Is the 3990x and other Threadripper CPUs good for gaming?
In a few short years (and one very long one), AMD Ryzen microprocessors have shaken the world of high-end CPUs, which was once controlled only by Intel. With the Zen microarchitecture (which improved instructions per clock cycle more than 52%), AMD CPUs have been at or near the top of “10 Best” lists of gaming processessors ever since.
But AMD’s most powerful processor is not the Ryzen 7 3700X that topped our list for best CPU under $300; nor is it the Ryzen 5 5600X, which is IGN’s number one pick for best gaming CPU of 2021; there is a whole line of processors designed to be the Cadillacs, the Stradivarii, the MVPs of AMD’s catalog: Threadrippers.
As a very small introduction to Threadrippers, let’s compare just two specs to the AMD’s next-best processor, the new, top-of-the-line Ryzen 9 5950x, which has 16 CPU cores and 32 threads. —Pretty substantial, wouldn’t you agree? Well, the AMD’s Threadripper 3990x has 64 CPU cores and 128 threads.
Which is downright mouth-watering.
And brings us to an obvious question: If Threadrippers are widely known to be some of the most powerful computer processors on the market—then are they good for gaming?
Is the Threadripper 3990x the best gaming CPU? What is a Threadripper good for? What is the best processor for gaming?
Let’s find out.
What Is a Threadripper?
Threadrippers are a line of workhorse computer processors, built to perform at the highest level for the toughest jobs, such as animation, video effects, and video game development and design.
If you have experience in any of those fields, you will probably be intrigued by Threadripper’s tagline, “Render time irrelevant”. Threadrippers can significantly increase your productivity and decrease your time waiting around to continue your work.
Threadrippers can have up to 64 CPU cores (and for the uninitiated, here’s a point of reference: Apple’s newest, most expensive Mac Pro can have up to 28 cores), up to 128 threads, and up to 88 PCIe 4.0 lanes. The top model’s L3 cache is 262144 KB.
Threadrippers are built for serious computer professionals who put their workstations through the toughest jobs a computer can do.
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So … Can They Run Games?
The short answer is: yes. Yes, they can run games—and they can certainly build them, as well.
Where things get more tricky is when we ask, should Threadrippers be used for gaming?
Catrachadas PC has done some thorough testing with the Threadripper 3990X.
In the Cinebench R20 results for multi-core, the 3990X dominated, with 24675 points. The second-highest score was only 17045—and this was also a Threadripper CPU, the 3970X. The third-highest score came from yet another Threadripper, the 3960X, with a score of 13711.
We have to scroll all the way down to fifth place to see the score of a non-Threadripper CPU, but it’s still an AMD—the Ryzen 9 3950X, which scored 9228. That means, compared to the score of the highest-performing non-Threadripper, the 3990X has a score more than 2 and a half times as high.
And compared to the score of the best-performing non-AMD CPU (the Intel Core i9-10980XE, with a score of 8782), the Threadripper 3990X is nearly 3 times as high-scoring.
To sum that up: Threadrippers performed almost 3 times as well as Intel processors.
The Threadrippers have similarly impressive scores in other benchmarks. In the test for 7-zip compression, the Threadripper 3990X did almost twice as well as the Intel Core i9-10980XE, and in the V-Ray benchmark, the 3990X again scored almost 3 times as high as the i9-10980XE.
And in render time—the Threadrippers’ self-proclaimed specialty—as you might have guessed, they blow the competition completely out of the water. In a Corona 1.3 benchmark test, where the Intel Core i9-10980XE had a render time of 52 seconds, the Threadripper 3990X needed only 18 seconds. For the Blender Open Data benchmark, Intel’s best-performing CPU rendered in 534 seconds—the Threadripper 3990X: 169 seconds.
And for those that might be wondering, it is important to point out that other Intel processors were also scored in each of those tests—but each scored more poorly than the i9-10980XE.
The long and short of this data is, for benchmark multi-core functions, no other tested processor came close to the performance of the Threadrippers.
Which is evidence of their status as a Cadillac or Stradivarius of CPUs.
But now comes a big “however”:
When Catrachadas PC pitted those same processors against each other in gaming benchmarks, the results were very different.
In general, those results were quite close, unlike other benchmarks, where Threadrippers outperformed runners-up by miles. In the first gaming benchmark test, in Battlefield V at 1080p quality, the highest-performing Threadripper scored 161 for Average Frame Rate and 107 for 1% Low, while the highest-performing Intel CPU scored 158 for Average Frame Rate and 111 for 1% Low (with higher numbers, in both tests, equalling better scores).
Not only that, often, other processors scored even higher than Threadrippers, such as in the Ghost Recon Breakpoint test, where the i9-10980XE scored 91 and 74, respectively, while our old friend the Threadripper 3990X got scores of 90 and 73.
You see similar results in tests from Tom’s Hardware, where the Threadripper actually scored consistently lower than other CPUs in gaming benchmark tests.
And to add insult to injury, those other processors were all cheaper than the Threadripper—considerably cheaper, a lot of the time. The Threadripper 3990X is presently for sale at amazon.com for just under $4.000, while Amazon has the Intel Core i9-10980XE priced at roughly a quarter of that amount.
