Custom PC

HEDT Will Roll

By Richard Swinburne. Posted

There’s been a lot of fanfare about AMD’s Zen 3 CPUs, which top out at the Ryzen 9 5950X (see p31) with 16 cores and 32 threads – the same number of cores and threads as its predecessor.

At this time, there’s no mention of a Threadripper 5000-series line-up, and I think it’s deliberate – AMD is focused on releasing new laptop and server platforms instead. This year AMD has made big gains in both these markets, and it needs to continue that momentum.

Threadripper was always a halo product, and AMD now no longer needs that edge. I expect AMD either won’t release a 5000-series Threadripper range, or it will opt to work exclusively with systems builders rather than releasing them into retail. In fact, there are several trends indicating that the entire high-end desktop (HEDT) market is reaching retirement.

Retrospectively, AMD’s first generation of Threadripper chips offered a – now modest – eight, 12 or 16 cores, and sold on their huge number of PCI-E lanes and quad-channel memory support. The second generation superseded this with a doubling to 32 cores.

Threadripper was always a halo product, and AMD now no longer needs that edge

I remember this reveal on stage being an epic mic-drop moment for AMD CEO, Lisa Su, with people in the audience literally gasping. AMD had doubled the core count year on year when Intel was only just ticking upwards every now and then. It continued to make the Threadripper platform feel special.

Intel fought back a few months later with its Xeon W-3175X, which was exclusive to system builders and offered fewer cores (28 vs 32), lacking the same spark. Then in late 2019, AMD really nailed the Intel HEDT coffin shut with its Threadripper 3000-series chips, which started at 24 cores and scaled all the way to a whopping 64.

Intel didn’t even bother to fight back with a refreshed W-series. However, the lustre of the HEDT market had dulled by the time the 64-core Threadripper 3990X launched in early 2020.

Compared with the awe surrounding the Threadripper 2990X reveal, the reception of the 3990X more along the lines of ‘but why do we need it?’ No games benefited from it, so the whole enthusiast market just shrugged its shoulders.

Since SLI and CrossFire are now largely retired, ludicrous numbers of PCI-E lanes are no longer required for most people either. A bog-standard Ryzen 9 3950X is really more than enough for anyone except high-performance computing (HPC) centres.

SLI and CrossFire are now largely retired, so ludicrous numbers of PCI-E lanes are no longer needed

The story at Intel is also a dead end. Going back to Nehalem in 2008, its HEDT platform used to showcase cutting-edge tech, but its now antiquated X299 platform hasn’t been updated since 2017, while its two LGA2066 CPU refreshes were met with lacklustre reception.

Outside of the largest retailers, Threadripper CPU availability in many countries is limited or non-existent. While Amazon US and UK both stock a wider range than average, the number of customer product reviews for Ryzen vs Threadripper is telling of the respective popularity – there are over 100x more for the former.

It’s not surprising, because HEDT is now so unaffordable that even an entry-level CPU and motherboard runs into several thousand pounds even before you add four channels of memory, plus sufficient power and cooling for these 280W beasts.

With the accelerating cost, the very niche appeal and uncertain roadmaps all considered, I don’t think most of us enthusiasts would mind if the HEDT market went into retirement. Instead, pooling resources into a single, focused platform should benefit us all.

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