Should I. Or, Shouldn’t I. Upgrade, That Is

NAB ramp up. A period where articles about new cameras arriving in the next year appear almost daily. I’m sure many shooters as they skim or read these stories can’t help but consider whether the time has come to upgrade their cameras.

For those of us those involved with computers for editing and color grading, the weeks prior to Computex held in Taiwan, generate similar “should I upgrade” questions (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Computex May 26, 2019.

Figure 1: Computex May 26, 2019.

My PC is over two years old—a lifetime in the computer world. I know my PC has a 6th Gen Core i7-6700H. Intel’s latest CPUs are called 9th Gen chips. I am not at all sure how Intel has enhanced my i7 to create a 7th Gen, 8th Gen, and then 9th Gen Core chips. Obviously, Intel has increased performance. To you and me, performance means faster computation.

To CPU designers, “performance” means an aspect of chip operation requested by major customers. Intel creates high-performance desktop class (HEDT), desktop class, and laptop class CPU chips. Each class will have its own performance goals.

Classes that have relevance for most editors are desktop-class chips designed to keep power dissipation below 95-watts and laptop-class chips designed to keep power dissipation below 45-watts. It’s safe to assume the design balance of a 9th Gen desktop chip will favor increased computation speed.

A 9th Gen laptop chip, however, would have to temper increased computation speed with the need to keep power requirements low to support long battery life. Laptop CPUs, for example, may be designed so power can be dynamically cut to portions of the chip not in use.

Interruption by AMD

Before disclosing what I have learned about 7th, 8th, and 9th Gen processors, I have to interrupt this article by talking about AMD CPU chips. This interruption is appropriate because that’s exactly what two years ago the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, which offered 16-cores and 32-threads, did to Intel’s CPU strategy.

The great number of cores in the AMD chip gave pause to those needing computers for decoding and encoding 4K and 8K files as these tasks are typically done by the CPU.

To make their chips more competitive, 2018 saw AMD introduce second-generation Ryzen 7 chips. For example, the Ryzen 7 1700X became the 2700X. Both the 1700X and 2700X offer 8-cores with 16-threads.(Benchmark scores are dependent on CPU clock speed, RAM speed, chip voltage, thermal throttling, and motherboard design.)

Figure 2: AMD and Intel CPU Chips Running CineBench 20.

7th, 8th, and 9th Gen Intel Desktop Chips

We now return to 7th, 8th, and 9th Gen Intel chips. First, we need be aware of the nomenclature Intel uses to define the architecture of each CPU family. Beginning in 2011, Intel introduced the Sandy Bridge chip built using a 32nm manufacturing process. Figure 3 shows chip naming progression from 2011 to 2019.

Figure 3: Intel Microarchitecture Progression.

My PC’s Core i7-6700H employs the Skylake 6th Gen architecture introduced in 2015. A refresh of Skylake gave us the 7th Gen Kaby Lake which was again refreshed to become the 8th Gen Coffee Lake.

A 9th Gen chip (Coffee Lake-R) is a refresh to the Coffee Lake architecture. Therefore, a 9th Gen CPU is a Skylake refresh refresh refresh. This tells me that while my CPU is older and slower, it has the same fundamental microarchitecture as do the 8th and 9th Gen chips.

Figure 4 shows synthetic benchmark performancefor a selection of currently available 165-watt (HEDT) and 95-watt desktop chips. Plus, my PC’s performance.

Figure 4: Intel Desktop CPU Chips.

Any of these chips in a desktop tower offers serious compute power. The Core i9-9900K provides excellent 8-core/16-thread performance while meeting the 65-watt desktop power limit. Its price point is likely at the limit for most buyers.

8th and 9th Gen Intel Laptop Chips

There is a another, different upgrade path. Upgrade to one of the Intel-based thin, high-performance laptops. These laptops come with a NVidia GTX/RTX graphics chip.

In Q1 2019, Intel released the i9-9880H offering 8-cores and 16-threads. Intel claims the new Core i9-9880H is ideal for “Creator Laptops.” That sure sounds like us.

