Best CPUs for Workstations: December 2020by Dr. Ian Cutress on December 1, 2020 4:30 PM EST
In our series of Best CPU guides, here’s the latest update to our recommended workstation CPUs list. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing. Numbers in graphs reflect MSRP.
Best CPUs for Workstations December 2020
Sometimes choosing a CPU is hard. So we've got you covered. In our CPU Guides, we give you our pick of some of the best processors available, supplying data from our reviews. Our Best CPUs for Workstations guide mostly covers workstation processors available to consumers, although some server products cover both segments.
|Workstation CPU Recommendations: 2020 December|
|Most Cores||Non-ECC: Threadripper 3990X||$3848|
|ECC: EPYC 7702P||$4750|
|The Smart Money||AMD Threadripper 3970X||$2250|
|HEDT Mid Range||AMD Threadripper 3960X||$1600|
|AMD Ryzen 9 5950X||$799|
|Intel Core i9-10850K||$400|
|AVX Accelerated||2P: Intel Xeon Gold 6258R||$4100|
|1P: Intel Xeon W-3175X||$3075|
|Memory Support||EPYC 7232P (4 TB/skt)
Intel Cascade Lake (2 TB/skt?)
Intel Xeon + Optane (4.5 TB/skt)
|HEDT On a Budget||AMD Threadripper 1900X||$240|
As we have moved through 2020, there haven’t been many new releases for the high-end desktop market. It has been slow, and everyone has been able to sit on some new hardware for a while, knowing that they have the best for their money. The abundance of AMD’s Third Generation Threadripper processors and Intel’s Cascade Lake-X hardware means that users have had options depending on workload balance. The immediate horizon doesn’t show much, but we know the next big target is going to be AMD’s Zen 3 based Threadripper processors, expected in the first half of next year. Based on the uplift Zen 3 has been having in the consumer space, translating that into Threadripper is expected to be a big net plus, but we don’t see those parts coming out before EPYC; also with a healthy performance lead AMD can afford to let the market breathe for a while. What this means is that users can buy a high-end desktop processor or system today and still get lots and lots of use out of it.
It is worth noting that for some high-end desktop users, particularly professionals that can amortize the cost of the hardware over time due to their increased throughput, price and longevity might not be an issue. Also, businesses or even academic institutions may have preferred vendors for their pre-built systems, and as a result will experience a different cost structure than just simply buying a processor – they end up with a system that might have an extended parts and support warranty, or even with progressive automatic upgrades, and it will be up to the vendor to supply that. Hopefully this list can be useful to those vendors as well when it comes to building systems for their customers.
An ECC Question
Also, to address the issue of ECC on AMD's Ryzen and Threadripper platforms. ECC lies in this region of 'it kind of works' but isn't validated. There is what's called 'unofficial support', which is different to 'official qualification'. Technically, none of the Ryzen and Threadripper CPUs are 'officially qualified' for ECC, however most of them (if not all) will exhibit unofficial support. This means that it might work, but AMD won't give you assistance for it. There are two caveats to this:
First, it requires motherboard support. Some vendors are designing their boards with ECC support, and some will formally qualify supporting ECC. Note that even if the vendor lists official support, you are in 'unofficial support' from AMD's perspective.
Secondly, there's the 'is it working' question. Sure you can have a CPU that unofficially supports ECC, and ECC memory in a motherboard that 'officially supports' ECC, and there are tools in the OS to determine that all the parts of the chain support it. But the next question is if it actually works - some software only checks the 'does it support ECC' flag, rather than actually testing for it. There are reports of users who, by most measures, have everything in the chain sorted and reported as working, but none of it is actually enabled. This could be down to specific drivers, or a BIOS issue. Some software might say 'ECC found, running, but not enabled', or words to that effect. Ultimately you need the ability to support ECC tracking, which often isn't supported natively on consumer grade motherboards. On server grade motherboards, it is.
It's a minefield, and your mileage may vary. Our recommendation here is that if you absolutely need an AMD CPU with ECC as a mission critical part of your build, go for EPYC.
