Hey Destructoid friends, the last time I blogged about pc parts was back in June of 2019 when I made the bold claim NOT to buy a high-end gaming PC just after the launch of the Ryzen 3000 series. Crazy huh? Well I put forward my reasoning based upon transistor industry knowledge at the time and felt pretty confident that I was giving everyone some solid recommendations. My recommendation at the time was that people should hold off until mid-late 2021 before dropping large sums of cash on new hardware, because all indications suggested that a price war and technological arms race was imminent. Now it’s March 2020 and a lot has happened since then! Some of my predictions came true and others have suffered from delays or previous rumors that have since been “clarified” by manufacturers.
Intel has finally admitted to some of their development shortcomings, AMD just held their financial analyst day conference, Nvidia’s next generation of GPUs are expected to be teased soon, DDR5 is lurking in the shadows, and the Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on global supply chains. So what does this all mean and how does this help you buy your gaming pc? Don’t worry, I’m here to answer these questions and help you get the best bang for your buck without growing grey hairs from all of the waiting!
*Please note that basic hardware knowledge is needed to understand some of the discussion topics, and that certain hardware will not be covered (for various reasons), such as motherboards, ports, sockets, cables, and monitors. There are a lot of variables that must be factored in when buying new technology, and new motherboards often need to be purchased to be compatible. Until more information is revealed about next generation tech, it’s impossible to recommend a motherboard.
I decided to include context about the how’s and why’s of everything, but if you don’t care about details, just look for bolded sections to get the bottom lines for buying hardware.
It’s no secret that AMD has been shaking up the market for the last year with their new product lineups, and that’s great if you’re an AMD fan. Intel has faced serious problems with manufacturing 10nm processors since 2015, which has led to extremely impressive optimizations for their 14nm processors, but consequently capped the margin of improvement for each new generation they release. 10th generation (not to be confused with 10nm) Intel processors are expected to hit the market soon, but they won’t be nearly as impressive as AMD’s last jump from Ryzen 2000 to 3000 was. Part of AMD’s success has to do with the fact that they are operating on 7nm processors that are far more physically efficient than Intel’s 14nm.
Now you may be wondering how this happened, so here’s your explanation: Intel has always made their own silicon from scratch, whereas AMD and Nvidia rely on third party manufacturers that specialize in silicon node fabrication. This all basically exists the way it does because of cost. Intel saves money due to their independent fabrication processes, and it has historically worked to their advantage until recently.
As the silicon manufacturing process has become more complex, companies like AMD have strongly benefited from their partnerships with fabrication specialists like TSMC, because they only have to worry about architecture improvements rather than node improvements. Honestly, I’m not smart enough to explain the difference between these things, but you can see where I’m going with it. Intel is still trying to be a jack of all trades, while AMD has chosen to specialize in certain parts of the manufacturing process.
To get a sense of how node reductions vs architecture improvements typically translate into performance, here’s an analogy based off of the words of Neil Armstrong. Architecture improvements are one small step, while node reductions are one giant leap for performance gains. Interestingly enough, Intel’s performance capabilities managed to keep up with AMD this generation, but that’s about to change this year. Intel’s 10th generation processors will once again be based upon their 14nm node, contrary to what was predicted. Recent leaks also suggest that the new i7’s and i9’s will only see about a 3% improvement in core clock frequency along with a 4-6% boost clock improvement, which shows there simply isn’t much else Intel can do with the same old node. Intel has already gone through at least 3 revisions of 14nm, while AMD has only released an initial family of products on the 7nm node. As one can imagine, revisions only see diminishing returns, so 10th generation Intel desktop processors simply won’t be worth the premium compared to AMD who sound confident in 15-17% IPC gains when they move to Zen 3 near the end of 2020.
In a surprising move of humility, Intel has even dropped the facade of being the market kings they were several years ago. Several months ago, Intel’s new CEO admitted to losing market share, and accepted that they weren’t getting it back anytime soon. More recently, they even admitted they wouldn’t regain performance equivalency to AMD until the end of 2021, and that they wouldn’t regain dominance until 5nm, which doesn’t sound very convincing after the 10nm debacle. Meanwhile, AMD can revise their own architectures and simply order smaller nodes from TSMC as needed. It’s hard to believe Intel dropped the ball this hard, but this is what it is folks.
