This year’s third-generation refresh of AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper CPU line is a big one, bringing new technologies, new approaches, and new levels of performance to what were already some of the fastest high-end desktop CPUs in the business. On AMD’s, ahem, “lower end” of this decidedly high-end desktop (HEDT) market segment is the $1,399 Ryzen Threadripper 3960X. This 24-core processor doesn’t carry the same stinging $1,999 price of its bigger brother the Ryzen Threadripper 3970X, but it still delivers a lot of performance for your dollar. If you’re just trying to get your work done quickly, instead of really quickly, the Threadripper 3960X is a nice compromise for all your multicore multitasking needs, if you’re willing to jump into an all-new platform for your next major PC build or upgrade.
The Middle of the Top of the Line
At $1,399, the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X is by no means cheap, but it’s still a good deal cheaper than the Threadripper 3970X. But what does that step down in cost actually get you?
For one, fewer cores and threads. Though the naming scheme might seem a bit confusing, the Threadripper 3960X is, at least in spirit and core count, a successor to last year’s Threadripper 2970WX, also a 24-core CPU. While the Threadripper 3970X sports 32 cores and 64 threads, the 3960X features “only” 24 cores and 48 threads, with a total of 140MB of L2/L3 cache. Both suck up an equal amount of power: 280 watts thermal design power (up from 250 watts in the same-core-count Threadripper 2970WX), and each features support for the same number of usable PCI Express lanes: 72, versus 64 in the previous generation of Threadrippers (already a lusty amount).
And what kind of differences from the last generation of Threadripper to this one can you expect? We already covered much of this in our parallel review of the Ryzen Threadripper 3970X, worth a read if you haven’t been there already, but here’s a quick recap:
- The move to 7nm lithography from 12nm means a lot more transistors in a smaller space, and all of the power and thermal benefits that brings.
- AMD has moved all its processors to the new PCI Express 4.0 standard, first seen with the X570 chipset and the mainstream AM4 Ryzen CPUs this past summer. That vastly increases the amount of available bandwidth between the chip and the rest of your components, and especially benefits cutting-edge storage.
- The third-generation Threadripper chips work with a new chipset, the AMD TRX40, and a new socket, called the sTRX4. These new motherboards won’t come cheap, with the the lowest-priced one we could find being a $399 MSRP board from Gigabyte. (See our guide to all 12 of the initial TRX40 launch motherboards.)
Overall, the technology and speed improvements brought about by the shift from second-gen to third-gen Threadripper are substantial, changing a good deal about how the processor communicates both with the motherboard and with the components attached to it.
But with so many changes on hand, let’s ground things a bit to see how the Threadripper 3960X stacks up against its long-time rival, Intel.
Intel’s Price Play: Core X Gets Real
Threadripper isn’t the only choice you have in the HEDT market, so what does Intel have on offer at the same level? Well, without any new technological improvements to lean on, it looks like Intel has gone for AMD’s jugular in the only way it’s able right now: price.
Here’s a layout of all of the current HEDT processors and how the specs and prices scope out. You can click on the chart to see it larger.
Last year, the Core i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, Intel’s best, highest-core-count CPU below the server level, retailed for the same price as this year’s Threadripper 3970X: about $2,000. Now, the company has chopped that price by more than half with its latest-generation chips, settling its new Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition, the exact successor to the Core i9-9980XE, at just $979. It makes sense when you consider that the Core i9-10980XE is basically just a modest revision of the Core i9-9980XE it’s set to replace—unlike the 7nm, Zen 2-based third-gen Threadrippers, which are based on a whole new production process and design ethos.
As we mentioned in the Threadripper 3970X review, it’s difficult to make a one-to-one comparison between AMD and Intel at this level of computing power, since only one of the two is releasing processors with as many cores and threads, and as much supporting bandwidth, as AMD is.
But just how far ahead of the curve is the third-gen Threadripper series? To find out, let’s get into our testing.
