The 5GHz CPU wars are returned. Should you be concerned?

If this year’s CES is any indicator, AMD and Intel’s 5GHz rivalry is back in full force.

Both firms teased desktop CPUs operating at 5GHz or higher as part of their “one more thing” teasers. AMD kicked off the rap fight by demonstrating their next-generation Ryzen 7000 processor running the game Halo Infinite, with all CPU cores apparently performing at 5GHz or higher. The CPU type and number of cores were not specified, but we’re guessing at least 8 cores or more to be spectacular.

Two hours later, Intel responded with its own Hitman 3 game demo, which was played on an impending 12th-generation Core i9 “KS” processor with every performance core operating at 5.2GHz. While amazing, Intel isn’t technically eligible for the “all-core increase” award since the remaining efficiency cores ran at “just” 4GHz. But when it comes to gaming, it’s those performance cores that truly count.

Why is 5GHz so important: You

We think you’re making whatever face at all of this chest pumping because it’s not a big deal. After all, the initial 5GHz boundary on a desktop PC was crossed with AMD’s FX-5950 CPU over nine years ago, and no one worried. So, what’s the point this time?

YouTube / Intel

Breaking the 5GHz barrier isn’t exactly the huge deal that AMD and Intel make it out to be in terms of actual gaming performance, but improvements in all-core rates will also typically imply substantial performance advantages for programmes and jobs that require more cores. So, whether you use 3D modelling, Adobe Premiere and Lightroom, or extensive analysis with Microsoft Excel, the greater all-core increases should win you advantages ranging from 8 to 11 percent.

Even then, the 5GHz breakthrough isn’t a game changer unless you consider its most significant benefit: marketing. Putting “5GHz” on a CPU box or PC works like magic on buyers. Yes, your brain informs you that 4.9GHz is practically the same as 5GHz, but that round number tickles all sorts of nerves. Still don’t trust us? So why are products 99 cents instead than a buck? Or how about new computers for $2,499 and automobiles for $27,995? The obvious explanation is that we stupid people react to how we interpret numbers. It also works in every culture on the world, and most likely throughout history. We’re quite sure the initial barter ended up costing 19 chickens.

During a recent CES 2022 interview on our Full Nerd podcast, AMD’s director of technical marketing, Robert Hallock, talked out the notion. (Jump to 14:26 to hear his comments on “5GHz” vs. “World’s greatest,” but really, watch the entire thing—Robert and AMD gaming architect Frank Azor dropped all kinds of amazing information bombs on the programme.)

“We did a lot of market research on what consumers are interested in,” Hallock said. “What moves the needle when they see a letter, a number, or a spec on the box, and what doesn’t?” Big round whole numbers, such as 4.0, 4.5, and 5.0, have a significant impact on customer choice. However, 5.1 or 5.2 on the Richter scale scarcely registers.”

So, certainly, the drive for all-core processors at 5GHz and above is crucial, but this is mostly due to the fact that huge round numbers still work on humans. Fortunately, CPU manufacturers have additional options for putting the pedal to the metal in terms of performance.

“Use-case relevance is above [the stickiness of round numbers],” Hallock concluded. “You’ve progressed from specifications to ‘is this good for me and what I want to do?'” So, whether you’re searching for the greatest CAD CPU, gaming, software development, or compilation, it bears even more weight than a spec… And I believe that, in particular, over the past two or three years, there has been a decrease in the overall market concentration on frequency. I believe people are recognising that (for example) Ryzen can come to the table at 4.6 or 4.7GHz and legitimately defeat a CPU that could be operating at 5.1 to 5.2GHz, and that’s a 500 to 600 megahertz gap. And maybe the explanation is that frequency does not always important.”

Of course, AMD has a vested interest in saying that, as the company is positioning its upcoming Ryzen 7 5800X3D with radical new V-Cache technology as the “world’s best gaming CPU,” claiming that it outperforms Intel’s Core i9-12900K and even AMD’s own Ryzen 9 5900X despite a noticeable decrease in clock frequencies due to all that extra cache stacked on top of the chip. As Hallock describes in other parts of the conversation, getting more performance out of these more intricate bits of silicon is no longer as easy as turning up the clocks.

But make no mistake: faster processors are always a good thing, regardless of how they get there, and we’re looking forward to the 5GHz conflict developing in 2022. Intel’s 12th-generation KS processor is slated to be released this quarter, with Ryzen 7000 CPUs following in the second part of the year. The Ryzen 7 5800X3D, which AMD claims will be the “world’s fastest gaming CPU” despite peak boost rates of 4.5GHz, will be arriving this spring.

Gordon has been covering PCs and components since 1998, making him one of the founding fathers of serious tech reporting.