Mainstream and Desktop Blurred
When Intel launched its Cascade Lake-X Refresh platform back in November with significantly lower prices than the previous Skylake Refresh-X generation, we saw a number of issues with supply of processors, stemming from Intel’s manufacturing focus – this has all been sorted now, but Intel’s HEDT strategy is slowly falling backwards.
The goal of a HEDT platform is to provide high-end performance, sometimes regardless of cost. This means peak numbers of cores, memory channels, and PCIe lanes. As a result, there is often a very obvious line between the mainstream processors and the high-end. Because of AMD, that line is now very much blurred at where mainstream ends and HEDT begins.
Here’s a direct comparison:
|Intel vs AMD Comparison|
|Generation||Comet Lake||Zen 3||Cascade-X||Zen 2|
|Marketing Name||Core 10th Gen||Ryzen 5000||Core 10th Gen||Threadripper 3000|
|Top SKU||i9-10900K||R9 5950X||i9-10980XE||TR3 3960X|
|TDP||125 W||105 W||140 W||180 W|
|255 W||141 W||190 W||182 W|
|Base Freq||3700 MHz||3400 MHz||3000 MHz||3800 MHz|
|Turbo Freq||5300 MHz||4900 MHz||4800 MHz||4500 MHz|
|PCIe||3.0 x16||4.0 x20||3.0 x48||3.0 x56|
|Motherboards||Z490||X570 / B550||X299||TRX40|
|Price (tray/SEP)||$499 (1ku)||$799 (SEP)||$979 (1ku)||$1399 (SEP)|
|1ku = 1000 unit batch, 1 unit at retail is often slightly (3-5%) higher
SEP = Suggested Etail Price
While Intel’s mainstream processors go from two cores up to ten, and the high-end desktop processors go from ten to eighteen, AMD’s mainstream stops at sixteen, and the high-end AMD starts at 24. This means that AMD’s highest performing mainstream processor essentially has the same number of cores as Intel’s highest performing high-end desktop processor. These two processors are also worlds apart in performance:
Clearly the HEDT platforms have two main areas where mainstream can’t compete – memory channels/capacity, and PCIe. If you need these, then HEDT is the only way to go. But for benchmarks, in a straight comparison when pulling data from our latest reviews, the 5950X takes an almost clean sweep.
The 10980XE wins in the AES performance test, barely. Not pictured, because it isn’t a fair fight, is our 3DPMavx test, which runs at the best AVX for each platform. This means the 10980XE runs on AVX512, compared to AVX2 on the 5950X, and the 10980X scores 4.26x what the 5950X does. Which is the main selling point for Intel’s processors in this range, should your workload be AVX512 accelerated.
AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X was only just released, and is in short supply unless you find a retailer with new stock. The Intel Core i9-10980XE, by contrast, was released in November last year, and stock is available in lots of places. Going above and beyond, on the HEDT side of AMD though, Zen 3 based Threadripper (5000 ?) is due around the corner, providing a drop in update for any of the Threadripper 3000 series. Intel’s HEDT plans are somewhat of a mystery to everyone, with the latest theory that we’re not going to see an update in 2021.
For AMD’s hardware, it should be noted that since our last guide in August, we’re seeing a number of price rises across the board. This could be down to demand, or due to stock levels with a future Threadripper edition.
Going for the Most Cores:
Sometimes all you want are cores - either for masses of virtual machines, or highly parallel workloads, or something else. Both AMD and Intel try to keep their highest core count hardware for their enterprise lines, such as 64-core EPYCs and 28/56-core Xeons, which means that these also come at an additional cost for features such as multi-socket capabilities or RDIMM support and RAS features.
For more ‘consumer’ hardware, the highest core count on offer is 64 cores from AMD, with the Threadripper 3990X, currently available for $3848 from its MSRP of $3990 (up $248 since our last guide). This chip gives 56 lanes of PCIe 4.0, with another 8 lanes for the chipset, and comes in at a base frequency of 2.9 GHz and turbo of 4.3 GHz. We tested the Threadripper 3990X against $20k of Intel’s premium enterprise CPUs, and for workloads that were embarrassingly parallel.
