In our series of best CPU guides, here is the latest update from our list of recommended CPU workstations. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect prices at the time of writing. The numbers in the graphs reflect MSRP.
The best CPUs for Workstation 2020 Q1
Sometimes choosing a CPU is difficult. So we got you covered. In our CPU guides, we give you our pick of some of the best processors available, providing data from our reviews. Our guide to the best workstation CPUs mainly covers the workstation processors available to consumers, although some server products cover both segments.
Workstation CPU Recommendations: 2020 Q1
(Prices are Dec 28 or MSRP)
Most of the cores
Non ECC: Threadripper 3990X
ETC: EPYC 7702P
HEDT Mid Range
I would recommend Intel, but …
EPYC 7302P (2 TB / skt)
Intel Cascade Lake (2 TB / skt?)
Intel Xeon + Optane (4.5 TB / skt)
$ Arm + $ leg
HEDT on a budget
As we move into the holiday season and 2020, there comes a time when the high-end desktop market slows down a bit and everyone can sit on new hardware for a while, knowing that they have the best for their money. With the recent release of AMD’s third generation Threadripper processors and Intel’s Cascade Lake-X hardware, we are now in that quiet period and can give some advice.
It is worth noting that for some high-end desktop users, especially professionals who can amortize the cost of hardware over time due to their higher productivity, price and longevity may not be a problem. Furthermore, companies or even academic institutions may have preferred suppliers for their pre-built systems and, consequently, will experience a different cost structure than just buying a processor: they end up with a system that could have an extended warranty of parts and support or even with progressive automatic updates and it will be up to the supplier to provide it. We hope this list will also be useful to those sellers when it comes to building systems for their customers.
We suggest Intel, but we don’t find many
So right away, there will be a protest that I won’t recommend any Intel CPUs in our main areas here. Intel recently launched its Cascade Lake-X Refresh platform in November with significantly lower prices than the previous generation, so why is this a problem? It occurs in three stages.
Firstly, having new hardware at a lower price means that we will not suggest anything from previous generations, since, in comparison, it performs much worse per dollar.
Second, Intel’s recent production demand has outstripped supply, so the company is focusing on manufacturing its high-performance hardware primarily. Having said that, Intel previously made a commitment to keep the market with Core i9 and Core i7 hardware, so the fact that we can’t find anyone to buy from major etailers in the U.S. is quite worrying.
Third, it is that the major etailers in the United States have gone so far as to completely remove product pages from their website, due to both a lack of inventory and a lack of commitment to get new inventory. This is despite Bob Swan, Intel’s CEO, even writing about maintaining production and supporting his customers this week in an open letter entitled “We Are Here For You”. Searching for the latest Cascade Lake-X Refresh CPUs on Amazon provides lists for only two of the four CPUs, with stocks only from third parties, and on Newegg it only shows the lowest but exhausted core count model. B&H has lists for all CPUs and claims to have stocks for the bottom three, but not for the top model: the ones it has in stock are well above the sales prices declared by Intel.
A few weeks ago, while in the United States, I was able to spend some time in brick and mortar stores. The difference in stock levels was quite evident:
Best Buy had zero Intel CPU options on the left, despite having some motherboards.
A friend sent me photos from Central Computers in the Bay Area, which had some other Intel CPUs, but you will notice that the HEDT options are only from the previous generation. Those prices aren’t that bad: $ 549 for the 10 core, $ 749 for the 14 core, right next to AMD’s 16 core for $ 719.
By contrast, AMD’s Ryzen CPUs seemed plentiful, even Threadrippers.
Intel said that until 2020 there will still be supply problems for its processors. Given that the HEDT market is a thin slice of the company’s total productivity, it means that this market could be a low priority for production right now. Also, given that Intel has recently reduced the scope of its Cooper Lake Xeon platform, at this point we don’t know what will be in store for Intel’s HEDT platform in the future. More information on this below, but on the tips.
Going for the most cores:
AMD 3990X threadripper for $ 3900
(or AMD EPYC 7702P for $ 4784 per ECC)
Sometimes all you want is the cores – for masses of virtual machines, highly parallel workloads or something else. Both AMD and Intel try to keep the hardware with the most cores for their business lines, such as 64-core EPYCs and 28/56-core Xeons, which means that these also have an additional cost for features like multi-socket functionality or RDIMM support and RAS functionality.
For more consumer hardware, the largest number of cores offered is 64 AMD cores, with Threadripper 3990X, currently available for $ 3900 from its recommended retail price of $ 3990. This chip provides 56 lanes of PCIe 4.0, with 8 more lanes. for the chipset, and it comes at a base frequency of 2.9 GHz and a turbo of 4.3 GHz. We tested the Threadripper 3990X against $ 20,000 of Intel’s premium enterprise CPU and, for workloads that were embarrassingly parallel, yes it is distinct forward in terms of performance, which means many miles ahead in terms of performance per dollar.