So here’s my updated take on buying Intel CPUs in 2020 and 2021:
It came as a huge disappointment for gamers when Intel’s 10th generation line-up leaked out and it was revealed that the 14nm node was returning yet again. It was expected that 10nm would finally launch and offer up something that would give the Ryzen 3000 (and 4000) series a run for their money. My article from last year suggested that 10th generation Intel processors would mark the continuation of a strong and competitive CPU market, but instead we’re getting a half step from Intel if even that. As disappointing as the inevitable 10th generation launch will be, there are still some improvements to be found with the 14nm+++ refresh.
If you are using something older than a 9th generation Intel CPU and really like high-clock speeds, then a 10th generation CPU might still be for you. They will be available soon, and will be very good for gaming, especially if paired with liquid-coolers to make the most of their massive boost clocks. Datamined benchmarks suggest that the core clocks will be up by 100 MHz and the boost clocks of i7’s and i9’s will be able to hit the 5.0-5.3 GHz range. That’s only up by about 5% compared to their 9th generation counterparts, but it’s still something. Most of the Ryzen 3000’s can’t pass 4.4 Ghz for comparison.
Intel focused on improving the multi-threading (multi-tasking) capabilities of their 10th generation refresh. The new i7-10700k, will basically perform like a 9900k, which means it will be great for both gaming and streaming. The new i9-10900k will likely compete with the Ryzen 3900x due to its increased number of cores and threads, but it will also be better for gaming than the Ryzen. It will be like the “professional streamer’s choice” when it comes to processors, but it’s not going to be necessary for most people. These processors will be nice, but there will probably be some great deals on 9th generation Intel hardware that will offer a lot more value and provide comparable performance. Keep an eye on the prices of 9700k’s and possibly the 10th generation i5-10600k if you just want to game.
Whenever the fabled 10nm processors descend from Intel’s factory in the sky, it will be an interesting day of reckoning. We all wanted these to succeed, but Intel themselves seem disappointed with their efforts. Here are some recent comments from their CFO George Davis:
“It’s important that we’re continuing to see yield improvements over the time period. But as we said back at our analyst day in May of 2019, look, this just isn’t going to be the best node that Intel has ever had. It’s going to be less productive than 14(nm), less productive than 22(nm). But we’re excited about the improvements that we’re seeing. And we expect to start the 7 nanometer period with a much better profile of performance over that starting at the end of 2021.” - Morgan Stanley TMT Analyst Conference
How’s that for marketing? Intel seems a lot more focused on 7nm at this point, which they claim will come near the end of 2021, which makes the 10nm line-up sound very questionable, if not pointless. It’s unclear whether Davis is referring to production volume yields or compute performance improvements, but either way, this statement suggests that 10nm is worth holding off on if 7nm will indeed arrive near the end of 2021.
How to buy AMD processors in 2020 and 2021:
I’ve always seen the Ryzen 3000 series as better hardware for workstations and streamers, because the processors have much lower boost clocks than Intel, but more cores and far better multi-threading performance. AMD sounds committed to giving its customers the best of both worlds from here on out though. Little is still officially known about the next generation of Ryzen desktop processors, but AMD’s CEO Lisa Su commented several months ago that improved clock frequencies were a focus for the development teams and that she was very happy with the progress they had made on the Zen 3 architecture. It has also been rumored that the 7nm node itself will be improved to support higher clock frequencies. Only time will tell how much AMD is able to boost their clock frequencies, but I’m betting on this being the generation that decisively dethrones Intel. Intel will either have to slash their prices to compete with AMD or their 7nm in 2021 will have to be something special. Look for the next generation of Ryzen desktop CPUs at the end of 2020. I recommend waiting for it.
Unlike my recommendation for buying a previous generation Intel CPU, I would not buy a Ryzen 3000 series for gaming once the Ryzen (4000?) series launches. Games depend on high clock frequencies to perform at higher frame rates, so why would you buy a processor with much lower clocks? Odds are that the next-generation equivalent to the 3600x will be more than enough for most gamers and the 4700x will be enough to stream and game on. Getting anything beyond that just depends on how fancy you wanna be.
