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Everything you need to know about the AMD Zen processors

Intel has been running away with processor market share these few years while AMD has struggled to recover from a series of bad business decisions. The FX family of processors, based on the Bulldozer architecture, haven't kept the company competitive when consumers compare its processors against Intel counterparts. Cue Zen, which is AMD hopes will change the game.

So, just what is Zen?

Zen is the codename for the architecture of AMD's upcoming family of processors, which are to succeed the current FX line. Slated for an early 2017 release, this new family of chips are a new direction for AMD, starting from the ground up in designing a new processor that can take on counterparts offered by Intel.

Instead of going for increased clock speeds and higher energy consumption, AMD is cutting things back, instead going for efficiency and performance per clock. As well as new consumer CPUs, AMD is expected to release server processors and APUs in the second quarter and second half of 2017, respectively.

The upcoming Zen-based processors will utilize a 14nm FinFET process, with the production contract going to Global Foundries. This more efficient process is a solid step for the company, replacing the previous 32nm and 28nm processes used for FX CPUS and APUs. The smaller process will also lead to reduced power consumption and heat output. Interestingly, AMD will be removing the north bridge chipset from the motherboard and deploying it on the CPU itself, becoming more like a SoC (system on a chip). Again, this aids with efficiency.

AMD Zen

Zen is also slated to be more energy efficient than current AMD offerings, perform more instructions per cycle, and sport simultaneous multithreading (SMT), which should help AMD in bridging the gap between itself and its immediate rival. There will also be a new cache system that will aid overall efficiency. And it needs to be fast too as the company boasts substantial improvements over Excavator, the most recent microarchitecture and Zen's predecessor.

AMD claims Zen to be 40% faster than Excavator, its predecessor

These changes are fairly significant, especially the improvements to the L1 cache and introduction of SMT. AMD relied on a clustered multithread (CMT) design with its previous microarchitectures, and with this move the company will be able to have two logical CPUs per physical core, but don't mistake this for Intel's Hyperthread technology as AMD will be taking a slightly different approach called clock gating. The result, however, shouldn't be noticeably different.

Should you be rocking a current-gen AMD processor, you'll be using the company's AM3 socket. Zen will introduce a new socket, AM4 that will bring with it DDR4 RAM support. Don't think you can save that 32GB DDR3 setup though as the new chips will not support third-generation.

AMD Zen

All this development was made possible after the company re-hired Jim Keller back in 2012, who subsequently departed once again in 2015. Keller was involved in developing AMD's K8 architecture, the original Athlon 64 processor, coauthoring the specifications for the x86-64 instruction set, as well as spending time at Apple to work on the A4 and A5 processors that powered iPhones. AMD was clearly read to go all-out.

Suffice to say, this could be the return of AMD as we once knew and worshipped it. However, it has been four years, Zen had better be good.

What CPUs will be available?

AMD Summit Ridge

So we know what Zen is, why it's in development, what AMD aims to deliver and when we can expect to be able to make a purchase, but just what will be available for consumers once everything gets announced? The company has already revealed "Summit Ridge," which is the codename for the upcoming consumer-grade chips. This family of processors will actually start as an octo-core. That's right, AMD will offer an 8-core CPU with multithreading, for a total thread count of 16.

The company is gunning for the high-end, powerful computers here. Unfortunately, we don't know anything on pricing for the new chips. If AMD's previous launches are anything to go by though, we'd bet we'll start seeing Intel drop its prices slightly to better compete against AMD. And aforementioned, you'll need to hold out until 2017 for the Summit Ridge consumer processor. Get saving for that new rig you always wanted to build.

FAQ

AMD Quantum

AMD

Have questions about the Zen? You've come to the right place! Whether you're wondering as to whether or not your current rig will support the new processors, or if you'll need air conditioning installed to cool it, we got you covered with this FAQ:

So, Zen is just the microarchitecture?

Correct, AMD has started anew and will be launching brand-spanking new processors based on Zen, which have their own codenames.

This isn't another Excavator?

Correct again! This isn't a mere performance upgrade. This is AMD finally fighting back against Intel for survival.

When can I buy a Zen-based CPU for my gaming PC?

You'll be able to order them from your favorite store in 2017 after the company launches "Summit Ridge" (the codename for the consumer-grade processors — We imagine FX- will make a return for naming).

Are these Zen chips going to outperform Intel?

