In this episode of our explainer show Upscaled, we took a look back at the year in CPUs. From one perspective 2020 feels like the new normal for CPUs. Intel put out another high-end chip, 10th-gen “Comet Lake”, which added a few cores but is still based on its aging 14nm transistor design, and AMD countered with Zen 3, an improved version of its desktop architecture that now goes up to 16 cores. This is the same pattern we’ve seen for a few years, with almost no surprises: the 10-core i9-10900k is impressively fast, but not that different from the 8-core 9900K, and we already got 16 core AMD chips last year with the 3950.
But look a little closer, and there’s been some impressive news in 2020. While Zen 3 didn’t increase core counts or clock speeds dramatically, it did deliver a big boost in instructions per-clock without increasing power consumption. After the disastrous CPU designs of the 2010s that nearly bankrupted AMD, part of me has been waiting for something to go wrong, for a new Zen CPU to underperform or come half-baked, but Zen 3 feels like it proves AMD knows what it’s doing. These chips are pricy, but blazingly fast (we think the 16-core Ryzen 9 5950X is overkill for most, but probably the best chip you can get for content creation), and they’re only leaving us feeling more excited for Zen 4, when AMD is likely to move to a redesigned motherboard socket, new manufacturing process, and high-speed DDR5 memory support all in the same generation. Just don’t hold your breath, Zen 4 may not arrive til 2022.