You can read our full review of the 3990X here:
If there is a need for ECC, users can get 64 cores in this way if they want to go EPYC. The single socket 64-core EPYC 7702P is the right choice here, with an MSRP of $4425, or a recent retail price of $4750. 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 (200W vs. 280W), but as far the 3990X only has four memory channels. It will be important to keep this in mind.
Intel’s offerings go up to the 56-core Cascade Lake-AP processors, but these are only available as part of a default server system that Intel’s partners can sell on. Intel still refuses to attribute a price to this processor, although we’ve estimated it around $25000. There is the Xeon W-3175X up for sale with 28-cores for $3075, plus a motherboard for about $500-1000, so this is almost the same cost as the 3990X for only half the cores. The EPYC 7702P in this instance, being a socketed part that can be purchased off the shelf, gets our vote.
The Smart Money:
AMD Threadripper 3970X at $2250 (up from $1853)
One of the peak performers of the last round of HEDT refreshes was the Threadripper 3970X. Offering 32 cores on a high-end desktop platform with a unified memory design at a price where Intel used to offer 10 cores not too long ago is an astonishing leap in cores per dollar, and when you factor in that the Threadripper has a higher IPC and an aggressive frequency makes it all the more impressive.
The two best upgrades the 3970X gives is the unified memory distribution (gets rid of a few complaints from the previous Threadrippers), and that using a 64 thread processor also removes issues on Windows related to multiple processor groups when going above 64.
In our 3970X review, I used the word ‘bloodbath’, because any benchmark where the Core i9-10980XE wanted to do well, the 3970X came and won, sometimes by a large margin by having nearly double the cores. The only multi-threaded test that the 10980XE won was AVX512 related, and some people complained that I didn’t point at the 35+ gaming tests where the 10980XE also won by small (sub-3%) margins, but those people clearly don’t know what these processors are about. The 3970X is a fine processor for anyone who can lay down $2000 for the chip and another $100+ for cooling (then $500+ for memory, $500 for motherboard, etc).
The fact that this processor has gone up in price to the tune of almost $400 since our last guide is a little concerning. It is still the suggested processor for its class.
For anyone wanting a more cost-effective high-end desktop system, then we can save some monies by looking at the mid-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. Cost per core is obviously close, around $55/core for both, and both processors have plus points (although in our tests, the 24-core does pull ahead more often than not).
In previous guides this segment has always been varied due to availability. This is also where the mainstream processors usually get a look in for price, depending on use case and how much equipment is ready to hand. One option here is to look at AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X, with 16 Zen 3 cores. As noted in the graph above, it wins out against the 10980XE in almost all of our tests, but the availability of the Ryzen 9 5950X is quite limited at this time.
In the past we’ve suggested Intel CPUs at this price segment, such as the 14-core 10940X ($800) or even the 18-core 10980XE ($995), when the timing is right. At this time, the best offer I can see is on the Core i9-10850K, currently at $400 at Amazon. This is a mainstream processor, so there are fewer PCIe lanes and DRAM channels as well as no AVX512, but it’s a 10-core high-frequency processor. This is the processor Intel created because its 10900K was too aggressive on frequency to provide reasonable supply, so the 10850K was released as a fall back because it’s easier to produce. It still sucks a lot of juice (250W in our testing), so that should be noted.
I have added an AVX processor suggestion here for the simple fact that if a user is likely to encounter AVX acceleration, it’s going to be with software aimed at prosumers and high-end desktop users. Intel has been pushing its AVX512 support, even bringing it into its consumer laptop processors, in an effort to drive things like DLBoost to enhance AI throughput. One of the pain points I’ve had with Intel over the last couple of years is actually getting a list of AVX512 use cases: exact software examples where AVX512 is used. It often gets added for very specific things, like a certain filter in Photoshop, or a special edition of a benchmark, but ultimately those in the HPC space get the most from it. For those users, this suggestion is for you.
