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A reminder first: data isn’t the focus today, the recap is. We’re pulling charts sparingly (and some might be older charts from initial reviews of the part discussed). Check each CPU’s individual review for full details. The most recent reviews will have the most up-to-date data, Windows install, and game versions, and that’d be the 3950X or other Ryzen and Threadripper 3000 parts. The 9900KS would also be a new review to check for full detail.
Best Overall - AMD R5 3600
Find the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 on Amazon
Our first award for the year is for Best Overall. This isn’t just Best Overall Value, but just the best all-arounder, period. This year, the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 receives our GN Award Crystal for its $200 Zen 2 processor, succeeding our 2018 award for Best Overall Value that was given to the AMD R5 2600. Although an R5 still receives the award, the reasoning for its receipt has only been magnified with the eulogizing of Intel’s Core i5 processors. Intel began cannibalizing its Core i5 line with its own products, but AMD finished what it started in 2017. With 2018, AMD’s R5 2600 killed off what remained of the Core i5 value proposition. In 2019, when the AMD R5 3600 launched, we’re reminded of a scene from the Simpsons: Stop, stop! He’s already dead!
The R5 3600 ticks all the boxes that the R5 2600 did, but has greatly improved in its gaming performance. The delta between Intel i5 CPUs and AMD R5 CPUs has shrunken, with the maximum delta now typically around 13% benefit for Intel; the thing is, the sacrifice in favor of this is too great to be worthwhile. Not only is the gaming benefit limited, as shown in some of our gaming charts, it is also transitory: In more games each year, we’re noticing the cut-down Core i5 exhibiting high frametime variability that counteracts its fleeting performance superiority with unreliable, stuttery behavior. The AMD R5 3600 is more reliable and consistent in its performance across all games we’ve tested, making it the better gaming option.
Above: GPU-bound scenarios make the 3600 look even better
Beyond even that, we’ve also illustrated that the R5 3600 is an extremely capable performer for hobbyist production or creation tasks. If you’re a 3D modeler or animator and still prefer frame-by-frame rendering to Eevee, Blender fully leverages the 12 threads and positions the R5 3600 close to the R7 2700X and Intel i7-9700K. Further, it’s a strong Adobe Premiere and livestreaming performer, offering an entry-level working person’s CPU. Although overclocking is still somewhat limited, the non-X version of the 3600 still gives enough headroom to play around.
AMD has done exceptionally well with its R5 series pricing and positioning, and the R5 3600 takes the reins from the 2600 adeptly and unwaveringly. This easily wins the award for Best Overall CPU of 2019. We have no hesitation at all in this choice.
Most Well-Rounded - AMD R9 3900X
Find the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X on Amazon
The next award is for the Most Well-Rounded CPU, and for 2019, the AMD R9 3900X wins this category. Last year, we assigned this to the 9900K for its chart-topping gaming performance and overall competitive workstation performance. Intel hasn’t been able to recreate its performance in 2019, leaving AMD to swipe this spot.
The AMD R9 3900X gets the Most Well-Rounded category because it is equally capable in nearly every aspect of its performance. Although the R5 3600 is acceptable in its workstation performance, the R9 3900X broke barriers we didn’t expect to be broken until AMD’s next generation. In one example, the AMD R9 3900X surpassed Intel’s i9-9900K performance in Adobe Premiere, one of Intel’s two strongholds over the last few years. The 3900X fills the $500 price-point for users with a higher budget that isn’t quite into HEDT class, and manages good-enough gaming performance while offering consistently superior rendering, encoding, and compiling performance to Intel’s same-priced options. The R9 3900X also gets praise for its high performance given its power consumption: In our power tests, we noted the 3900X at about 150W in Blender, which is comparatively good versus Intel’s closest competition -- and it isn’t that close.
Best Gaming CPU - Intel i9-9900KS
We’ve now arrived to one of two awards Intel will be receiving this year, and it’s for Best Gaming CPU. There are a lot of caveats here, but at the end of the day, Intel’s 9900K and 9900KS CPUs -- the latter of which isn’t particularly worth buying -- remain chart-toppers for CPU gaming performance. Ultimately, not many people need this level of performance, but for anyone deadset on pushing the highest possible framerates or trying to saturate high-refresh displays, the 9900K will be the most likely to meet those demands. It’s a little boring, though, because this isn’t a 2019 CPU. Technically, the 9900KS is, but that doesn’t much count since it’s literally a 9900K that’s been binned.
Anyway, the 9900K gets the award for Best Gaming CPU as it is still able to chart-top in every single title, only giving way occasionally to a 4.9GHz all-core OC 10980XE. If you’re not able to justify the 9900K in price, the 9700K has been competitive in the past -- but we aren’t as firm in our ability to recommend the part given some recent difficulties in Red Dead 2.
The 9900K retains our recommendation for hardcore, gaming-only builds that have a big budget, whereas we’d defer to the 3600 for more budget-limited builds.
