5GHz CPU Wars are Back Do you really care?

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The 5GHz war between AMD and Intel is back in full force if this year’s CES is any indication.

Both companies showed desktop CPUs that ran at 5GHz or higher as part of their “one other thing” teases. AMD’s started the rap battle by demoing its next-gen Ryzen 7000 processor running the game Halo Infinite with all of the CPU cores reportedly at 5GHz or above. We don’t know the model or number of cores, but we assume at least 8 cores.

Two hours later, Intel fired back with its own game demo of Hitman 3 being played on an upcoming 12th-gen Core i9 “KS” chip, with every performance core running at 5.2GHz. While impressive, Intel doesn’t technically qualify for the “all-core boost” prize since the remaining efficiency cores buzzed along at “only” 4GHz. Gaming is all about those performance cores.

Why 5GHz is so important: You

We know you are making a big deal of it, but we don’t care. After all, the original 5GHz line on a desktop PC was crossed with AMD’s FX-5950 chip almost nine years ago and no one cared back then either. Why is it important this time?

Intel / YouTube

We are all in agreement that breaking the 5GHz limit is not as significant as AMD and Intel have made it out to be. However, increasing the clock speed will generally result in real performance improvements for tasks and applications that use more cores. So if you run 3D modelling, lean into Adobe Premiere and Lightroom, or run advanced analysis using Microsoft Excel, the higher all-core boosts should net you decent gains of everywhere from 8 to 11 percent.

The 5GHz breakthrough doesn’t make a huge difference until you take into account its greatest advantage: Marketing. The magic of “5GHz” is etched on a PC or CPU box and it works wonders on consumers. Although your brain may tell you that 4.9GHz is the same as 5GHz, emotionally, that number hits all the right spots. We don’t think so. Then why are things 99 cents instead of 1 dollar? Or new laptops listed for $2,499 and cars at $27,995? It is obvious that numbers are a matter of perception. It works across all cultures and probably throughout history. We’re sure the first barter ended up going for 19 chickens.

Robert Hallock, the director of technical marketing at AMD, broke down the concept during a recent CES 2022 interview on our Full Nerd podcast. (Jump to the 14: 26 mark to hear his “5GHz” vs. “World’s best” thoughts, but really, watch the whole thing–Robert and AMD gaming architect Frank Azor dropped all sorts of interesting knowledge bombs on the show.)

“We done all sort of market research on what is sticking with people,” Hallock said. Hallock said, “When people see a letter or a number or a speck on the box, what moves them?” Consumer preference is very strong for big round numbers, such as 4.0, 4.5 and 5.0.

Yes, all-cores at 5GHz or higher are being promoted, but mainly because large round numbers still work for humans. The good news is that CPU manufacturers have other options to improve performance.

Hallock said

“Above is used-case relevance. Hallock said that the focus has shifted from specs to “is this good enough for me and what I want?” I think people are realizing that (for example) Ryzen can come to the table at 4.6 or 4.7GHz and credibly beat a CPU that might be running at 5.1 to 5.2, and that’s a 500 to 600 megahertz spread, how do you reconcile that? And maybe the answer is that sometimes frequency doesn’t always matter.”

It’s in AMD’s interest to say that of course, as the company is pitching its upcoming Ryzen 7 5800X3D with radical new V-Cache technology as the “world’s best gaming CPU,” claiming that it topples Intel’s Core i9-12900K and even AMD’s own Ryzen 9 5900X despite a noticeable decrease in clock frequencies thanks to all that extra cache stacked on top of the chip. As Hallock explained in the interview, getting ever more performance from these increasingly complex pieces is not as easy as cranking up the clocks.

But make no mistake: Faster chips are nothing but a good thing, no matter how that speed is achieved, and we’re looking forward to the 5GHz war brewing in 2022. Intel’s 12th-gen KS chip is scheduled to launch sometime this quarter, with Ryzen 7000 CPUs expected in the second half of the year. The Ryzen 7 5800X3D that AMD says will be the “world’s fastest gaming CPU” despite topping out at 4.5GHz boost clocks will be available this spring.

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One of founding fathers of hardcore tech reporting, Gordon has been covering PCs and components since 1998.

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