The third generation of AMD’s Ryzen CPUs brings the incremental improvements to clock speeds that you’d expect of a new processor architecture. It also offers significant ancillary benefits—much larger caches and PCI Express 4.0 support—that will appeal to upgraders and system builders who seek a degree of future-proofing. One of the sweet spots of the new lineup is the Ryzen 5 3600X ($250). Like most AMD chips, it lacks integrated graphics, but it makes up for it in terms of multithreading and easy overclocking, two features that some of its Intel competitors lack. It’s an excellent choice for a mainstream or entry-level gaming PC.
Sizing Up Specs
There are currently two third-generation Ryzen 5 chips based on AMD’s latest Zen 2 microarchitecture, the Ryzen 5 3600X and Ryzen 5 3600. Both have six cores with multithreading support, which means each processing core can handle two instruction threads at a time for a total of 12 threads. The Ryzen 5 3600X tested here is a 95-watt chip with a 3.8GHz base and 4.4GHz boost clock. The $199 Ryzen 5 3600, meanwhile, is a 65-watt part that comes in at 3.6GHz base and 4.2GHz boost. (A third Ryzen 5 CPU, the Ryzen 5 3400G, is technically part of the third generation but costs less and uses the older Zen+ microarchitecture.)
Compared with their predecessors’ specs, these improvements are slight. The second-generation Ryzen 5 2600X is also a six-core, 12-thread, 95-watt chip. The main differences are its base and boost clock speeds of 3.6GHz and 4.2GHz respectively. In addition to the small clock speed uptick, however, the third generation boasts a major cache improvement: The Ryzen 5 3600X carries a considerable 35MB Level 3 cache, a capacity it shares with the Ryzen 5 3600. That’s more than double the 16MB of the preceding Ryzen 5 2600X and Ryzen 5 2600.
Both of the third-gen Ryzen 5 chips feature 24 CPU-based PCI Express 4.0 lanes and 16 chipset lanes. For now, the third-generation Ryzen CPUs are the only ones to feature PCIe Gen 4. This enables much faster data throughput for solid-state drives, and could also improve the performance of future graphics cards. If you’re planning on installing a PCIe Gen 4 SSD in your new Ryzen 5 3600X build, you’ll need a motherboard that supports PCIe Gen 4 as well. If not, you can choose from nearly any AM4 motherboard, since the Ryzen 5 3600X is backwards-compatible (though some boards may need a BIOS update before you install the chip).
How Intel Compares
Intel’s latest tenth-generation chips aren’t available in mainstream desktop form yet, so the company’s chief competitors to the Ryzen 5 3600X are CPUs from the ninth-generation “Coffee Lake” Core i5 family. These include the Core i5-9600K, a six-core chip that at $263 costs roughly the same as the Ryzen 5 3600X. Its clock speeds are similar, at 3.7GHz base and 4.6GHz boost, and it has the same 95-watt rated power consumption. It’s also overclockable, like the AMD part.
The Core i5-9600K, however, lacks support for both PCIe Gen 4 and Hyper-Threading (Intel’s marketing term for multithreading). This could significantly impact performance when running apps such as modern multimedia content creation programs that are designed to take advantage of as many cores and threads as a processor has to offer. The Core i5-9600K also has a much smaller 9MB L3 cache. The cache size is important for apps that need fast access to a system’s memory, a category that includes many graphics-intensive PC games.
If you’re building a PC from scratch, the Core i5-9600K’s lack of an included CPU cooling solution also counts against it. AMD provides a very capable Wraith Spire cooling fan in the box with the Ryzen 5 3600X, which will likely provide all the cooling you need to run the chip at its stock clock speeds. The fact that the Core i5-9600K includes no stock cooler or heatsink means you’ll have to budget extra to buy a third-party one, unless you’ve got an unused one lying around.
Other Included Extras
To help you fine-tune the performance of the Ryzen 5 3600X, AMD offers the Ryzen Master software utility, which is compatible with all Ryzen CPUs. It accomplishes many tasks, including adjusting clock speeds and memory profiles, without needing to boot into the BIOS. Its closest equivalent is Intel’s XMP app, though the latter is primarily intended for overclockers and I don’t find it as robust as Ryzen Master.
AMD also currently includes three free months of Xbox Game Pass for PC with the Ryzen 5 3600X. Both the Ryzen 5 3600X and Core i5-9600K come with three-year warranties.
