Editorials

Coming Home — Is AMD good for gaming once again?

When I was younger, scraping by with my meager earnings from serving in the military, I would supplement my income by building PCs. In the halcyon early days of the battle between Intel and AMD, the two chip manufacturers would routinely chase one another with the latest features. By the first quarter of 2004 AMD had closed the gap, capturing a whopping 40% of the market share from chip-leader Intel. By 2006 they were in a dead heat…but then something happened.

In June of 2006, Intel pivoted hard, aggressively priced their processors, and introduced their wildly-popular Core Duo products. AMD tried to punch back, but having just released the Socket 939 processor, and then to begin offering the AM2 socket boards with little new to offer despite the form factor change, the market was reticent to forklift upgrade so soon. At the same time, AMD also acquired the vastly-overvalued ATI for $4.3 billion in cash, and $1.1 billion raised from shares — 50% of AMD’s market capitalization at the time. Cash-strapped, the company struggled to compete in the highly-incented OEM space that Intel ruled from 2007 to present. That said, the tail end of 2017 saw a turn of the market. AMD’s Threadripper processor made a solid splash, as did their Ryzen line, and the new Vega-based video cards. At CES 2018, AMD committed to extending the life of the AM4 socket, furthering the life of their processor lines without changing out motherboards. It got me thinking about those halcyon days — is AMD back in a position to make a run at the gaming market? I was determined to build a decently-powered rig to test out that theory.

Test Rig:
If the F4 Phantom fighter plane taught us anything, it’s that if you put enough fuel behind something, it’ll fly. I wanted to build a rig that would test the core components, but not create any artificial bottlenecks (or at least clearly identify them if they existed). To that end, I selected several core components to bench against my recent Intel build (you can read about that Intel build here)

Processor: AMD Ryzen 1600X
Motherboard: ASRock AB350 Gaming K4
Memory: HyperX Fury Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 DRAM 2666MHz
Storage: Samsung 960 EVO NVMe 250GB SSD
Storage Secondary: Samsung 960 EVO NVMe 500 GB SSD
Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 TI SC2 / ASUS R390X / EVGA GeForce GTX 980
Case: Phanteks Eclipse P400 ATX Mid Tower
PSU: EVGA 750W GQ 80+ Gold

You’ll note that I have three video cards listed in the test bed. I wanted to test with the most powerful card available, but I also wanted to run those same tests with a reasonable AMD-based card, as well as the more readily available GeForce GTX 980. Thanks to the bitcoin mining craze, video cards have quadrupled in price in most cases, and are generally unavailable. Anecdotally, I went to four Best Buys, three Fry’s Electronics, and a few specialty stores, as well as scouring Amazon, Best Buy Online, eBay, and Newegg to find the 1080 TI, finding the last one at Fry’s, without resupply in sight. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m working with what’s available — thanks, Bitcoin jerks.

Test Software:
There are a number of games that make worthy test beds, but I also wanted to run these rigs through the industry standard — 3DMark. In addition to their normal suite of benchmarking tools, 3DMark has recently introduced a new test called Time Spy said to push PCs to their limits, as well as a virtual reality readiness stress test called VRMark. Any reader can tell you that VR has become a large part of my balanced breakfast, so I was interested to see how changing from an Intel board and processor setup to this AMD-based Ryzen setup would impact games on the Vive, if at all. 3DMark’s tools, as well as the usual suspects below, would help me quantify these tests.

As we are doing processor tests, I couldn’t think of a better game to push the limits more than Ashes of the Singularity. Able to challenge even the most robust systems, the extensive AI should sufficiently tax the CPU, showing the differentiation between my Intel I7 6700K and the Ryzen 5 1600. I get that it’s not a 1:1 comparison, but I was eager to see just how much those extra cores were capable of delivering anyway. Besides, it’s still one of the absolute best DirectX 12 benchmarks on the market, and a great game to boot.

  • Ashes of the Singularity
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  • Assassin’s Creed: Origins
  • For Honor
  • Far Cry Primal (With HD textures addon)

This set of games, at 4K resolutions and maximum settings, would be more than enough to stress test any PC. Since 4K gaming is still admittedly niche, we also ran those same benchmarks at 1080p as a sanity check. But first…I’d have to assemble the rig to run them.