CPU Performance Testing
For my test setup, I installed the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X into an MSI TRX40 Creator motherboard, and populated four of the DIMM slots with 64GB of Corsair Dominator DDR4-3600 memory (four 16GB modules), paired with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition card to handle video output during the CPU tests. (Like previous Threadripper chips and most Ryzen mainstream chips, these new Zen 2-based Threadrippers do not have on-chip graphics, so a video card is necessary.)
For all tests, I ran the memory at its maximum 3,600MHz speed, using the Creator board’s top supported XMP profile. For the Windows 10 boot drive, I relied on a 1TB Corsair MP600 PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD. Keep in mind, like many of AMD’s enthusiast-centric processors, the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X does not include a stock CPU cooler in the box, so you’ll need to have one on hand or buy one. (Ours is a triple-fan Thermaltake Floe Riing 360 model.)
We test CPUs using a variety of synthetic benchmarks that offer proprietary scores, as well as real-world tests using consumer apps like Apple’s iTunes and 3D games like Far Cry 5.
One of the best predictors of a CPU’s performance is the Cinebench R15 benchmark, which offers a good overview of performance on many different types of demanding apps. It’s a CPU-centric test that gauges both the single-core performance and the multicore performance of a processor. The resulting scores are proprietary numbers that represent the CPU’s capabilities while rendering a complex 3D image.
As a content-creation engine, it’s no surprise to see HEDT processors like the Threadripper 3960X score well on a test like Cinebench. What is a surprise, however, is just how much it won by. The 3960X thumps any competing processors from Intel, notably the Core i9-10980XE, within the limit of its price difference.
For a real-world look at single-core performance, we use an ancient version of Apple’s iTunes to encode a series of music tracks.
Despite the huge amount of horsepower under the hood of the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X, as has been the case throughout the years for the company, its processors still struggle to match Intel one for one on single-core performance. That said, single-core performance is of mostly academic interest with processors that you buy solely for getting your mitts on as much multicore muscle as possible.
The POV-Ray benchmark is a synthetic, highly threaded rendering test that offers a second opinion on the Cinebench results. It offers a good balance of results that can show both the single-core and multicore capabilities of a processor in the same benchmark.
In POV-Ray, the Threadripper 3960X scored identically to the Threadripper 3970X in single-core tests, while hitting results that were just a bit slower than it in the all-core run. It was still much faster than anything Intel had to offer, as well as the previous year’s 24-core Threadripper, the Threadripper 2970WX.
Handbrake & Blender
Handbrake and Blender are two benchmarks that test how well a processor will handle complex content-creation workflows, such as 3D rendering or HD video conversion.
As an all-cores rendering task, the Handbrake results show just the purest application of real-world maximum-cores muscle. The Threadripper 3960X is leagues faster than the Core i9-10980XE in the same task, and even the Ryzen 9 3950X, a processor that’s $230 cheaper than the 10980XE, managed to beat it too.
The Blender results were the fastest we’ve seen, but not by a noticeable amount. If you’re rendering massive 3D scenes with tons of lighting and texture elements, the time saved will start to stack up, but in small tests like our flying-squirrel rendering run, there simply isn’t enough content that needs to be rendered to show a major difference with CPUs of this caliber. Still, in a relative sense, shaving off a second or two is a big deal on this test.
And here on the 7-Zip compression benchmark, we saw some wild numbers.
While technically not as quick as the Threadripper 3970X, at this point the Threadripper 3960X is well ahead of the competition and its predecessors. One caveat of note: Just to see how much the 7-Zip results were affected by the amount of RAM we had installed, we removed 32GB of the 64GB, and saw about an 18 percent loss in scores. Again, the truth rings that if you want to get the most out of your content creation machine, 64GB of memory or more is the only way to go.
Finally, there’s Cinebench R20. R20 is reportedly eight times as demanding as Cinebench R15, and does a better job of representing how a chip will hold up to more modern workflows that incorporate newer rendering techniques used in today’s 3D modeling shops.
As a content-creation machine, the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X is showing its stripes in spades here. It’s significantly more robust than the Core i9-10980XE, while also being slightly more cost-competitive than the Threadripper 3970X. If you want the absolute ultimate content-creation machine, the Threadripper 3970X is your dream choice, but if you want to save a bit and still get about 80 percent of the performance of that chip, the Threadripper 3960X will do the job very well.