Excellent Everyday Performance
To judge the Ryzen 5 3600X’s performance, I compared its results on our benchmark tests with several of its Ryzen alternatives, as well as a few older Intel competitors. These include the Ryzen 5 3600 and the preceding Ryzen 5 2600X.
I’ve also included AMD CPUs one rung above and below the Ryzen 5 3600X. The Ryzen 5 3400G is a $149 chip that has fewer cores and a lower TDP, while the Ryzen 7 3700X is an eight-core, 16-thread chip that is our Editors’ Choice winner for best mainstream CPU. It’s always helpful to see what kind of performance you can expect by slightly increasing your CPU budget, since the processor is often the most important component in a PC build.
Because PCMag hasn’t yet tested the Core i5-9600K, I’ve instead included performance numbers from the older Core i5-8400 and Core i7-8700K.
Our Cinebench test is one of the best predictors of performance on resource-intensive tasks such as rendering a 3D image. The Ryzen 5 3600X did admirably here, besting all comers except for the Ryzen 7 3700X on the all-cores Cinebench test. When running on just a single core, the Ryzen 5 3600X was a tad slower than both the Ryzen 7 3700X and the Core i7-8700K.
Single-core performance is important if you’re relying on older software that’s not optimized for today’s many-core CPUs, and it’s an area in which Ryzen chips have historically lagged compared with their Intel competitors. Our audio encoding test, which uses the already-obsolete Apple iTunes software, offers a closer examination of performance on single-core tasks. On this test, the Core i7-8700K demonstrates a clear advantage.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, our video encoding test offers a glimpse at expected performance while using Handbrake, a modern open-source app designed to scale with more CPU cores and threads. The results are predictable but the differences are even more pronounced, with the Ryzen 5 3600X far outpacing the less expensive Ryzen 5 3400G.
Almost every PC user will need to compress or unzip files at some point, a CPU-intensive task that we simulate with our 7-Zip benchmark. Here, the results closely mirrored those of the Cinebench all-cores test, with the Ryzen 5 3600X faster than all but the Ryzen 7 3700X and the Core i7-8700K.
Gaming Performance Occasionally Suffers
While a PC’s GPU is the most important factor in determining its performance on demanding AAA games, the CPU can also play a role. This is especially true when you’re trying to eke out every last frame per second (fps) while playing at full HD (1080p) resolution. On the in-game benchmarks of popular titles like Far Cry 5 and Hitman: Absolution, the Ryzen 5 3600X significantly underperforms when compared with more expensive CPUs like the Intel Core i9-9900K and Ryzen 9 3900X.
On the other hand, some games aren’t as limited by CPU performance, such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive. On this title, nearly all the high-end and mainstream CPUs we’ve tested achieved frame rates around the 400fps mark at 1080p. And if you’re planning on playing at 4K resolution, the graphics card is by far the more limiting factor. On Far Cry 5, all the processors managed approximately 70fps at 4K resolution.
Finally, the Ryzen 5 3600X is no substitute for a high-end CPU of the type you’d expect to install in a serious gaming rig or multimedia editing workstation. That’s clear from the results of our POV-Ray and Blender tests, which use popular content creation apps to simulate workflows typical of game and visual effects studios.
There are some slight variations, but the Ryzen 5 3600X and other chips performed roughly equally, especially on the Blender test. If you’re building a powerful PC to perform these tasks, you’ll want to invest in a far more capable processor, such as a Ryzen Threadripper or Intel Core i9.
With Great Specs Come Great Capabilities
The Ryzen 5 3600X’s multithreading support and newly increased cache size help it achieve excellent mainstream performance. In most cases, the Ryzen 7 3700X slightly exceeds that performance, which is why it retains our Editors’ Choice for best mainstream CPU. If you don’t want to pay the $80 premium for the Ryzen 7 3700X, however, the Ryzen 5 3600X is an excellent option.
The only PC builders who should probably shun the Ryzen 5 3600X are gamers or content creators whose workflows call for voracious computing resources. If you really want to eke out the fastest frame rate, it’s worth investing in a more potent Ryzen 9 or Core i9. On the other hand, if you’re a casual gamer uninterested in a discrete GPU, you’ll want a CPU with a capable built-in graphics processor like the Ryzen 5 3400G.
Finally, no matter what your reason for buying a new CPU, it’s hard to argue with the Ryzen 5 3600X’s backwards motherboard compatibility and support for the cutting-edge PCIe 4.0 standard. The Intel competition currently lacks this last feature, and combined with multithreading support, it firmly tips the scales in the Ryzen 5 3600X’s favor, at least in the eyes of the future-proofing enthusiast.