The best high-end desktop off-the-shelf processor for AVX512 you can buy is the Core i9-10980XE, with 18-cores that all enable AVX512. If you need ECC, then the Xeon W-3275/3175X is going to be your best bet, but it will cost a bit more and a special Xeon W motherboard is needed. If cost is no object, then moving into a dual socket system with Xeon Scalable processors might be preferable, although take note that this introduces a non-uniform memory access (NUMA) environment, which would inhibit bulk data transfer if the software is not NUMA-aware. To be on the safe side usually single socket is preferred. The downside to going Intel here is finding a CPU for sale.
Some users might point to the Xeon Scalable side of the equation, for anyone needing more Enterprise level features. In the Cascade Lake-SP Refresh cycle, Intel launched the Xeon Gold 6258R, with a list price of $3950. This processor is essentially identical in every way to the top-of-the-line Xeon Platinum 8280 ($10009 list), except it only supports single and dual sockets. That’s a $6000-odd saving per-CPU if you’re not going above 2P. These Xeon Gold parts currently retail for $4100. The alternative is the Xeon W-3175X available for $3075, with slightly higher frequencies, but that can only do a single socket. The Xeon W-3275 is technically newer, but more expensive ($4449 1ku) and not technically a retail product-in-box product.
Ultimately, for the price of one Xeon Platinum 8280, users can get two Xeon Gold 6258Rs, get double the raw AVX performance, and still have change left over.
AMD EPYC up to 4 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 in it just for the memory support, either due to multiple VMs or high-memory use-case requirements. For these, sometimes the memory capacity is more important than the compute performance, as the software requires workspace in the terabytes – in this case doubling up to 128 GB of DRAM or more is always more beneficial than adding compute, as it reduces the pressure on moving data back and forth between DRAM and storage. Normally it is in this instance too that RDIMMs with ECC are recommended, just because as the memory capacity gets larger, the chance of an errant bit flip does scale with memory capacity. The price of the memory in this product category normally outweighs the CPU cost by an order of magnitude as well.
In this instance, one choice is an EPYC, something like the 7232P at $481 will easily support 4 TB of LRDIMMs per socket out of the box. Mind you, if you’re buying *that* much memory, then going for the 64-core 7702P at $4750 isn’t that much of a leap.
The only way to get more memory than this with an x86 processor would be to look to Intel Xeon Scalable processors equipped with Optane DC Persistent Memory, allowing up to 4.5 TB per socket. In order to get that amount, you have to invest in one of the M processors, which adds another $3k to the cost of the chip. The other factor here is that Optane DCPMM isn’t freely for sale through usual channels: it typically comes as part of an OEM system build, and as a result the user will end up with a support contact for a specific OEM. For bigger businesses and research communities, that should be suitable – check with your preferred OEM with what they have to offer.
I also want to put in a word here for Intel’s latest Cascade Lake-X processors. Normally, with four channels / eight memory slots and 32 GB of DRAM per slot, this would max out at 256 GB. But interestingly enough, when paired with an ASRock X299 motherboard (either the X299X Taichi, the X299 Steel Legend, or the X299 Creator), these motherboards can now support 128 GB RDIMMs, allowing for 1 TB of DRAM per single socket.
At this time ASRock is looking into also enabling LRDIMM support. This is a relatively new development, posted by one of ASRock’s engineers to his personal social media accounts, but the BIOSes required are now public, and for users invested in the Intel ecosystem this is well worth a look.
Cores for Cash:
AMD Threadripper 2950X ($400 on sale)
For anyone wanting the most cores for the least amount of $$$, then our pick has to go to the 16-core Threadripper 2950X or 1950X when these are on sale. With the launch of the new 3000 series Threadripper processors, the previous parts are often found at low prices with some retailers looking to empty their stock of them. We’ve seen 2950X processors as low as £330/$400 even on Amazon (currently $500), and 1950X for $250.