AMD has gone on record saying that they are trying to stick to development cycles of 12-18 months, so a hypothetical Ryzen 5000 series (on 5nm?) could be as far away as summer 2022, making the upcoming Ryzen desktop series my pick for the best future processors to consider waiting for. This comes as a reversal to my previous recommendation to wait for Intel’s 7nm node in 2021, because I just don’t feel confident about them staying on track with their production timeframes anymore. Here’s a general recap for everything I just discussed:
Best CPU desktop processors to consider in 2020 and 2021:
(Based on cost for performance values)
Unlike all of the development controversies that have surrounded Intel in recent years, Nvidia sounds ready to deliver next-generation GPUs. You should recall that the 12nm RTX 2000 series was initially perceived as a disappointing progression over the 16nm Pascal 1000 series GPUs, but that wasn’t just because of engineering limitations. The lack of competition from AMD at the time showed Nvidia that they could basically charge whatever they wanted for their new GPUs, which resulted in products that weren’t worth their premiums compared to previous generation Nvidia cards. For reference, the top-tier 1080 Ti launched with an msrp of $699 (USD), compared to the current generation 2080 Ti which msrp’s at an insane $999 and average’s $1200 from 3rd party manufacturers!
To be accurate, these premiums on new products were likely part of a larger marketing strategy, because investor meetings back in early 2019 revealed that the bitcoin mining crash left Nvidia with an oversupply of Pascal-based GPU inventory. Upcharging on the new RTX cards was likely part of their strategy for selling off their older, cheaper inventory. That all changed though once AMD launched their “Navi” cards like the popular Radeon 5700xt that some of you may have in your computers right now. AMD’s reintroduction of competitive hardware forced a swift response from Nvidia. That response is now known as the SUPER-series refresh. These are the RTX cards we should have had all along, and you can thank AMD for it.
Even with their 7nm Radeon cards, AMD still can’t even come close to the performance of Nvidia’s 2080 Ti.
It’s no matter of dispute that Jensen Huang and his team at Nvidia are still the GPU kings, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon like how it did with Intel. As I already mentioned, they rely on partners like TSMC and Samsung to develop processor nodes for them, so they too have access to 7nm technology and will likely employ it in their next series of video cards. The RTX lineup originally launched in 2018, and Nvidia has made a routine of launching new product families every two years. Exclude the SUPER series, because they are basically just rebranded RTX 2000 series cards (ex. a 2060 SUPER is basically a 2070 in disguise, for less money). Rumors suggest that Nvidia will soon reveal a proper RTX 3000 series (or whatever they call it) to contest AMD’s secret project “Big Navi,” due before the end of the year. Unfortunately there is very little available information available about all of these upcoming products, but I think it’s safe to say DON’T buy a GPU for now if you can manage to wait a few more months. I would expect some kind of announcement from both Nvidia and AMD no later than summer (RIP E3), and the potential looks big.
The transition from 12nm to 7nm should allow Nvidia to produce some video cards that redefine the standard of graphics like they did when they launched Pascal 1000’s. Wild estimates suggest a 50% performance increase, while more reasonable rumors suggest 30%. I think the power of these new cards will finally make ray-tracing feasible and allow smooth 1440p gaming to become available to the masses. AMD is committed to ray-tracing too, and their current generation cards are no joke. The problem I have with AMD video cards though, is that the drivers don’t work nearly as well as Nvidia’s. Until they sort those out, AMD isn’t going to steal Nvidia’s market share like they did with Intel’s. What they will do though at the very least, is scare Nvidia just enough that we shouldn’t see a repeat of the RTX mark-up. Consumers may still need to pay a premium for next generation Nvidia products, but they will get true next generation performance.
GPUs to consider in 2020 and 2021:
(Based on cost for performance values)
Fortunately all of the exciting GPU stuff should start to leak out very soon before the next generation console launches. Therefore I don’t recommend buying anything new at the time of this writing. Let your patience reward you.