In Q2, Intel released the i7-9750H with 6-cores and 12-threads. With almost no performance increase over the i7-8750 its role seems only to allow laptop makers to claim their laptop has a 9th Gen CPU.

Figure 5 shows synthetic multi-thread benchmark performance plus CineBench20 performance.

Figure 5: A Sampling of Current Laptop Intel chips.

A laptop upgrade path would lead either to a Core i7-9750H or a Core i9-9880H. See Figure 6 where two RAM slots are being exposed on a i7-9750H-based laptop.

Figure 6:	9th Gen Core i7-9750H, dual-channel 32GB RAM, 512 GB NVMe SSD, NVidia GTX-1660Ti with 6GB GDDR5 RAM, a 15.6-inch FHD IPS anti-glare 144 Hz Display, Multi-format Card Reader, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, Intel Wireless AC9560, Bluetooth 5.0, and Windows 10 Pro.

Figure 6: 9th Gen Core i7-9750H, dual-channel 32GB RAM, 512 GB NVMe SSD, NVidia GTX-1660Ti with 6GB GDDR5 RAM, a 15.6-inch FHD IPS anti-glare 144 Hz Display, Multi-format Card Reader, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, Intel Wireless AC9560, Bluetooth 5.0, and Windows 10 Pro.

Historically laptops, compared to desktops with NVidia GTX boards, provided poor rendering performance even though the laptop could provide adequate multi-thread decompression and compression performance. The recommended solution—purchase an eGPU.

Figure 7: hp Accelerator eGPU.

Figure 7: hp Accelerator eGPU.

An eGPU is a small powered box containing a NVidia GTX/RTX graphics board. (For color grading, an RTX board provides little performance increase over a GTX board.) See Figure 7.

Graphics commands from an application are transferred, first via a 32 GB/s 16-lane PCIe bus, and then from the laptop to the eGPU through a 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3 cable to a double-wide PCIe slot in the eGPU enclosure. A GTX or RTX NVidia board in this slot renders graphics as though the board were in the laptop. See Figure 8.

Figure 8: Inside an hp Accelerator eGPU Showing the NVidia GTX board.

Figure 8: Inside an hp Accelerator eGPU Showing the NVidia GTX board.

Claims of blazing fast graphics eGPU performance flounder on the non-obvious fact that a Thunderbolt 3 connection provides only a 5 GB/s data path. Thus, a GTX-1660Ti in an eGPU can provide only about one-sixth its in laptop performance when in a 32 GB/s 16-lane PCIe slot. An eGPU should be used only when the CPU’s on-chip GPU is the only source of graphics. See Figure 9.

Figure 9: Estimated hp Accelerator eGPU Performance.

3rd Generation AMD Desktop Chips

At Computex 2019, AMD announced two Ryzen 8-core/16-thread chips, the 3700X (3.6 GHz Base/4.4 GHz Boost) and the 3800X (3.9 GHz Base/4.5 GHz Boost). Both are 65-watt chips with 36MB of on-chip cache.

AMD also announced the 3900X, a 12-core/24-thread chip, which has a 3.8 GHz Base and 4.6 GHz Boost frequency. The 3900X consumes 105-watts verses Intel’s Core i9-9900K which burns 165-watts.

Chips built with AMD’s 7nm Zen 2 process consume less power than Intel’s 14nm process chips. An AMD system will, therefore, run cooler.

A CineBench 20 multi-threaded test provided the data presented in Figure 10. 

Figure 10: AMD and Intel CPU Chips Running CineBench 20.

From these CineBench 20 multi-threaded scores its clear why AMD’s Ryzen Zen 2 chips are receiving so much favorable attention.

Figure 11: MSI PRESTIGE X570 CREATION Motherboard.

Figure 11: MSI PRESTIGE X570 CREATION Motherboard.

Complete Ryzen-based systems should arrive in a few months. My preference would be to build a system from scratch that could host any Ryzen 3000-series chip. Figure 11 shows one of new, currently without full specifications and unpriced, Ryzen motherboards.

Over the next few months we will learn much more about Ryzen and what it offers editors and those who do color grading. And, even more importantly, how our applications perform with these new powerful chips.

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