Having four channel memory and 64 PCIe lanes for prosumer workflows is great – as we noted in our reviews these processors cover most, but not all, the high-end desktop bases, so it is worth researching what works best for the intended software. But compared to several years old hardware, this is very much a worthy upgrade for a lot of people. The 2950X also performs better on a number of workloads compared to the 2970WX/2990WX, and can be found for a lot cheaper, making it a worthwhile purchase.
HEDT on a Budget:
AMD Threadripper 1900X $240 (up from $213)
If you want a HEDT system on a budget, the question to ask is if it has to be new or used. In a lot of professional circumstances, new is still preferred, and the processor to get on the ladder here is AMD’s Threadripper 1900X. The 8-core processor offers high capacity memory support, lots of PCIe lanes, and the low-end motherboards for Threadripper are now entering that low-to-mid range pricing. In a sale, the 1900X can be found for under $200 (users with more money might look for a cheap 1950X instead), which seems like a crazy low price for a high-end desktop processor. That being said, unless you need the PCIe lanes of the high-end desktop processor, looking for one of the newer 6-core Ryzen 5 5600X processors ($299 MSRP) might be more advised from a performance standpoint.
On The Horizon: Not A Lot
We’re a year on from AMD and Intel’s previous HEDT launches, and neither company seem that keen to push more HEDT product onto the market. AMD is expected to go for Threadripper based on Zen 3 at some point in 2021 (H1 rather than H2 I would think), and Intel’s HEDT roadmap is as unchanging as a drive on a desert bus. Any system purchased today will be set to last for a long time.
Details on Intel’s future HEDT offerings are not clear in the slightest. We don’t know what Intel plans to launch in this space, or when. The company recently reduced the scope of its Cooper Lake Xeon platform to select customers only, which also puts a stop to any HEDT product. This means that the next generation Xeon coming to market should be Ice Lake on the company’s 10nm process. With an enterprise launch date of Q1 202, there are lots of concerned thoughts as to how many will actually be available – will Ice Lake Xeon be in general availability, what will the performance be like, and then for the HEDT market, when will it filter down? These are all questions I wonder if Intel can even hint at right now – for that manufacturing process, the key would be trying to manufacture the most cost effective parts that it can, and HEDT doesn’t hold a candle to the premium Xeon components.
There has been some hinting that Intel might have something else up its sleeve. The company recently announced new Rocket Lake consumer processors for early next year, which take the newer Ice Lake mobile CPU design on 10nm and ‘back-port’ to 14nm, with the IPC improvement if not the process node improvement. Those Rocket Lake products peak at 8-core, and could more easily be expanded to 18-core and 28-core processors should Intel want to put these back-ported cores into something more than consumer products. It creates an insurance policy and a potential route. However, nothing out of Intel has suggested that these backported cores are coming to HEDT any time soon.
For AMD, Threadripper on Zen 3 (probably likely to be called Threadripper 5000) is expected to be coming next year. As Zen 3 chiplets are straight drop-ins for Zen 2 chiplets, bring-up should go smoothly. But, those chiplets will initially be served in AMD’s EPYC processors first, because that is where the higher margins are. If demand for Zen 3 Enterprise is high (based on initial numbers I’d guess as much) and AMD can’t meet demand, then next-gen Threadripper might have to wait a little bit longer.
Recent Threadripper / EPYC CPU Reviews (AMD)
- AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X (64 core)
- AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X (32 core)
- AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X (24 core)
- AMD Ryzen 9 5950X (16 core)
- AMD EPYC 7F52 (16 core, high frequency)
Recent HEDT / Xeon CPU Reviews (Intel)
- Intel Core i9-10980XE (18 core)
- Intel Core i9-9990XE (14 core, all-core 5.0 GHz)
- Intel Core i9-10900K (10 core, turbo 5.3 GHz)
- Intel Core i9-9900KS (8 core, all-core 5.0 GHz)
- Intel Xeon Gold 6258R (28 core)
- Intel Xeon W-3175X (28 core unlocked)
Our benchmark database can be found at https://anandtech.com/bench