One day it will be over 9000mh’z. One day.
Now let’s shift the discussion to DDR5 RAM to talk about its capabilities and when it might be available. CPUs and GPUs often get all the credit, but it’s important to know that having the proper type of RAM can improve your framerates too! DDR5 will be very exciting, because it offers a lot of improvements over the previous generation. Some of the most talked about improvements include doubled capacity per module stick and doubled bandwidth. DDR5 will be able to operate at 3600 mhz on the low end, and potentially above 6400 mhz on the high-end kits. Either way, the prospect of DDR5 is worth getting excited about, because CPUs and motherboards that are able to leverage the new technology will be able to deliver higher and smoother frame rates than DDR4. There are of course a lot more technical improvements that will also accompany the DDR5 revision, but I’m not a subject matter expert; this is just a basic rundown about why it’s potentially worth waiting for.
So, when exactly will it be available and is it actually worth waiting for?
It should first be made clear that no official release date exists, and even after DDR5 does launch, it will take more time for it to be universally supported in new hardware. With that being said, I’d like to speculate on why it might come sooner than we expect for AMD. The Ryzen 4000 Zen 3 desktop series is slated to arrive by the end of the year, and what better way to show off a new technology than by supporting it on the hardware that needs it the most? It should be noted that AMD has not made any commitments to supporting the technology yet, but it would make sense if they did. High core count processors have been one of the key drivers for the development of DDR5, and if AMD continues to pile on more cores in their next generation of products, DDR5 will be useful. Intel has also already acknowledged DDR5 support for upcoming Xeon-class processors in 2021.
Should you wait just for DDR5? No, because:
This new tech will certainly be beneficial in the near future, but the reality is that it’s not worth waiting for unless you plan to build a high core count system in 2021 (with hardware that supports it) anyways. DDR4 will still perform just as well on 10th generation Intel processors and lower core count Ryzen systems (Threadripper and Xeon class CPU’s will stand to benefit the most from DDR5). Just keep an eye out to see if you can incorporate it into a future build, but don’t hold yourself back from getting a new PC anytime soon if it isn’t supported.
As of this current day (March 9th, 2020), the fears of Coronavirus are causing huge upheavals in global economics. I do want to talk about what Coronavirus means for building a PC in the near future.
Many businesses and even some factories have temporarily closed down, which will obviously affect the global supply of computer hardware and the availability of the various components needed to make said hardware. Shutting down certain factories even for minutes at a time, can cost companies billions these days. I don’t know how every company in the world is choosing to deal with this situation, but until concerns are eased by treatment solutions for the disease, we must expect to see some price premiums and unavailable products. I don’t think the Coronavirus itself will be a long term issue, but the disruption caused by the disease will certainly continue to affect economies for at least the rest of 2020, as supply chains struggle to normalize. It’s uncertain how the disruption will affect future products, but it will likely lead to lower initial yields and some price premiums at the very least. Short term product delays are also a reality. People with tight budgets may need to wait until next year before trying to upgrade. This is of course just speculation though, and until more information comes out, we should assume that next-generation hardware will still arrive by the end of the year.
The global supply issues will also affect the prices of storage devices for the near term, which will be problematic for future system builds. SSDs have become very common in most builds, because of their significantly higher bandwidth than mechanical hard drives. Even without global supply-chain issues, large capacity SSDs are still expensive though, so a lot of systems use a combination of a smaller SSD (for the operating system and critical programs to run on), and a mechanical hard drive (to store documents, pictures, music, videos, and traditionally, games). This efficient configuration has made computers much faster in recent years, and is the main reason that boot times have improved dramatically. Mechanical hard drives are still a great solution for simple file storage, but they aren’t ideal for modern gaming. SSD’s can significantly speed up the initial loading screen for any game, and open-world games can appear smoother when transitioning from one area to the next. For these reasons, next generation consoles will exclusively use SSD storage systems, and next generation PC’s should too; at least for games.
