU and motherboard, the only other big difference is the colour.
The AMD machine is hand-painted in luscious Red Clouds, while the Intel machine is hand-painted in the striking Cobalt Clouds.
Cinebench R15 Performance
First up is Maxon's Cinebench R15 test. It's a free benchmark based on the rendering engine Maxon uses in its professional Cinema4D app. It's highly multi-threaded and almost entirely a CPU-focused test (though there is a graphics test, too).
The default mode is to test all of the cores at once, as you would when rendering. The Core i9 squeaks by the Threadripper box by a few percentage points.
Cinebench R15 also allows you to tweak the number of threads to test, so we ran it on only a single core. This is where Intel has had an advantage over Zen-based chips, and it shows with the Core i9's 15-percent lead on single-threaded tasks. We'll dive into just where Intel gets this advantage later, but anyone who thinks this isn't a big win for the 16-core Core i9 is in denial.
POV Ray Performance
The Persistence of Vision Raytracer is an app that literally goes back to the days of the Commodore Amiga. Obviously converted to run on modern hardware, the free ray tracer loves CPU cores and threads. As we saw with Cinebench, the Core i9 has a slight edge in performance.
POV-Ray also supports running in single-threaded mode. As with Cinebench, we see a very clear advantage go to the Core i9, mostly due to the clock speed advantage the Intel chip holds. (We'll get into just how much of a clock speed advantage that is later on.) There's no denying that on lightly threaded loads, Core i9 has the advantage.
Blender is an open-source 3D modeler that sees a lot of use by independent movie makers for effects sequences. Even NASA uses Blender these days to produce 3D models.
Blender was also the benchmark of choice AMD used when it first unveiled its Zen CPU last year. So who leads the way here? In the chart below (showing Blender using the BMW benchmark), lower scores are better in rendering, and the Core i9 has a double-digit lead over the Threadripper part. Ouch.
Corona Renderer 1.3 Performance
Corona Renderer was first introduced with AMD's Threadripper, and it was used to soundly trounce Intel's 10-core Core i9-7900X chip because 16 > 10. When it's 16-on-16, though, things go a little sideways. Where Cinebench and POV-Ray put the two CPUs fairly close, Corona Renderer 1.3 puts the Threadripper about 19 percent slower than the Core i9. Ouch again.
Benchmarks can be easily become political footballs, with one side's fans claiming a test is cooked to favor the other. Let's remind everyone that it was AMD who recommended the Corona Renderer test.
For encoding, we ran our standard test, which tasks the free Handbrake encoder with converting a 30GB 1080p MKV file using the Android Tablet preset. Like most encoders, Handbrake favors having more cores, and we see the two chips in the same neighborhood at least. The Core i9 still comes out ahead by 8 percent, but at least it isn't the blowout we saw in Corona or Blender.
We usually shy away from power consumption comparisons because they can be blown out of proportion. In a desktop PC with multiple drives and a graphics card, the CPU isn't the power hog, it's the graphic card. The second reason is the difficulty measuring power consumption between different systems. But hey, here we are with nearly duplicate systems, so we plugged the Northwest Talon PCs into Watts Up Pro meters and measured the total power consumption under different CPU-only loads.
Using Cinebench R15 to push the systems from 1 thread to 32 threads, it was clear which CPU was the winner. What's also interesting is to see how Threadripper's power consumption levels off once it hits about a 16-thread load. Core i9 just continues to ramp up power consumption as you increase the load. And mind you—this is stock clocked. Vendors have told us they've seen Core i9 consume more than 500 watts under heavy overclocking.
The bang for buck stops here
One last thing to consider is that the price of just the CPU isn't everything. When it's watered down by the total cost of the system, it may indeed be worth it for some. For example, the Falcon Northwest Talon systems that we used were both dream configurations with $2,400 in GPUs, maybe $1,800 in RAM and $1,200 in SSDs. That doesn't count the motherboard, hard drive, cooling, case, power supply or custom hand-paint jobs. When you're building a box in this range, the price difference in the CPU isn't that much. Of course, not everyone buys loaded machines like the Falcons. If your machine budget is closer to $3,500, then the $700 you save on a Threadripper represents a much larger part of the budget.
Looked at in a core-vs.-core battle without considering price, Intel's Core i9-7960X leads the way. It gives you great performance at light-duty applications and generally can't be touched by the Threadripper 1950X in heavy-duty applications, either. In a lot of the tests we ran, we were actually surprised Core i9 ran away from Threadripper so easily.
That said, it's pretty hard to ignore price when you're spending your own money on a build. Our opinion hasn't changed for Threadripper: It is absolutely the best you can get for the price, a spectacular deal. But price aside, in a 16-vs.-16 battle, Core i9 is the winner.