Is Now a Good Time to Buy an AMD CPU or Motherboard?

Despite the wise acquisition of ATI’s Radeon graphics card division and some interesting diversification on the APU market, AMD has been playing second fiddle to market leader Intel for over a decade. But things have been looking up for the underdog as of late: the company’s Ryzen series of CPUs is a bona fide hit with both critics and consumers. Is now the time to invest in an upgrade for your CPU, and possibly a compatible motherboard to go with it?

Short answer: Yes. AMD’s improved strides with the latest CPU models make them well worth the money for an upgrade, especially if you can match them up with your existing components. But since the Ryzen chips are new and AMD’s combined APU platform is due for an upgrade, bargain hunters should probably wait a few months.

Ryzen Gives Great Performance Improvements

The Ryzen class of processors was launched earlier this year on the AM4 socket, itself only introduced in September of 2016. At the moment there are only nine CPUs in the line, two in the entry-level Ryzen 3, branch, four in the mid-range Ryzen 5 branch and three in the high-end Ryzen 7.

AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su, looking appropriately pleased with the Ryzen CPU.

At similar price points and market segments, Ryzen is closing the gap with Intel’s Core series processors. The current top-of-the-line model, the Ryzen 7 1800X, can’t quite get a knockout victory over Intel’s comparable Core i7-7700K. But with eight processor cores to Intel’s four, it’s notably better at multitasking, and its single-task performance isn’t so far behind that it’s an automatic non-contender (as some previous AMD designs have unfortunately been).

AMD has also introduced their top-of-the-line Ryzen Threadripper chips, ultra-high-end designs meant to compete with the best that Intel has to offer. Three models are on offer in 8, 12, and 16-core variations, priced from around $500-1000. In terms of performance, they’re competing with Intel’s X-series at varios levels, and punching above their weight in each one. But be aware, Threadripper processors use a new sTR4 socket, unlike the less-expensive Ryzen models.

The AM4 Socket Will Probably Be Around for Quite a While

Perhaps as a side-effect of its budget-focused market position, AMD’s CPU socket designs (and the motherboards that rely on them) have lasted longer than their Intel counterparts. The AM3+ socket was first introduced way back in 2011, and was compatible with the previous generation of AMD chips, in addition to being backwards-compatible to AM3 designs. The FM2+ socket, used with the company’s integrated APU designs, had a similar lifespan.

That being the case, it’s reasonable to assume that the AM4 socket released for the Ryzen family will also be used for upcoming “Zen” chips, with upgrade options continuing for at least four years and possibly more. That means it’s a great time to invest in a high-end AM4 motherboard, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to swap in a more powerful Zen processor well down the line.

The AM4 socket supports DDR4 memory, the fastest and latest available in 2017, but might be at a disadvantage next year when the DDR5 standard becomes finalized. That said, an AM4 motherboard will probably benefit more from a processor upgrade than it would from faster RAM in any case. The new Threadripper-exclusive socket sTR4 supports DDR4 memory as well.

Penny-Pinchers Should Hold Off

With a new socket and a new CPU family, Ryzen chips are currently more expensive than their Intel counterparts, and it will take a while for those prices to come down. AMD is the sole vendor of the parts, and at the moment the company is simply trying to match output to demand. So while prices from retailers like Amazon and Newegg may fluctuate, they’re unlikely to dip below MSRP for several months at the very least. Compatible motherboards might be less expensive—they come from multiple licensed vendors that have to compete with one another—but the combined savings of a CPU and motherboard will still be limited.

AMD’s more budget-friendly “Accelerated Processing Unit” or “APU” series is not a wise choice for anyone at the moment. APUs are central processing units designed specifically to work as a combined graphics processor (GPU) as well, dispensing with the need for integrated GPUs and, in some cases, matching the performance of low-power discrete graphics. But the last revision of the desktop APU standard, “Bristol Ridge,” came out in September of last year. AMD’s APUs will be upgraded with cores based on the Zen architecture (the same design powering the Ryzen CPUs currently on the market) and DDR4 memory support sometime in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Even if you intend to build a new APU-based computer with contemporary parts, you should hold off for the Zen-based Raven Ridge APUs to hit the market. Not only will you have more options to choose from, the current Bristol Ridge processors and motherboards will be easier to find on sale as retailers clear their older inventory.

Image source: AMD, Amazon, Newegg

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.