Best SMB & Hobbyist Production - R9 3950X
Find the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X on Amazon
Honorable Mention: AMD Ryzen 7 2700 on Amazon
Our award for Best Small Business & Hobbyist Production will go to the AMD R9 3950X this year, which has earned the nickname “Baby Threadripper” from our viewers. This CPU has all the cores, clocks, and cache of a mini-HEDT CPU -- and it’s even got a miniaturized version of HEDT pricing -- but remains on the mainstream desktop AM4 platform. This is a good thing, as the loss of PCIe lanes and quad-channel isn’t as important as the ability to keep costs -- particularly motherboard costs -- down for the mini-HEDT buyers. Threadripper always exists in the upper echelon, but the 3950X has done a phenomenal job at pushing the Intel 18-core 10980XE into retirement at launch.
We think the 3950X is excessive for most people, as most things that cost $750 are, but we also think it’s the perfect fit for small businesses or hobbyists with a bigger budget. Specifically, those hobbyists or small businesses might be ones which focus on movie or video production -- wedding videographers, DJs, YouTubers, streamers, animators, 3D modelers, corporate training teams with multimedia needs, and other similar jobs. A lot of budget-conscious businesses could reap the benefits of the 3950X without burning through the entire PC budget on one CPU. Besides, from a security standpoint, the Zen architecture has proven at least somewhat more hardened than Intel’s existing chips.
We found the 3950X to be AMD’s most competitively positioned CPU of the year, as it largely invalidated the 10980XE while also avoiding many of the single-thread performance traps that its previous high core-count CPUs encountered.
As an honorable mention, if you’re a small business or hobbyist on a tighter budget, consider still the R7 2700 that we recommended for this category last year. At present, that CPU is under $180 on retailers these days. It won’t be in stock forever and it’s not new, but it is cheap and it’s every bit as good as it used to be.
Best Budget Gaming - Athlon 3000G
Find the AMD Athlon 3000G on Amazon
Our next award is for Best Budget Gaming CPU, and when we’re looking for budget, we really mean ultra-budget. This one goes to the $50 Athlon 3000G, AMD’s cheapest instalment in the Athlon line in a while. Our Athlon 3000G review is fast approaching, but we already have the performance tests finished. The Athlon 3000G isn’t a strong performer, but it fits in the “good enough” category when compared to its price-point. We’d recommend this CPU for anyone who’s trying to build a gaming PC for $500 or less, although we wouldn’t recommend using it for the integrated graphics processor. It’s a nice bonus, but realistically, this CPU shines best when used in conjunction with a cheap dedicated GPU. You can expect performance as matched with a dGPU to fall just under the AMD R3 1200 or 1300X CPUs previously, so if you can find a 1300X for a similar price and don’t need the IGP, it might be a better option.
For ~$50 MSRP, though, the Athlon 3000G makes sense for an ultra-budget build for lighter weight games. Keep in mind that this won’t do well with more thread-intensive games, like Assassin’s Creed or Total War, but it’ll work well relative to its price for a lot of the popular eSports titles.
As a runner-up, we’d recommend the AMD 3200G APU. We tend to prefer cheap CPUs with a cheap dGPU over an APU, which integrates a low-end IGP in the same package, but the 3200G is a good option for space-constrained builds or budget builds where you may want a more powerful CPU to go with a dGPU upgrade later.
Most Fun to Overclock - 9900KS & 3950X
(Tie) Find the Intel Core i9-9900KS on Amazon
(Tie) Find the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X on Amazon
The next award is for Most Fun to Overclock. We’re going to split this one between the AMD R9 3950X and the Intel i9-9900KS. The 10980XE was fine, but sort of boring when compared to the more enthusiast-focused 7980XE. The Intel i9-9900KS is the more fun of the chips for non-extreme overclocking, as there’s a lot of room for voltage tuning -- particularly in the negative direction -- to maximize the volt-frequency curve. There’s room to tweak uncore and core clocks, alongside memory, and that room continues scaling into extreme overclocking and competitive overclocking endeavors.
The 3950X also lands on this chart, but for a different reason. Ryzen 3000 in general has potential to be a lot of fun or a lot of frustration, depending on what aspects of overclocking you’re most interested in. For ambient overclocking without extreme cooling, you’ll get the most gains from tuning the infinity fabric, memory timings, and memory sub-timings, with a lot less to gain from a pure core overclock. We find this fun, but people who don’t have any interest in memory tweaking may want to just load XMP or, best case, Ryzen DRAM calculator and then move on. There’s more to gain out of the Infinity Fabric overclocking than anything else, but that changes with exotic cooling.
For extreme cooling, the 3950X turns into a lot more fun. We were blown away at how well ours overclocked, but it makes sense -- it’s a better bin than the lower-tier SKUs. We were able to hold about 5.2 to 5.3GHz with liquid nitrogen, and it’s a lot of fun to tune all the AMD OC options along the way. There’s a lot to learn with XOC on Ryzen 3000, like the fact that infinity fabric has to be cut to 1467MHz once going below -100 degrees Celsius. We find this exploration process to be a fun aspect for enthusiast overclockers, while the 9900K and KS just feel sort of standard.