You can read our full 3990X review here:
CPU 64 Core Threadripper 3990X review
In the midst of chaos, AMD looks for opportunities
If ECC is needed, users can get 64 cores this way if they want to switch to EPYC. The single-socket 64-core EPYC 7702P is the right choice here, with a suggested retail price of $ 4425 or a recent retail price of $ 4784. For that price the hardware has a base frequency of 2.0 GHz and a turbo frequency of 3.35 GHz and access to eight full memory channels. The Threadripper 3990X has higher frequencies due to its higher TDP (200 W vs 280 W), but as far as the 3990X is concerned it only has four memory channels. It will be important to keep this in mind.
Intel’s offerings go to 56-core Cascade Lake-AP processors, but are only available as part of a default server system on which Intel partners can sell. Intel still refuses to attribute a price to this processor, although we have estimated it at around $ 25,000. The EPYC 7702P in this case, being a cashed part that can be purchased from the shelf, gets our vote.
AMD Threadripper 3970X ($ 1900)
One of the greatest interpreters of recent HEDT updates was the Threadripper 3970X. Offering 32 cores on a high-end desktop platform with a unified memory design at a price where Intel didn’t offer 10 cores not long ago is a surprising leap in cores per dollar and when you consider that the Threadripper has a higher IPC and an aggressive frequency makes it even more impressive.
The main complaint with the previous generation’s third generation of 32 Core Threadripper was the uneven memory distribution, and this went with the 3970X, allowing for a more unified design that does almost everything you want to do on a workstation really well.
In our review of the 3970X, I used the word “bloodbath”, because any benchmark in which the Core i9-10980XE wanted to do well, the 3970X came and won, sometimes by a large margin having almost twice the core. The only multi-thread test that won the 10980XE was related to the AVX512 and some people complained that I didn’t mention the 35+ game tests where the 10980XE won even with small margins (less than 3% ), but those people clearly don’t know what these processors are about. The 3970X is a great processor for anyone who has $ 2000 for the chip and another $ 100 + for cooling (so $ 500 + for memory, $ 500 for the motherboard, etc.).
AMD Threadripper 3960X ($ 1400)
(or Intel Core i9-10980XE, if you can find one)
For anyone who wants a cheaper high-end desktop system, we can save some money by looking at the intermediate stack. This is where Intel is actually a bit more competitive: 18 cores in the i9-10980XE for an OEM price of $ 979 compared to the 24-core TR 3960X at $ 1399. The cost per core is obviously close, around $ 55 / cores for both, and both processors have positive points (although in our tests, the 24 cores advances more often than expected).
10980XE Link eCommerce
The only problem here with these two options will be availability. AMD’s high-end desktop products are selling as hot-cakes, while Intel’s new high-end desktop hardware appears to appear and disappear randomly in online retailers. I suspect that most of these processors end up in the hands of system builders or OEMs (especially in the case of Intel), rather than going into detail. Even then, when they find themselves at retail, it will be questionable whether they will be at the recommended retail prices.
One option here is to look at AMD’s Ryzen 9 3950X, although in high-end desktop space this isn’t really suitable if you need a lot of memory or a lot of PCIe lanes. The Ryzen 9 3950X is also difficult to find in some regions.
There is an option for looking at older hardware. Finding a good deal on the second generation AMD 16-core Threadripper, the 2950X, is a good option, although given the performance of the third-generation hardware, perhaps I would avoid higher core counts unless it’s really cheap. Intel is still selling Skylake-X processors, and it is hoped that when this post is published they will have applied half-price discounts, even if this is not obvious.
If you really want the best mid-range hardware, I would recommend an inexpensive 2950X for AMD or wait until a 3960X is available. For Intel, if you can find a half price (~ $ 979) Core i9-9980XE would do the trick.
I would recommend Intel, though
I added a tip on the AVX processor here for the simple fact that if a user is likely to experience AVX acceleration, it will be with software aimed at prosumers and high-end desktop users. Intel pushed its AVX512 support, even taking it to its consumer laptop processors, in an attempt to drive things like DLBoost to improve AI throughput. One of the sore points I’ve had with Intel over the past two years is actually getting a list of AVX512 use cases: exact software examples where AVX512 is used. It is often added for very specific things, like a certain filter in Photoshop or a special edition of a benchmark, but in the end those in the HPC space get the most out of it. For those users, this tip is for you.
Our review example Core i9-10980XE. It is a QS (Qualification Sample) chip, which should be as close to detail as possible.
The best high-end desktop processor for AVX512 you can buy is the Core i9-10980XE, with 18 cores that all enable AVX512. If you need ECC, then Xeon W-3275 will be your best bet, but it will cost a little more and a special Xeon W motherboard is needed. If the cost is not an object, it may be preferable to move to a dual sockets with Xeon scalable processors, although note that this introduces a non-uniform memory access environment (NUMA), which would inhibit mass data transfer if the software is not NUMA-aware. To be on the safe side, a single outlet is usually preferable. The downside to going Intel here is finding a CPU for sale.