Rise of the Ryzen

Normally, I invest in full towers for my PC builds as I enjoy a little bit more room for cable management. That said, when I looked into some of the highest-rated mid-ATX cases, the Phanteks came up on nearly every list. Full of features, this case has a discrete area for cable management behind the motherboard as well as in the lower section, as you can see below:

This case doesn’t have any mounting areas for traditional hard drives or optical drives. This suited me fine as I intended to build this system without either one. The section you can see at the bottom allows the mounting of two SSD, if that’s your intention, but as you’ll see below, I had other plans.

Before mounting the board, I wanted to get the processor fan prepped with thermal paste (I like Arctic Silver 5) as I didn’t want to perform this delicate process inside the confines of the case. As I have no intention to overclock the processor, I decided to use the included processor cooling fan. While I am happy to report that I never saw any cooling issues, I was disappointed with the amount of garbage in the pre-placed silver paste. As you can see below, a number of unidentifiable bits of something were in the paste, underneath the protective shell. In the end, I removed all of the paste and replaced it with Arctic Silver.

Don’t let bits of crap on the stock thermal paste get in the way of good cooling.

Admittedly, I had a small hiccup after mounting the fan. The small AMD tag on it sticking out hung over the top of my memory, requiring me to re-mount the fan facing the other direction. As the fan is not keyed to a single direction, this housing protrusion might be something to look out for in your own build.

Hell-bent on making the cleanest build possible, I loaded up the EVGA 750W GQ 80+ Gold power supply. If you are unfamiliar, the “Gold” designation has to do with power consumption and overall power supply efficiency. There are more efficient PSUs available, but looking at the price to value comparison, this one hit the sweet spot.

As you can see, the PSU is entirely modular. This means that I can plug in just the cables needed, preventing the need to hide any spurious cable snakes inside my case. Doing some quick calculations, the 750 watts delivered by this power supply would be more than enough to run everything I wanted to put into it with headroom to spare, as I’ve not run SLI in a rig for any length of time since the Voodoo 2 days. Simply put, the headaches outweigh the benefits, (I encourage you to read this cautionary tale) given how few games actively support the technology.

With the PSU cabling, as well as that of the case, fully wrangled, I performed my first Power On Self Test (POST). Hearing the beeps that my processor was correctly recognized (but that no video card or memory was detected, as I’d not slotted them yet), I powered down the rig and began slotting the rest of my components.

Storage:

Reading the reviews and digesting speed benchmarks, it was pretty obvious the Samsung 960 EVO was at or near the top of the NVMe list. NVMe, or Non-volatile Memory express, are solid state hard drives that can push transfer rates far faster than traditional or even SSD storage platforms. Mechanical drives can generally push roughly 120 MB/s, and SSDs drive that up to around 450 MB/s. NVMe drives are capable of reading at speeds around 2 GB/s, and writing data at roughly 1.5 GB/s. Obviously, that’s enough to make an impact, in theory. I’ve reviewed NVMe drives, the HyperX Predator in specific, in the past and saw these numbers bear out in real world testing. As nearly a full year (an eternity in the hardware space) has passed, I was eager to see what Samsung’s flagship drive could do.

I selected a pair of Samsung 960 EVOs for my build as I wanted to be as cable-free as possible while wringing every drop of speed possible out of the platform. Using a Samsung 960 EVO nVME 250GB SSD for my OS and mundane programs, and a Samsung 960 EVO NVMe 500 GB SSD for my games, I would have no bottlenecks in my storage platform. Then I ran into the dumbest hitch possible.

When you purchase a motherboard, they typically come with standoffs you need to mount it, some cables, an assortment of stickers for some reason, and everything else needed to get you rolling. On boards I’ve built that support m.2 drives, there is typically a separate bag with an extremely small (M2 x 3mm for those suffering through this problem) screw to mount the drive. Unfortunately, in this case, ASRock included exactly one, despite having two slots on the board. This led to a trip to several Home Depots (despite calls and assurances that they have the item I need), an Ace Hardware (“Ace is the place when you need something random!” — I think that’s their jingle, right?), two PC repair joints, and finally a trip to Amazon to drastically overpay for a damned screw. Two days later I finally had what I needed to finish up the second drive install so I could move on to other things.

Memory:

They say “Go with what you know”, so I did exactly that, loading up 16GB of DDR 4 from the HyperX Fury line. I’ve already reviewed them, so there’s little need to rehash it. Their lifetime warranty, ease of overclock, reasonable price, and outstanding performance made it an easy choice for this rig.

