Did Intel's Cascade Lake-X tactics work?

Written by Antony Leather

December 20, 2019 | 13:12

Tags: #3rd-gen-threadripper #cascade-lake-x #hedt

Companies: #amd #intel

There's been a lot of hate directed at Intel recently. Its Cascade Lake-X CPUs offered little in terms of boosted specifications compared to the two previous generations of Skylake-X-derived 14nm products, but the furore at the lack of innovation compared to the competition has maybe overshadowed the fact that Intel made massive price cuts to its HEDT CPU range. In fact, the scale is unprecedented in Intel's recent desktop CPU history. However, now things have calmed down from the CPU launch-fest that was November, which saw the Ryzen 9 3950X, Threadripper 3960X, Threadripper 3970X and Core i9-10980XE all launch within days of each other, we can take a step back and see if Cascade Lake-X's pricing was a shrewd move from Intel, or if it's still a damp squib.

First, we need to look at the actual retail pricing, and Scan has the CPU listed on pre-order at £1,149. Even with a poor exchange rate and mark-up for VAT, that's still a fair amount more than many were expecting, but it's still a massive chunk off the launch price of the Core i9-9980XE, and also hundreds of pounds cheaper than the latter was retailing for up until Intel's launch last month.

Looking upwards at the Threadripper 3960X, there's another £200 involved and that's before you get to motherboard prices, which will cost around £250 more than the cheapest new X299 board I could find. The Asus Prime TRX40-Pro, for example, retails for £410,  while Gigabyte's X299 Aorus Gaming costs just £145. So, in reality, while the price difference in CPUs is worth paying, the fact that, in total, you're looking at closer to £500 moving from the Core i9-10980XE to the Ryzen Threadripper 3960X. As we mentioned in our reviews of AMD's new Threadripper CPUs, they sit well and truly above Cascade Lake-X in terms of price and performance. Are they better value? Not really - you're paying noticeably more for noticeably more performance... so this isn't a head-to-head battle like we've seen in the GPU market this year. 

Clearly, the pricing has worked at this end of the spectrum. Intel's lost the performance lead for sure, but that doesn't mean it's been driven out of the HEDT market. Had the Core i9-10980XE retailed for similar levels as its predecessor, Intel would have been laughed out of the room, but the price cuts worked, even if they're a pill no-one, including us, wanted to see the company swallow. It's the near-complete lack of innovation on Intel's part, though,  which justifies some finger-pointing.

While I wanted to focus on current products here, 2nd Gen Ryzen Threadripper should also be mentioned. The likes of the Threadripper 2950X and 2990WX are still relevant, but as we saw in our benchmarks, there are some areas where they fall behind. That's not just against Intel, though, but against 3rd Gen Ryzen Threadripper, too. Games and lightly-threaded applications benefitted hugely from the Zen 2 architecture, but Zen+ is 2018 technology and lacks the all-round prowess on offer with the Core i9-10980XE, especially once overclocked. While the Threadripper 2950X can now be had for less than £800, making it a £350 saving over the Core i9-10980XE, X399 motherboard prices remain stubbornly high. The cheapest I could find was the Asus Prime X399-A, which costs close to £300 - again that means AMD's system cost lets it down compared to X299, meaning that £350 price advantage is cut to just £200 once you factor in the motherboard. In many tests such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Cinebench and especially in games, the Core i9-10980XE is absolutely worth the extra cash, even at stock speed and especially if you plan on overclocking it.

Then we get to the Ryzen 9 3950X. Finally, we get AMD standing up to Intel with some more-affordable motherboards, and AMD actually has an advantage here in that some of the better B450 motherboards are more than up to the task of handling AMD's 16-core CPU. With a £400 saving on CPU price compared to the Core i9-10980XE and another £40, minimum, or so on motherboards, that's close to a £450 saving. Performance-wise, things aren't quite as clear-cut. In Premiere Pro, the Core i9-10980XE is probably worth the extra cash if you'll be exporting a lot of 4K projects, and you also get the extra PCIe lanes. However, in many other tests, the AMD CPU isn't far behind and is ultimately much better value - the Core i9-10980XE would need to be well south of a grand here to make it attractive. Things lean a little more in Intel's favour if you overclock the CPU - it turns into one of the best allrounders out there, but with power consumption that's eyebrow-raising. Once you step up to X570, that motherboard pricing advantage disappears, too, but you also get a wider choice of motherboards and motherboard form-factors, as well.

Really, then, if you take the frustration at Intel's lack of innovation out of the equation and think about things with a clear head, it's clear that Cascade Lake-X's pricing allows it to sit as a viable, cheaper option to 3rd Gen Threadripper. It's a somewhat depressing move, but a sensible and clever one nonetheless. However, the situation isn't quite the same with the Core i9-10980XE facing the other way. The Ryzen 9 3950X is significantly cheaper, and at this end of the scale, the savings can have a huge impact on the rest of your system. Thankfully for us, there isn't a bad option - each has its place and one thing's for certain - you get a heck of a lot more CPU horsepower for your cash than you did this time last year, and that can only be a good thing, even if the blue team merely slashed prices.

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