And the i9-10980XE outperformed the 3990X in every single one of Tom’s Hardware’s gaming tests. How on Earth could a CPU that costs 25% of the price of the Threadripper go on to outperform it?
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So What Is Going on Here?
Aren’t Threadrippers supposed to be the best, when it comes to CPUs? How can the Threadripper CPUs, on the one hand, out-perform every other desktop processor in benchmark tests, not only consistently, but by miles, performing incomparably—but then, in gaming benchmarks, perform at a level almost identical to (or even worse than) processors that cost literally one-fourth of the Threadripper’s price?
To solve this mystery, it will be helpful to start by looking at the benchmark tests in which the Threadrippers didn’t blow their competition out of the water.
Single Core vs. Multi Core
In Catrachadas PC’s tests, Threadrippers dominated the Cinebench R20 test for multi core. However, in the Cinebench R20 test for single core, the highest-performing CPU was another AMD processor, the Ryzen 9 3950X—not a Threadripper. Our old 3990X didn’t even perform as well as the Intel Core i9-9900K.
This isn’t a deception. This isn’t a mistake. It shouldn’t actually even be a surprise. It is all in the Threadrippers’ advertised specs. The base clock of the Threadripper 3990X—which is the most powerful Threadripper currently on the market—is only 2.9 GHz. While the base clock of that AMD Ryzen 9 3950X – which is not even AMD’s most powerful Ryzen model – is 3.5 GHz.
And while boosting the Threadripper 3990X would bring its speed up to 4.3 GHz, the Ryzen 9 3950X’s max boost is 4.7 GHz. (As far as AMD’s competition goes, by the way, the Intel Core i9-10980XE has a base speed of 3 GHz—0.1 GHz faster than the fastest Threadripper—and an overclocking speed that comes in 0.3 GHz faster than the Threadripper, at 4.6 GHz.)
That’s the thing about Threadrippers. Their impressive capabilities come from the number of cores they have—not from those cores’ individual specs.
In fact, it is impossible to create a CPU with dozens of cores that are each as fast as cores come. Every added core will also add heat and power consumption. To keep a CPU from overheating, when it has a large number of cores, those cores need to be slowed down a little.
A processor with fewer cores, like gaming-centric CPUs, like the Ryzens and like the Intel processors we’ve mentioned, can have faster cores. But a CPU with dozens of cores, like the Threadripper, cannot possibly have quite as fast a clock speed, if it’s going to be built well.
Ordinarily, this doesn’t create much of a problem. Think of it this way: who would paint a house faster, one very fast painter, or a team of ten moderately fast painters? —Even though the individuals on the team might not each be as fast as the solo painter, when you put them all together, their sheer number means they can accomplish a rate of work that a single person could never be capable of.
Which we all probably already knew. This is the appeal of multi core processors. They are far more efficient, and have made our computing lives much easier, over the past decade as they have taken over. This is why multi core processors have achieved prevalence, why we all use them.
And this is why Threadrippers are so efficient. Even though each individual core is slightly slower than what’s possible, a Threadripper has so many cores, it achieves an outstanding rate of work overall, for the vast majority of even the most extreme computing tasks.
Just not with gaming, as we’ve seen from those tests.
Why is that?
Why can’t video games take advantage of multi core processors as effectively as other computer tasks can?
In general, games don’t utilize multi cores as well as is possible. A lot of the work that could be spread across multiple cores, is done by the GPU, instead of the CPU. The extra cores of a Threadripper CPU can’t come into play if most of the responsibility is falling to the GPU instead.
A lot of games even still focus on single core performance, instead of using multiple cores. Though this is changing. Multiple cores are becoming a tool for game developers more and more as technology improves. After all, multi core processors have been the norm for more than a decade, now.
But they still just don’t matter as much as single core performance. Yet. Maybe a few years from now, the recommendation for gaming computers will be many more cores.
But at the moment, the general recommendation for a gaming computer is six cores, maybe eight. This will maximize gaming performance. If you’re ambitious, some recommendations for gaming CPUs go as high as 12 or 16 cores.
The Threadripper, though, has up to 64 cores.
Since more and more cores are, indeed, coming into play as time goes on, maybe someday in the future, those 64 cores will improve gaming performance, too.
But until then, the truth is, in 2021, game developers just aren’t putting that many cores to use, and the Threadripper winds up with 58 cores (or at least 48) going to waste.
We should make it clear that this is not an error on AMD’s part. AMD did not make a flawed CPU that doesn’t run games as well as they had advertised. Rather, this CPU was specifically made for other tasks. We just get curious about it for gaming, too, because of its impressive performance.
David McAfee, Senior Director of Product Management at AMD, has said that the Threadripper 3990X was designed for professionals in the creative arts, who need the best they can get for rendering and other intense processing tasks.
But when asked about gaming, McAfee said, “I personally wouldn’t buy the 3990X if all I want to do is game”. That’s right: a spokesperson for the company told the world not to buy the Threadripper for gaming. Because that is not AMD’s intention: that is not what this CPU was built for. (Though McAfee did add, “but it will deliver a great gaming experience as well,” and suggest two other AMD processors—the third-generation Ryzen’s 12-core or 16-core models—instead.)