HyperX Fury memory is a fantastic choice for Ryzen builds.

Firing up the BIOS, I selected the XMP setting for this set of memory. This should provide the correct voltages, timing, and speed settings to wring every bit of power out of the memory. Unfortunately, in the case of this ASRock board, it simply resulted in a non-responsive board. The system wouldn’t boot, and I could not access the bios to adjust the settings. Using the on-board jumper I cleared the CMOS and instead simply selected the 2666Mhz setting from the DRAM Frequency menu. A quick reboot later and I was off to the races once again.

Video Cards:

As I mentioned before, I’d be using three video cards to benchmark this new system. High-end video cards like the Vega-based AMD cards are in just as short of supply as the 10xx series cards from NVIDIA right now, thanks to bitcoin mining. Despite my best efforts, these three are the best I could beg borrow or buy. Here’s a quick overview of the three cards, as well as some quick benchmarks from the awesome hardware specialist at Candyland:

AMD R9 390X
The ASUS R9 390X is a powerful card. In fact, in addition to stuffing 8GB of GDDR5 memory (twice as much as its contemporary, the GTX 980) into this admittedly very heavy card, AMD also pushed the clock on their previous efforts, enabling solid 4K resolution performance, providing some uncomfortable pressure to graphics card industry leader, NVIDIA. The 390X series of cards released on June 18th of 2015.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
Built around the second-generation Maxwell chipset, the GeForce GTX 980 is built around delivering 4K resolutions, HDMI 2.0 support, and sports 4GB of GDDR5 memory. Released on September 18th, 2014, the GeForce GTX 980 represented the flagship until the 980 TI was released on June 2nd of 2015.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 TI
Ignoring the Star Wars themed wallet-destroying Titan X and Titan Xp, the GTX 1080 TI represents the most powerful video card NVIDIA has on the market. Based on the Pascal chipset, this video card sports 11 GB of GDDR5 memory, pushing over 11 GBps of bandwidth. It’s ostensibly the flagship of the consumer-level cards, and was released on March 10th, 2017.

This build isn’t meant to be a review for these video cards, but suffice to say, they are all reasonably powerful cards that should satisfy most gamers at Ultra settings, 4K resolutions are even possible in some cases on the last-gen cards, with the 1080 TI (and ostensibly a comparable Vega 64) more than capable of delivering at that resolution. In short, any of these cards are more than sufficient to deliver amazing games directly to your eyeballs.

Operating System:

With all of the hardware locked and loaded, and the tempered glass cleared of fingerprints and thumb-screwed on, it was time to load the boring stuff — the operating system. Booting from a thumbdrive, I loaded up Windows 10. Using NVMe exclusively, I’ve never seen the OS copy, configure, and install so quickly. Some of that, who knows how much, is attributed to the throughput of the processor and board, but anecdotally, it was damned fast.

It’s inescapable. Windows 10 is where it’s at.

I chose Windows 10 because, despite any arguments to the contrary for the merits of Windows 7, Windows 10 exclusives are a reality. Additionally, there are a lot of features, DirectX 12 being chief among them, that are only supported on that platform. Argue if you must, but if you want to play games on PC, you are doing it on Windows 10. With the help of a few goodies from Stardock like Multiplicity to provide KVM support (read: remote control your PCs), and Fences to corral my icons and desktop space, I was ready to get to work loading up and testing some software.

Stardock’s Multiplicity Pro

3DMark and VRMark:

Before diving into the gaming space, I wanted to push the rig with 3DMark’s suite of tests. The team at Futuremark is well known as the defacto standard for benchmarking and stress testing with their holistic toolset. Most recently, the team updated their suite with their new VRMark testing product. VRMark, as the name suggests, allows gamers to bench their system for use with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR displays. 3DMark has a testing suite for just about any device configuration you can imagine, including mobile devices, but there are a few that I wanted to use to really get into the weeds with this build:

Time Spy – DX12 at 4K
Fire Strike – High Performance PCs
VRMark – 3 tests for VR capability

Time Spy Extreme is absolutely brutal on any machine, but as you can see in the graph below, it’s meant to be. 4K gaming at 60fps at Ultra settings is difficult to achieve on nearly any current single-GPU machine, and Time Spy Extreme does a fantastic job of simulating that challenge. Utilizing DirectX12, it also pushes the latest graphics API technology to the foreground, testing how future games that utilize that tech could perform.