Duck When Entering: Limited Overclock Headroom?
Using the internal overclocking tools available on the MSI TRX40 Creator motherboard, I initiated a series of stepped overclocks that performed differently depending on the use case.
For starters, we need to establish the parameters of my overclock. At max, I attempted to get all 24 cores (starting from a base clock of 3.8GHz) up to 4.7GHz from a boost clock of 4.5GHz, but this was too unstable to be reliable. While this overclock was consistent in gaming and tests like 7-Zip, as soon as a lengthy Handbrake or POV-Ray session activated all the cores, it was a matter of seconds before the system kicked up a Windows blue screen.
For maximum stability over all applications (not just benchmarks, but gaming), I overclocked the first CCD (to learn more about CCDs, head over to our Threadripper 3970X review and the same overclocking section) to 4.8GHz, the following one to 4.7GHz, the next to 4.6GHz, and the last to just above the stock speed of 4.55GHz at a voltage of 1.525V, which represents about a 7 percent increase in power overall.
Once the stable overclock was in place, I ran it through a few benchmark tests. The 4.8GHz peak boost represents an almost 7 percent gain in performance over the stock settings, and this processor fared just slightly better than the Threadripper 3970X during its own overclocking process, gaining about 5 percent more power across both productivity and gaming tests.
Now, we personally wouldn’t recommend putting a processor at this price point at risk for damage for a measly 5 percent gain. But if that 5 percent scales up to a lot of saved time for your office or workload, and you have the budget to risk it, the potential seems to be there.
How Does the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X Game?
Although the primary purpose of the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X isn’t gaming, not by a long shot, that doesn’t mean it can’t still pump out a whole lot of frames in between rendering and conversion jobs, too. Here’s how the 3960X fared across nine graphics benchmarks…
For many games at 1080p, the Threadripper 3960X is closer to the Intel Core i9-9900K than anything else, which is a processor close to a third of the price. Again, Threadrippers are made for a completely different set of applications than gaming, so it’s not a slight against the Threadripper 3960X that it didn’t score tip-top in every test here. It’s plenty competitive with the Core X-Series representative here, and you’ll be leaving little or nothing on the table in terms of frame rates with a third-generation Threadripper if you game on the side after your creative work is done.
Second-Tier Pricing, Top-Tier Speed
If you’re looking for an HEDT processor, flush with cores, that’s a killer at its price point, the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X is it. It doesn’t pierce the ceiling of what’s possible like the Threadripper 3970X, but it also posts results just in line with what we’d expect given its $1,399 price. By that, we mean the Intel Core i9-10980XE is 70 percent as expensive as the 3970X while performing, on average, around 60-65 percent as well, depending on the test.
But, for content creators, with the number of improvements that we’ve seen thus far out of the move to the new Ryzen platforms, whether that is the new TRX40 and Threadripper or the high-end Ryzen 9 3950X, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to run with Intel and its new Core i9-10980XE unless you’re already on an Intel X299 motherboard. That almost gives the Threadripper 3960X the win by default. Sure, it’s $430 more expensive than the Intel Core i9-10980XE, but it also performs almost exactly $430 better, and it gains you support for forward-looking technologies like PCI Express 4.0.
Ultimately, the decision between buying the Threadripper 3960X and the 3970X comes down to your particular workload and of course your budget. If you do a ton of 3D rendering or video conversion in a scenario where a few seconds or minutes shaved off a task, done over and over, means hundreds of hours saved for you and your team, then the 3970X and the cost of getting on the TRX40 platform might be a more economical choice. However, if you’re just looking for high-end performance for a personal desktop on which you run smaller creator-minded tasks, the Threadripper 3960X offers an ideal split point between the $1,999 Threadripper 3970X and the $749 Ryzen 9 3950X. If you’re not rendering or applying visual effects all day long, it should be enough to handle—quite, quite comfortably—just about everything you throw its way.