It depends. Performance testing and what AMD has revealed thus far puts its upcoming processors on a level playing field with (and sometimes out in front of) Intel's Broadwell-E series so we could see similar levels of performance. We'll have to wait and see for benchmarks.

AMD is now using HyperThreading like Intel?

Kind of. The company is utilizing simultaneous multithreading, but it will be slightly different to how Intel does things. Essentially though, purchasing an octo-core (8 core) Summit Ridge Zen-based CPU will land you with 16 cores in Windows, yes.

Wait, so what's technically new with Zen?

On a technical level, here's what is new in Zen:

  • 14nm process
  • Clock gating
  • Faster cache
  • L1 cache is now write-back
  • SMT (simultaneous multithreading)
  • Dedicated stack engine
  • DDR4 support
  • Move elimination
  • Large micro-op cache

Will my current AM3 motherboard support Zen?

No. You'll need to purchase a new AM4 socket-touting motherboard.

Hold out for #TeamRed?

AMD FX-4100

AMD FX4100 CPU (Image credit: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Should you wait out for Zen or build a new system now? If you can, I would recommend waiting. You could absolutely spend a solid $800 today and build an insanely powerful gaming rig with Intel, but with Zen just around the corner, it could be the case that you may have been able to save a significant amount of money without sacrificing too much (if at all) on performance.

Even if AMD doesn't offer a processor that can outperform Intel's Core series, AMD's offerings and aggressive pricing will likely make Intel bring down its prices slightly, which would be a win win for everyone, regardless as to which camp you may be part of. That all said, this is 2016. If you have a rather recent system and a capable CPU, I would potentially look at grabbing a more powerful graphics card, more RAM and other improvements.