Best High-End Workstation - Threadripper 3970X
Find the AMD Threadripper 3970X on Amazon
The next is for Best High-End Workstation CPU, an award we’re assigning to the Threadripper 3970X, with a runner-up spot given to the 3960X. This would traditionally be more contested between Intel and AMD HEDT parts, but release day wrought absolute havoc on Intel’s 10980XE part. A lot of comments joked that Intel launched a CPU that was obsolete within 6 hours -- but even that isn’t true. It was obsolete immediately. Intel barely improved over its previous generation, and only really managed big gains when overclocked. The 10980XE is still a great overclocker, but stock-to-stock, it barely stands up to the 3950X, and often requires that 4.9GHz all-core OC to match the 3950X.
If you can’t afford the Threadripper series, the 3950X makes perfect sense as a cheaper stand-in. For those who can, though, the 3970X offers linear scaling in tile-based renderers we tested and other thread-heavy applications, like decompression work. The 3970X blew past the 2990WX in our production workload charts -- again, 7-Zip decompression is a great example -- but also managed to prove itself a capable gaming performer without major stuttering issues found on previous HEDT AMD parts.
The Threadripper 3970X would be excellently deployed in a compression/decompression box, Blender machine, anything that needs high memory density, and would also do well for managing multiple streams from one box. If you’re looking for a workhorse and have minimal gaming concern, or secondary gaming concern, this CPU is the best choice in its price class.
We’ll give an honorable mention to the 28-core 3175X. We enjoyed testing this one at the beginning of the year, and it did prove to be an exceptional performer that particularly established itself in Adobe Premiere work, but the recent launches have made the CPU a lot harder to recommend.
Biggest Disappointment - i9-10980XE
Find the Intel Core i9-10980XE on Amazon
Last year, we awarded Intel’s i9-9980XE with our “Biggest Disappointment” award for CPUs of 2019. This year, Intel can be the proud recipient of its second consecutive “Biggest Disappointment” award, this time for the Intel i9-10980XE.
Aside from the tone deaf nature of assigning a product a name that’s impossible to quickly say and easy to forget, Intel also assigned its product nearly the same specs and performance as the previous refresh -- the 9980XE -- which we thought was mostly worse than the 7980XE before it. The 7980XE is one of our favorite processors of all-time, mostly because enthusiast opportunities for delidding, applying liquid metal, and pushing hard overclocks were so plentiful. The 9980XE went to solder -- and to Intel’s credit, the community did think it wanted that -- but this only really made it better for XOCers. Otherwise, it was a slightly faster refresh.
The biggest downside with the 10980XE is that it’s actually slower in some instances than the 9980XE, and that’s because of the new in-silicon mitigations for some of the recent exploits. Intel didn’t mitigate against all of the security vulnerabilities -- Zombieload 2.0 is still a concern, for instance -- but it began the process for Meltdown and Spectre. The chip is still vulnerable, though. Regarding the mitigations, I guess you could say that “60% of the time, it works every time.”
The 10980XE technically has a different architecture name, but you’d never know it’s anything more than a frequency uptick if going by the charts. The 10980XE ties with the 9980XE in a lot of our benchmarks, or near enough that it’s error, and it loses to the 3950X 16-core CPU (also $250 cheaper) in most the charts. The 10980XE let us down in almost every way possible. We were hoping it’d revive some of our HEDT overclocking interest, and although it did hit 4.9GHz all-core with liquid cooling, it’s not really much different from the 7980XE of 2017 in the grand scheme of things. Even with the price reduction, Intel simply still can’t compete with this part.
Worst Trend - Pointless Product Segmentation
We’ve praised AMD a lot in this video and Intel a little bit, but both deserve a smack for this category. Our last award goes to both AMD and Intel, who can celebrate jointly for receiving our award for the worst trend: Pointless Product Segmentation.
Both AMD and Intel are segmenting their products into oblivion. For AMD, that’d be the company’s insistence to launch products like the 3600X, which is a 3600 with a very mild 200MHz pre-overclock and a cooler that’s worse than just buying a 3600 with an aftermarket solution for cheaper than the 3600X’s combined cost. The 3700X and 3800X don’t both need to exist, either, as they serve minimal purpose other than to make people feel like they’re somehow getting value for paying for what is functionally a binned CPU with no overclocking headroom to begin with.
Intel also does this, although it’s less about segmentation and more about refreshing. The 10980XE is a re-refresh, the 9900KS is a direct refresh of the 9900K, and was a desperate attempt at pushing out some sort of product before end of year. It’s harder to ding Intel specifically for pointless segmentation in 2019, seeing as the company has failed to launch actually new products in 2019. If we look at 2018, the so-called “9th Gen” -- which most certainly isn’t a new generation, mind you -- had enough F, U, K, and N SKUs to confuse even the reviewers. I’ll lose my FUKN mind if there’s another one.
That’ll conclude nearly all of our CPU coverage for the year. We have a few more hanger-on reviews coming up, like the Athlon 3000G and Intel Core i9-10900X, but the stack is mostly covered here. AMD already held most of our “Best Of” round-up for 2018, and its grip has only become more profound this year. Intel really needs to get moving now. The old process can only be refined so much, and there’s not enough room left to continue re-re-refreshing to compete.
Editorial, Testing: Steve Burke
Testing: Patrick Lathan
Video: Josh Svoboda