AMD EPYC up to 2 TB per socket,
Intel Xeon with Optane DCPMM up to 4.5 TB per socket,
or Intel Core i9-10900X (or any Core i9-109xx series)
Some users are only there for memory support, due to multiple virtual machines or high memory use case requirements. For them, sometimes memory capacity is more important than computing performance, as software requires workspace in terabytes – in this case doubling up to 128 GB of DRAM or more is always more beneficial than adding calculation, since reduces pressure on moving data back and forth between DRAM and storage. Normally it is also in this case that RDIMM with ECC is recommended, only because as the memory capacity increases, the possibility of an incorrect bit flip increases with the memory capacity. The price of memory in this product category normally also exceeds the CPU cost by an order of magnitude.
128 GB LRDIMM, original retail $ 4000 + (now $ 1200-ish)
In this case, one choice is an EPYC, something like the 7232P at $ 510 will easily support 2 TB of LRDIMM (beware, if you’re buying * that * a lot of memory, then going for the 64-core 7702P at $ 4784 isn’t that much of a jump) out of the box.
The only way to get more memory than this with an x86 processor would be to look at Intel Xeon scalable processors equipped with Optane DC persistent memory, which allows up to 4.5 TB per socket. To get this amount, you need to invest in one of the M processors, which adds another $ 7k to the cost of the chip. The other factor here is that Optane DCPMM is not freely on sale through the usual channels: it is typically delivered as part of an OEM system and, as a result, the user will receive a support contact for a specific OEM. For larger companies and research communities, this should be appropriate: check with your favorite OEM what they have to offer.
I also want to enter a word here for the latest Intel Cascade Lake-X processors. Normally, with four channels / eight memory slots and 32 GB of DRAM per slot, this should peak at 256 GB. But interestingly enough, when paired with an ASRock X299 motherboard (X299X Taichi, X299 Steel Legend or X299 Creator), these motherboards can now support 128 GB RDIMM, allowing for 1 TB of DRAM per single socket.
ASRock is currently trying to enable LRDIMM support as well. This is a relatively new development, published by one of ASRock’s engineers in his personal social media accounts, but the required BIOSes are now public and for users invested in the Intel ecosystem, it’s worth a look.
Core for cash:
AMD Threadripper 2950X ($ 400 on sale)
For anyone who wants the most cores with the least amount of $$$, our choice is to go to the 16-core Threadripper 2950X or 1950X when they are on sale. With the launch of the new Threadripper 3000 series processors, the previous parts are often found at low prices with some retailers wishing to empty their stocks. We have seen 2950X processors starting at £ 330 / $ 400 on Amazon (currently $ 585) and 1950X for $ 250 as well.
2950X eCommerce Link
Having six-channel memory and 64 PCIe lanes for prosumer workflows is fantastic: as we noted in our reviews, these processors cover most, but not all, of the high-end desktop bases, so it’s worth researching what it works best for the expected software. But compared to several years’ hardware, this really is a worthy upgrade for many people. The 2950X also offers better performance on numerous workloads than the 2970WX / 2990WX and can be found at a much lower price, making it a worthwhile purchase.
HEDT on a budget:
AMD Threadripper 1920X
If you want an HEDT system with a limited budget, the question is whether it should be new or used. In many professional circumstances, the new one is still preferred and the processor that climbs the ladder here is AMD’s Threadripper 1920X. The 8-core processor offers high-capacity memory support, many PCIe lanes and low-end motherboards for Threadripper are entering that medium-low price. In one sale, the 1920X can be found for less than $ 200 (users with more money might be looking for an inexpensive 1950X instead), which seems like an insane low price for a high-end desktop processor.
1920 eCommerce Link
On the horizon: not much
We are at a time when the high-end desktop market is relatively stable. Both AMD and Intel have recently had great launches of the latest generation hardware and we are at least 2-3 quarters away even from talking about the next generation parts, if not more, and another 2 quarters away from the launch. Any system purchased today will last a long time and, consequently, there is not much to wait for much of 2020.
For Intel, the situation is unclear. We don’t know what Intel intends to launch in this space or when. The company recently reduced the scope of its Cooper Lake Xeon platform to select customers only, which puts an end to any HEDT product. This means that the next generation of Xeon on the market is expected to be Ice Lake in the company’s 10nm process. With a launch date scheduled for the end of 2020, there are many worried thoughts about how many will actually be available – Ice Lake Xeon will be in general availability, how will the performances be, and therefore for the HEDT market, when will it filter? These are all questions that I wonder if Intel can even mention at the moment: for that production process, the key would be to try to produce the most convenient parts it can and HEDT does not stand up to the Xeon premium components. At this point, Intel’s future HEDT in 2020 looks terrible and we have no idea of 2021 or 10nm.
The highlight of this prospect is AMD’s Threadripper 3990X. The company has launched a 64-core version of its Zen 2 high-end desktop family, which is one of the 64-core EPYC processors but with half the memory, half PCIe and a TDP higher than 280 W to increase the frequency. The demand for such a processor is difficult to estimate: either everyone who lives with the best HEDT parts will jump on it, or only a select few who need it will. It will be one to watch. But what comes after the 3990X? We expect Zen 3 products to start by the end of 2020, and although AMD has committed to making EPYC and Ryzen parts available later this year, we expect the HEDT market to be on the back of that hurry product, so we’re looking into mid-2021 for a Threadripper update.
It therefore appears that any HEDT system purchased today will not be obsolete for a long time yet.