Time Spy from 3DMark is meant to push your system hard.

Fire Strike Ultra uses the DirectX 11 API, which is still widely in use at the tail of 2017 and the start of 2018. Assassin’s Creed Origins, as an example, uses DX11 to deliver the impressive visuals that wowed us during the 2017 holiday season. It will push a high-end gaming machine as it runs at 4K resolution, and will show you what you can expect from games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at higher resolutions and Ultra settings.

 

Fire Strike is used to showcase modern gaming.

The Virtual Reality market is really heating up, and the excitement is building around new announcements like the HTC Vive Pro and Wireless Adapter with better resolutions and freedom of movement expanding how we think about this new medium. 3DMark has built a trio of tests that, unsurprisingly, follow their current, future, and “crush your hopes and dreams” level of testing approach. Entitled Orange, Blue, and Cyan, in order of just how much it’ll push your system, this new suite of testing products have an added bonus feature — you can put on your HMD and experience these tests, not just watch them in motion. Let’s see how these panned out:

Orange Room represents a great benchmark to see if you are ready for what’s currently on the VR market, determining if your machine can handle systems like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.   If you can handle Orange Room, you are ready for this generation of VR.

Cyan Room pushes VR to the next level, utilizing DirectX 12, as well as pushing the graphical limits with a more efficient API.  It shows what developers can accomplish with older hardware, and how those that still own those generations of cards can still take advantage of what’s next in the Virtual Reality space.

As you can see, Blue, even on the GeForce GTX 1080 TI, will absolutely crush any high end system. The recommended framerate is around 90fps for VR, requiring a lot of horsepower to drive all that texture goodness to your eyes at a level that won’t cause nausea. It represents future generations of games and hardware as it renders at 5K resolution, and pushes volumetric lighting effects to their limits and beyond.  It represents the most demanding VR test on the market.

All of these tests are available via Steam, or at 3DMark’s site for a reasonable price, or as a limited free demo.  If you want to see what your system is made of, there’s no better test.

Let’s play some games

I picked five games that represent a solid cross-section of gaming, pushing realism, physics, and a whole hell of a lot of pixels. Ashes of the Singularity has both a CPU-focused and GPU-focused test that will stress even the most bleeding-edge PC at higher resolutions, supporting both DirectX 11 and DirectX 12. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt represents one of the best open world RPGs (it won our GOTY for 2015) that is capable of delivering amazing visuals with eye-popping draw distances. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is pushing the newest generation of gaming (though still running on DirectX 11), showcasing gorgeous vistas and incredible gameplay mechanics, sporting 4K textures. For Honor will rattle your video card with a ridiculous amount of high-polygon heroes and side characters on screen at any given time. Far Cry Primal received an HD textures addon that refreshed it nicely, providing an excellent benchmark ahead of the upcoming Far Cry 5 which will likely take its place as the newly raised bar for open world gaming.

Before we get started, I fully acknowledge that there is a large disparity between the three video cards I have on hand — these tests are not about that. What I am looking at is to see how the Ryzen processor handles modern gaming, both at 1080p and at 4K resolution, as well as showcasing how AMDs x90 generation of cards holds up against NVIDIA’s 9-series. The 1080 TI helps represent how well the Ryzen handles a video card that is a generation ahead of it.

Ashes of the Singularity:
Stardock’s flagship RTS runs a 4 minute benchmark that provides a deluge of data that showcases every aspect you could possibly want to analyze. The game features a fantastic lighting engine, deep shadow quality, MSAA, high resolution textures, and literally tens of thousands of objects on the screen at any one time. Beyond the CPU versus GPU focused tests, there are a number of settings to run a benchmark. For this test we used Extreme settings (the highest) and at 1080p and 4K resolutions.

 

It’s fairly easy to see that, at 1080p resolution, the GeForce GTX 980 is able to limp across the finish line, pushing it over the 30fps, where as the R390X comes in just shy of the stable 30fps required for a smooth image. Naturally, the 1080 TI is able to shove past 60 fps in both tests. At 4K, we see both previous gen cards fall well short of that 30fps benchmark, whereas the 1080TI is more than capable of delivering high resolution gaming at the highest framerates, regardless of settings.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
There is no doubt that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an absolutely gorgeous game. Lush forests, fur on beasts (and Witchers!), and draw distances that put most open world games to shame come together with an amazing story that netted it our Game of the Year award in 2015, as well as awards for both expansions. It’s also absolutely brutal, even on a bleeding edge machine, when you turn on the Hairworks effects.