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

49 Comments
  • Come on zen!
  • So much waiting. Probably going to need to buy servers b4 any with zen are available. Our dell r715s are getting old.
  • Just got a 4690K in march after leaving my 955BE which was never enough for anything.. I hope for consumer sake that AMD becomes competitive.
  • The 955BW was a good CPU .. for 2008. Yet even a modern Athlon 860K with DDR3 would wipe the floor with it.
  • If I can game and visual studio on a 940BE with ddr2 then the 955 would do just fine. Zen is my next build 9yrs is enough for my old workhorse
  • I had my GTX970 paired with my 955BE and I couldn't even run most games on medium at 1080p above 35fps due to lack of threads. I don't think your 940BE with DDR2 was even enough to be considered playable.
  • Never good for anything?  I have a 965 BE and it's still good for alot of things, even gaming.  
  • Would definitely be nice to see AMD give Intel a good fight again, but I'm not holding my breath. They seem to have a shared trademark agreement with Microsoft on "coming soon". Perhaps we could see a new rival to Wintel, AMDows.
    Sorry...just a little pessimistic today:-)
  • I haven't bought an AMD processor in years.  Do they still put the pins on the chip, or have they done what Intel have done and put the pins in the socket?
  • Just like Intel, AMD's newer CPUs use land grid array (LGA).
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_grid_array
  • Incorrect.  The FX CPUs, which uses the AM3+ socket and A Series APUs, which uses the FM2+ socket, use pins, the consumer level CPUs and APUs.  Only the server sockets use LGA. These sockets ONLY use LGA (notice FM2, FM2+, nor AM3+ are listed on the Wikipedia page link):
  • Last chip I bought of AMD had pins. The new stuff probably wont... I hope :).
  • What's wrong with pins? :(
    I always liked pins ...
  • Yes, I like pins on the CPU rather than the motherboard as well. 
  •  Intel has pins too.  They just moved the pins from the CPU to the motherboard.  
  • Yes, they still put pins on the chip, on all the FX CPUs and also the A Series APUs.
  • Man, this is sounding better and better all the time. I really hope it is not a flop like the bulldozer which was great on paper and sucked in the real world. If they can get me 16 'cores' (threads really) for under $300 without terrible single thread performance, then they may win my next build.
  • Personally, while Bulldozer was a bit eh (though great bang for the buck, especially in multithreaded environments), Pile driver was great for its time. Faster clocks, better IPC and faster ram support. Even better overclockers. There's a reason FX 6300 and FX 8300/8320 are mainstays, even today.
  • Exactly, for $100/$130 my FX6300/8320s are still stomping modern games although some games the utilization does get quite high with the 6300. This will come just in time for 2017 AAA games. I mean where else do you get this kind of performance/$, not to mention AMD motherboards are far cheaper too.
  • The rumour is that Xbox project Scorpio will use a Zen era APU.
  • Correct. AMD is already confirmed they will make the SoC for Scorpio. Could be a custom variant.
  • Xbox - bringing a Zen like experience to your living room near you:)
  • Seems nice. I might get one of these eventually, I am not fan of Intel anyway, and I while I may run heavy software that uses CPU heavily, I wouldn't give my money to Intel for Desktop CPUs, AMD is cheaper and sometimes cheaper is all that matters since difference in time and performace won't be noticeable for what I care or worry.
    If this performace boost is real for AMD processors then it would be worth it even if I would have to buy a new MB.
  • I agree, granted I dont do video editing or encoding, there is nothing that my stock clocked 8320 can't handle, although I am thinking that in 2017 there might be some AAA games that could start to stress it out, so this comes at the perfect time. A high end Zen CPU + mobo + 16GB DDR4 should be sufficient for many years to come, and will all come under $300.
  • While I have no problems with games, I do wish (especially with after effects) I had a better CPu for faster previews ... I am currently sporting a FX8350. Lets see if I will be able to save up enough to make a rig upgrade when zen is out. Currently I am saving for a new monitor. However I guess zen will be out of stock for quite a while anyway (at least if the price is right) :D
  • Bulldozer wasn't great, but it wasn't that bad either, it's partly just that AMD was stuck at 28nm while Intel shrinked nodes regurlarly. Even now, even if it's technically "14nm" vs "14nm" the Intel process is actually a third smaller (and more mature too, allowing them to push it further). For everyone's sake, I hope AMD succeeds with Zen.
  • Say what you willI, expect Bristol Ridge to be a beast for its price, even though it will be 28 nm still.
  • I'm not smart enough to understand the details, but it's interesting to see that they're going for the high end. I think I've seen discussions by WC writers before about a seeming gap in Intel's offerings: Entry level 2 in 1's. A lot of people seem underwhelmed by any of the Atom chips (my Surface 3 does ok). On the other hand, I've read that Core M is not that much cheaper than Core I. So could this be an opportunity for someone like AMD? I'm not going to pretend to understand the technical limitations involved, just curious. 8^)
  • Yup, you are correct, AMD has a good chance of undercutting the the very expensive and high margin core M chips which intel has rebranded to just core i5, i7 for kaby lake as they were getting called out for charging expensive price for 4 watt mobile chips.
  • When a train late it is always late. Intel will not hold their breath to see next zen. the next intel technologies will beat this zen and amd will say well we will build another zen to beat current intel cpu. Amd disappointed me while using their processors. After switching Intel i never realize instability or lack of performance. And i promised never to go for amd cpu and gpu. Intel and nvidia leading the world. Amd is poor both in cost and performance. Its my personal experience, hope will not hurt amd lovers.
  • Just curious what AMD chips you have experience with. I have been using many AMD chips since 2000 and never had instability problems with any of them. Also Radeon Technologies is totally seperate division all together. My FX8320 was bought 2 years ago WITH a motherboard for ~$170. You would have needed to spend $350 for an Intel combo then to match it. It has never been the bottleneck for me ever. How do you claim that its is poor in cost?