Similarly, on AMD’s website, there is a page all about gaming processors. No Threadrippers appear on that page. They instead recommend the Ryzen 5000 series.
In fact, AMD’s “Handpicked” gaming computer, according to their amazon.com page, is a CyberpowerPC Gamer Supreme Liquid Cool Gaming PC, with their Ryzen 7 3800X processor, which clocks in at 3.9 GHz.
This is why Catrachadas PC, when they did the thorough testing we discussed earlier, wrote in the introduction to their gaming tests, “Playing on the 3990X is kind of stupid”.
Even Tom’s Hardware prefaced their testing with the sentence, “The Threadripper 3990X is in no way intended for gaming.” And followed up with the admission, “Regardless of the Threadripper 3990X’s intended purpose, we couldn’t resist the temptation to see how it fares”. In other words, even the people testing the Threadripper against more gaming-appropriate CPUs know that the tests are misleading, a little beside the point.
So if you are considering an AMD Threadripper for your gaming computer, you should know: AMD does indeed make gaming CPUs—in fact, they are consistently ranked among the best CPUs for gaming in the world.
It’s just that Threadrippers were built for an entirely different purpose. They can handle gaming, but so can other processors that cost thousands of dollars less (and often, the cheaper processors are even better for gaming), because that isn’t what they’re designed for. (They were actually designed for much more intense tasks.)
You might think of it this way. In general, it’s not a great idea to buy a high-end electric screwdriver, when your task is hammering nails. And you don’t buy the world’s most beautiful-looking and expensive 4K television with the express purpose of using it to listen to Spotify.
Threadrippers are amazing CPUs, specially built for tasks that are very different from gaming.
Exceptions to the Rule: Other Use Cases
But if you’re looking for a CPU that can handle gaming plus other tasks—if gaming is not your only priority, Threadrippers might still be worth considering as your CPU. Let’s discuss a few examples.
First of all, obviously, if you are a creative professional looking to reduce your render times at work, while also having the opportunity to do some gaming in your free time, a Threadripper CPU is a fantastic choice. It will make your work life miles more efficient, in a way that no gaming-centric processor could, while also running advanced games effectively, at least almost as well as a gaming-centric CPU.
But also, if you are interested in streaming, in recording game video, a Threadripper’s copious cores will enable you to have various processor-hungry tasks running simultaneously.
Threadrippers can run 60 fps games, record them at 100% quality, stream them at 100% quality, and even encode the video, simultaneously—which is not necessarily a feature of gaming-centric CPUs. Threadrippers are ready to handle any additional workloads you throw at them.
Even when the tasks are not connected. If you read Threadripper reviews online, you will find countless stories of designers, animators, and developers setting a project to render, then switching over to their favorite game while they wait, without any processing hiccups.
Especially if you’re a game designer. The multitasking capabilities of the Threadripper CPUs will be especially useful to you if you’re not only a gaming enthusiast, but a game developer as well.
With Threadrippers, you can explore a game while you develop it. Developers can test content in real time while compiling and rendering continues in the background.
Pretty cool, huh?
AMD is currently on its third generation of Ryzen Threadrippers.
The first generation was released in 2017. The second generation, with its faster clock speeds, had performance improvements in video editing and graphics software of 10–25%.
In the most recent, third generation of Threadrippers, you have three options of CPUs. The aforementioned 3990X is the most advanced option, with 64 cores and 128 threads, and a clock speed of 2.9 GHz (and a max boost of 4.3 GHz), available for a little less than $4,000 dollars.
For a savings of almost a thousand dollars, you can get a 3970X, which is almost as powerful. It has 32 cores and 64 threads, plus a faster clock speed than the 3990X (3.7 GHz versus 2.9 GHz; its max boost is 4.5 GHz). It’s perfect for multitasking, efficiently rendering 4K video, animation, and basically anything you might throw at it.
A second-generation model, the 2990WX, also has 32 cores and 64 threads, but the clock speed is lower, coming in at 3.0 GHz, and it has half as much L3 cache (the 3970X has 131072 KB; the 2990WX has 65536 KB). The first two generations were also plagued by some erratic performance, due to unoptimized game engines, which have been largely solved in the third generation.
The last of the third-generation Threadrippers is the 3960X, which is still a powerhorse, with 24 cores, 48 threads, and a clock speed of 3.8 GHz (and a max boost of 4.5 GHz), for about $1,400.
Threadrippers are amazing CPUs that can handle any gaming you throw at them.
However, the idea behind their existence is not gaming-centric. They wind up being overkill for gaming, in some ways—while actually performing slightly worse than some gaming-focused CPUs that are vastly cheaper in price.
Still, a Threadripper is a solid CPU. If you have the money for it, and more tasks than just gaming, it might be the right choice for you.
As one Amazon reviewer wrote of the Threadripper 3990X, “5.0 out of 5 stars. Did not need to exist. Super overkill but totally worth it.”