AMD vs. Intel HEDT Platform Showdown Editorial

I’ve spent quite a bit of time with AMD’s Threadripper and X399 chipset and I thought I’d give our readers my impression of it and talk about the platform as well as giving interested consumers a general overview of the platform and what it has to offer. We compare it to Intel’s HEDT platform and give our take on this match up.

HEDT Showdown

This editorial is particularly exciting because this is AMD’s first foray into the HEDT market space. This is a market that Intel created and dominated since the first LGA 1366 "Nehalem" processors came out so long ago. Of course, Intel had such a market before with its Pentium Pro CPUs back in the late 1990s. AMD had no answer to that CPU either, and it’s marketing team would sometimes make some comparisons between the K6 series CPUs and the Pentium Pro itself, as did Cyrix back in the day. Of course, these were erroneous claims at best as they compared best case scenarios for their CPUs against cases where the Pentium Pro was weak compared to Intel’s older and more mainstream P5 microarchitecture.

Today things are quite a bit different for both Intel and AMD. Intel has been largely apathetic over the last several years due to no real competition from AMD.

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Intel’s never truly had HEDT market competition, until now. I know many of you love benchmarks, and that’s great. There are tons of those out there comparing Threadripper and Skylake-X. It’s not a surprise that Intel’s got an advantage due to having both IPC and clock speed advantages over AMD. However, AMD’s Threadripper stacks up quite well and offers a lot for the money despite these disadvantages. A system depends heavily on its motherboard, chipset, and features. As is the case with Intel’s X299, the processor and the chipset make the platform. With few CPU options per platform, the two are indivisible. As a result, we can’t really talk about AMD X399 motherboards without talking about the AMD Ryzen Threadripper itself.

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As you can see, above Threadripper is physically massive. Cartridge based CPUs like the Pentium II and Slot A Athlons aside, the Pentium Pro is the largest traditionally built CPU I had ever seen until Threadripper graced my test bench. There are four dies inside, although only two of these are active. According to AMD, the other two cores are structural supports for the heat spreader and can’t be made active as no paths to those cores exist. Therefore, there won’t be any pencil mods unlocking 32 cores on the desktop.

Given AMD’s strength in multi-threaded applications, relative low cost CPU and platform, Intel has much to be worried about in the HEDT market. On the gaming front, it’s much the same thing. AMD’s got serious strengths and few weaknesses. Ryzen and by extension Threadripper are slower in gaming, but as we’ve seen, these differences don’t really show up outside of CPU limited resolutions. Today, that even includes 1080P gaming. Even where Ryzen and Threadripper don’t shine against Intel, you still get a great gaming experience. Thanks to the fact that we are mostly GPU limited, it’s your graphics card or cards that make all the difference. With a modern GPU, even ancient Sandy Bridge systems are still serving their owners very well in the latest games.

Features and Performance

How do these platforms compare? Let’s start by looking at the specifications and then diving into that to separate fact from fiction, and reality vs. theory. The following specifications were taken from each manufacturer’s website:

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AMD X399 Chipset & Threadripper CPU

  • Quad-channel DDR4 Memory

  • 64 PCI Express 3.0 lanes (CPU, 60 usable)

  • 8 PCI Express 2.0 lanes (Chipset)

  • Up to 2 native USB 3.1 Gen2 ports

  • Up to 14 native USB 3.1 Gen1 ports

  • Up to 6 native USB 2.0 ports

  • Up to 12 SATA 6Gb/s ports

  • SATA RAID 0, 1, 10

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Intel X299 Chipset & Skylake-X CPU

  • Quad-channel DDR4 Memory

  • 44 PCI Express 3.0 lanes (CPU)

  • 24 PCI Express 3.0 lanes (Chipset)

  • Up to 2 native USB 3.1 Gen2 ports

  • Up to 10 USB 3.0 ports

  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports

  • Up to 8 SATA 6Gb/s ports

  • SATA RAID 0, 1, 5, 10

  • Supports NVMe RAID

As you can see, AMD has either feature parity, or exceeds most of Intel’s specifications. Some features may look better on paper, but come up a bit short which I’ll talk about in a bit.

Tackling the first bullet point both support Quad-Channel DDR4 memory. In our experience, Intel will clock to higher levels with RAM than Threadripper will, but this is something that your mileage could easily vary on. I’ve had some systems that would clock very well and others that wouldn’t even with the same DIMMs. This is in part, is a CPU issue and a product of variances in motherboard design and more importantly, CPU memory controller manufacturing variances. Some integrated memory controllers are stronger than others. As an example: On Kaby Lake-X, I can get DDR4 3600MHz on some boards, and only 3200MHz on others. So far it seems that you can do 3600MHz easily on Intel and Threadripper seems to hit 3200MHz pretty easily. Going above those values on either will be, or is at least likely to be hit and miss.

NOTE: This article does feature some benchmarks, but I urge you to take these with a grain of salt. The reason I say this is that both platforms have teething problems and we’ve seen some sporadic test results across these platforms from one motherboard to another. Furthermore, we will not be doing any processor based benchmarks because we’ve already done those in CPU articles and in motherboard reviews. We are comparing the platforms alone, and only mention the CPU where it relates to the platform alone. Tests are run on subsystems that are platform specific, not motherboard specific. Such tests, such as SATA or NVMe numbers have nothing to do with the CPU.

X299 vs. X399 Memory Bandwidth

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Here you can see a quick benchmark showing what you gain by going with Intel’s platform. These tests were based on our standards for each platform, and represent what should be reasonably achievable on each one. As I said, we can easily hit 3600MHz on Intel’s platform and settle on DDR4 3200MHz for AMD’s. At the same clocks, they’d of course be a lot closer. That said, AMD’s architecture seems to benefit from greater memory bandwidth than Intel’s does, so keep that in mind. Clocked equally, both platforms should have very similar capabilities. I’d note Intel as a winner here because it seems to clock RAM higher on average, but I’ve heard of X399 systems with RAM speeds as high as our Intel systems. It’s just not what we usually see here. That said, we usually work with motherboards early in those product cycles, and that has surely been the case with recent AMD motherboard offerings.