  • That's one thing I give to AMD is the 955BE I had ran some crazy voltage for 4.1Ghz but damn that thing was a tank for 4+ years and never gave me stability issues no matter how crazy of an OC and voltage I run on it.
  • "My FX8320 was bought 2 years ago WITH a motherboard for ~$170. You would have needed to spend $350 for an Intel combo then to match it." No, I didn't spend $400 on my Haswell setup from the start of 2014. I don't even know if I spent $300. Haswell also smashed Bulldozer in performance and power costs. There was no gaming-related benefit to Bulldozer, and it's why I switched from my Phenom II to my Haswell i5. There's only so much apathy I can take from a company with stuff like that. AMD wasn't showing a desire to comepte with Intel, so I wasn't going to hand them my money to get half-baked CPUs. I'm sitting on Haswell now, with the hopes of going to Zen. However, if Microsoft's repeatedly broken promises and delays in Windows Phone/Mobile have taught me anything, it's to not assume this stuff works out.
  • But will any of these be good for gaming? :D
  • Absolutely, the current outdated FX series are still excellent for gaming, and Zen will be a substantial leap in performance as well as efficiency. AMD's two main strengths are performance per dollar and gaming.
  • "excellent for gaming" Most certainly an overstatement. They handle games, but that's got a lot to do with having more of the work loaded onto the GPU. The FX stuff is very power hungry and doesn't come close to Intel in performance--it's probably why AMD hasn't done any major improvements on a desktop CPU since about 2014 (and that was a Piledriver flop). FX does a job OK, but it offers no benefit in gaming over Intel, in terms of power, cost, heat, or performance. It's why I had to go Intel with my latest CPU, as did my dad (despite our desires to stick with AMD). AMD's per-dollar performance has been dead in PC gaming for a while, unless you're talking uber-budget APUs (where you spend under $600 and don't get a graphics card).
  • As long as games support the current gen of consoles, even 5 year old CPUs work just fine (unless you want max settings).
  • Recent tests have an 8-core variant performing at i7 Broadwell-E levels.
  • Those were specific, AMD-run tests though, weren't they. Bulldozer would look good against Sandy Bridge (or Ivy, can't remember which was current then), if you got something threaded heavily enough in benchmarks. However, in reality (gaming, everyday stuff), that didn't matter, and Intel blasted AMD's chips to dust with much lower power consumption (and thermals, if I remember correctly). Plus, what Zen does pre-launch against Broadwell-E isn't a big deal. What will matter is how it compares (in price, performance, power, and heat) against Kaby Lake. Broadwell-E is based on Broadwell, which is close to being 2 steps behind Intel's current CPU line (Skylake last year, Kaby this year). It's nice there's a scenario AMD looks good against a super-top CPU, but being spoon-fed stuff from AMD 6 months pre-launch doesn't mean much in the end.
  • Sky and Kaby are mostly about the integrated GPU though, and Broadwell-E is the highest performing (and most expensive) chip Intel offers currently. Of course, you should never completely trust marketing, and should wait for (multiple) third party reviews. P.S. according to AMD, Zen used (slightly) less power than Broadwell-E on that benchmark in addition to being faster
  • "... but don't mistake this for Intel's Hyperthread technology as AMD will be taking a slightly different approach called clock gating." Did anyone edit this? This sentence makes 0 technical sense.
  • 1. It never seems like actual editing is done. 2. It might if there wre any explanation of the process in this supposed "everything you need to know" article.
  • Nah, even if they editted they couldn't back that up, it's sheer incompetence in this case. Clock gating is a power saving technique (which is absolutely nothing new) and has nothing to do with how AMD does instruction dispatch concurrently across multiple threads.
  • I really hope that AMD is competitive with this new architecture but after watching all the bulldozer news and hearing how it was going to crush Intel in performance before its launch I'll wait for 3rd party benchmarks before I get on this hype train.
  • "Everything you need to know about the AMD Zen processors" Well, everything that is common, basic knowledge. The importance stuff (actual performance, models, pricing, and availability) aren't known. Kind of an oversell of an article, since it claims to be a catch-all of information for something that's still largely unknown. "Should you be rocking a current-gen AMD processor, you'll be using the company's AM3 socket." No, you'd either be on AM3+ (FX Vishera) or FM2+ (A-series/Athlon Kaveri). AM3's official support ended with Phenom II, with Bulldozer starting the AM3+ line.
  • And in some cases the information they provide is just wrong. Authors claim 40% increase in perf where AMD claims 40% increase in IPC.
  • Thanks for catching that error as well! 40% increase in IPC means higher single-thread performance. BUT, it doesn't automatically imply 40% increase in real-world performance. The instruction pipeline must be filled and that depends on how fast the memory controller can fetch instructions and data. It also depends on how good the L1/L2/L3 cache is programmed. A larger cache also helps especially in L2. Lastly, the scheduler must be intelligent enough to do predictive pre-scheduling which is the basis to Intel's Hyperthreading. Zen has a lot to proof!
  • Do you have any formal computer architecture training? IPC does not say anything about higher single threaded performance. You know nothing about performance until you know the clock speed. You can argue all you want that clock speeds have been high, and you'd be right, but this is a rate and you are using it incorrectly.
  • Now I know what I don't follow AMD after Core Duo. 28/35mm lithography? Still using NorthBridge for low-latency I/O. It's no wonder they don't integrate hi-end GPU into their APU... The Northbridge can't handle the bandwidth! And ditto to comments on clock gating. It's a battery life feature. Hyperthreading happens at the instruction scheduler with help from the cache.