Fortunately, the customizable nature of PC’s means that if you don’t have the cash to afford a premium-priced SSD for your gaming PC, you can easily adapt your setup after prices become more reasonable in the future. The way this cost issue can be mitigated is by temporarily using the basic configuration just mentioned in the previous paragraph: a small SSD (128-256 GB’s) for the OS and other important programs, paired with a mechanical hard drive for general storage. A dedicated gaming SSD can then be added later; just make sure the motherboard has an available port for the type of SSD you choose to add. The interface (that plugs into the port on a motherboard) is an important specification to pay attention to on an SSD, because it dictates the bandwidth capacity. There are many different types of interfaces, but USB 3.0, SATA III, and M.2 NVME are some of the most common.
USB 3.0 is popular for easy external installation and portability, but it is not ideal for performance gaming, because the interface creates a bottleneck for the SSD. SATA III is the preferred interface for an SSD and offers adequate bandwidth performance in most cases. M.2 NVME SSDs are slightly faster, but they are much more expensive and barely yield a discernible difference when loading most games:
On a side note, if you like Intel products, Optane memory is worth taking a look at. It’s a newer technology that can be plugged into an M.2 interface and works in tandem with a mechanical hard drive to deliver SSD performance on common tasks. It’s basically like RAM for a mechanical hard drive and can be purchased in various capacities according to your needs. Optane has drawbacks though, such as only being compatible with Intel CPUs and motherboards, and it typically requires a reinstallation of the OS to work properly. Optane can get complicated, but it’s useful and cost effective if paired with a high-capacity mechanical hard drive. SSD’s become substantially more expensive once they reach the 4 TB threshold, which can make Optane an enticing solution for a configuration running say, 8+ TB’s of storage. For average users that stay below 4 TB’s though, Optane can be more trouble than it’s worth, making a SSD the preferred storage solution.
High capacity SSDs are still generally expensive, so for the time being it’s probably best to get something between 1-2 terabytes and only use it for performance demanding games. After the Coronavirus disruption ends, the resumption of manufacturing and competition will eventually make exclusive SSD configurations more affordable for the masses. SATA III SSD/mechanical drive combinations are still going to be the way to go for 2020 and 2021 unless you have money to burn.
PC storage configurations to consider:
(“Optimized” is all you really need)
*System builders always recommend placing the operating system on a separate drive with around 20% available space, because storage devices slow down once they reach maximum capacity. Separate hard drive configurations also help to prevent total data loss scenarios if one of the drives fail.
Closing thoughts on next generation hardware:
Last year I said buying current generation hardware was a bad idea, and my opinion has not changed. While Intel has been a disappointment, AMD and Nvidia look prepared to deliver new 7nm-based products that will yield large performance and efficiency gains before the year is over. Expect the next RTX series from Nvidia and AMD’s “Big Navi”' to be announced no later than this summer. Performance will vary depending on graphics settings, but native 1440p or 1080p + ray tracing should be achievable for entry-level systems and I’m confident that (1440p/144fps) or (4k/60fps) level performance will be attainable on mid-range hardware too. These products have yet to be officially announced, but there is now enough available information from investor conferences, executive interviews, and leaks to paint a clear picture about when next-generation hardware will arrive and what it will generally offer.
“...the end of this year will be an optimal time to upgrade to modern hardware. It may not be until late 2022 that the next great buying opportunity comes around...”
Once next-generation products launch later this year, we should expect to see a great buying market open up for powerful hardware. We know that Microsoft and Sony will both be releasing their respective next-generation consoles for the holidays too, so competition should prevent a repeat of the price premiums Nvidia placed on their RTX cards back in 2018. Don’t hesitate to buy the current generation products I recommended once they become discounted. Black Friday will be a great time to pick up a 9th generation Intel i7 or i9, a SUPER series GPU from Nvidia, or an SSD. Intel may finally release a worthy 7nm processor before 2021 is over, and DDR5 should begin to see implementation no later than 2021, but the end of this year will be an optimal time to upgrade to modern hardware. It may not be until late 2022 that the next great buying opportunity comes around when we can expect 5nm nodes from AMD and Nvidia, guaranteed DDR5, and 7nm from Intel.
Let me know your thoughts on this article! Did I cover the important talking points? Do you agree with my suggestions? Did you learn anything? Considerate feedback is always welcome!