As you can see, all three cards are more than capable of delivering a fantastic and smooth experience at 1080p with the R390X falling just shy of the 60fps target. Pushing things up to 4K resolution and adding the Hairworks option (which is only supported officially on NVIDIA cards), resulted in a surprising result. The 1080 TI is capable of handling 4K at 60fps, but both previous generation of cards, with only the lightest amount of adjustments, is able to deliver 30fps at 4K resolutions! Having played with this on the Xbox One X (our look at that experience) to see the comparison easily enumerated and displayed, it was fantastic to see this same result on these two older cards.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins
We had very high praise for Assassin’s Creed: Origins in our review in late 2017, and it was no surprise that the game turned out gorgeous for the PC platform. While the console version delivered 4K and 30fps on the Xbox One X utilizing the game’s dynamic resolution system, it would be interesting to run these benchmarks with that option disabled…

While the benchmark reported that the R390X was “Unstable” during all of the tests, the results speak for themselves. At Very High settings and 1080p, all three cards delivered solid results, with the even the widest gap being well within acceptable parameters. Pushing to Ultra settings at 1080p had almost no effect on the framerate, and once again, fell within the acceptable parameters. 4K resolution, on the other hand, pushed even the 1080 TI to a sub-60 level. With the previous generation falling into the low 20s, the only suitable option for 4K resolution is a 10xx series card. Stil, with only a few tweaks I was able to get a 1080p resolution with 60fps without dynamic resolution — something I couldn’t have imagined had I not tested it.

For Honor
Ubisoft has given players a great many options to tune to match a player’s system, and while For Honor sees a slimmer menu of options than Watch Dogs 2, there’s still plenty to adjust to ensure a butter-smooth framerate. With presets ranging from low to extreme, I set up my benchmark by sliding all of the options to the right, pushing anti-aliasing, lighting, shadows, texture quality, dynamic shadows, and all of the rest to their “extreme” settings. While the benchmarking system typically hiccups a bit as it starts, resulting in some artificially low minimum framerate results, the averages are fairly consistent.

It was great to see that, even using previous generation cards, I was able to push the settings to the limit at 1080p, and still achieve better than 80fps at that resolution. That said, unsurprisingly, pushing to 4K resolution drops the framerate down into the 20s for everything but the 1080 TI. It’s likely that adjusting shadows and anti-aliasing would bring that up to the vaunted 4K/30 level.

Far Cry Primal
Far Cry Primal came out in February of 2016, but you wouldn’t know it from the eye-popping visuals on display. The HD textures addon shoves 4K textures into the game, which becomes readily apparent when you get up close and personal with the textures of objects like wooden clubs, spears, and trees. Things that were otherwise blurry are now sharp and highly detailed.

At 1080p with all settings maxed and the HD textures addon enabled, we saw a more than reasonable 51 fps from both previous generation cards. Naturally, the 1080 TI blew it out of the water at 118 fps at that resolution. What was surprising, however, was that both previous generation cards were capable of delivering around 30 fps average at 4K resolution, and that the 1080 TI had dropped more than in half, down to 56 fps. Suspecting and anomaly, I ran the test several more times, but it yielded the same results. With only minor tweaks I was able to get the older cards to stabilize at 4K/30 and the 1080 TI to lock in at 4K/60.

About that processor — conclusions

Without a stable of processors to directly compare against, I could only compare the Ryzen to my most recent Intel build. It’s not entirely apples to apples as my Intel rig is powered by an i7 6700K processor, but it should come relatively close. What I found, repeating the same tests, was that there was that the difference in framerate was within tolerances of any testing variance. That is to say, I found only a one to two framerate difference up or down between the two systems. Surprisingly, after looking at a lot of benchmarks across a wide variety of games and hardware generations, I found that there was almost no discernible difference between the Ryzen and Intel chipsets, beyond a much cheaper price for AMD’s offering.

So yeah…welcome back, AMD. As a builder, it’s great to see AMD as a viable gaming option once again, and it’s clear that the shaky issues of the past have been cleared up. Competition drives innovation, and things like FreeSync only help the consumer. It’s good to see you, AMD — we are all looking forward to a bright Ryzen / Vega colored future!

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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