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Steam Shows CPU Core Counts Slowly, Finally, Creeping Upwards

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When AMD launched Ryzen back in April 2017, the company made it a point to emphasize higher core counts than Intel was selling in the consumer market, with a Ryzen 7 1800X offering up to eight CPU cores, compared with four on the 7700K. From a gaming perspective, however, Ryzen wasn’t quite as strong against Intel as it was in other segments. At 1440p and 4K the difference was minimal, but Intel had a modest advantage at 1080p.

It’s now been several years since Ryzen launched, and AMD has been steadily improving its gaming performance at 1080p versus its larger rival with every passing product generation. Intel has responded at various points with new, higher core count CPUs of its own, though the company’s current mainstream consumer desktop socket tops out at 10 CPU cores, compared with AMD’s 16. AMD has improved its performance and core counts more rapidly, but Intel is still shipping far more CPU cores per chip than it did four years ago. Are gamers buying them?

Despite its flaws, the Steam Hardware Survey remains our best source of information for this kind of data. As always, keep in mind that the SHS is a survey of every machine on which Steam is installed, not every computer used to play games. If you download Steam to a low-end laptop to install a game like League of Legends or Darkest Dungeon, it counts for just as much as if you build a dedicated gaming rig and bring it online for the first time.

First, the cumulative data (not shown) shows AMD gaining market share. In May, AMD had 22.45 percent of the market. In September, it holds 25.75 percent of the total install base. The breakdown by CPU core count is shown below:

This covers every chip but 18-core CPUs, which have 0.01 percent market share. All CPU core counts above that, up to 56 (not 64) cores are listed at 0.00 percent, so we stopped at 16. We see evidence of growth in the 6, 8, 10, 12, and 16-core markets. While quad-cores are still the most popular configuration by far, 36.63 percent of the market now uses six cores or more. If you want to see games using more CPU cores in the future, moving the needle on median CPU core count is how we’ll get there.

We cannot distinguish between AMD and Intel when it comes to the lower core counts, but above eight cores, we can take a pretty good guess at which company is gaining market share in certain SKUs. AMD does not sell a 10-core or a 14-core CPU. Intel does not currently sell a 10th Generation 16-core CPU. While Intel has sold 16-core chips in the past, any recent growth in the segment is almost certainly being driven by AMD, now a sudden surge in demand for last-generation Intel Core X CPUs.

Intel’s 10-core CPUs include the Core i9-10900K, as well as multiple members of the Core X family. Most of the recent growth has likely come from the 10900K, and the CPUs collectively account for 0.16 percent of the market, 2x what they held in May.

AMD shares the 12-core space with a similar range of older Core X CPUs, but 12-core market share has increased from 0.37 percent in May to 0.61 percent in September. We can safely assume most, if not all, of that increase was driven by the Ryzen 9 3900X and Ryzen 9 3900XT. There are virtually no 14-core chips, but the 0.01 percent of them out there are all Intel CPUs. The number of 16-core chips has also edged upwards, from 0.1 percent in May to 0.14 percent in September. 6-core chips improved their market share by 1.15x, while 8-core chips grew faster, at 1.32x.

Fun Fact: The only three-core CPU ever released that I recall was AMD’s Toliman-core Phenom II. Toliman wasn’t a bad chip, but there would have to be an absolute ton of them out there in the ether to be holding 1 percent of the market all by themselves. But what else could be holding down the 3 CPU market?

We don’t know how large the difference is in CPU core count between the median gaming PC and the total Steam install base, but it seems safe to bet that most gamers are now playing on quad-cores at minimum. Unlucky dual-core mobile owners who last bought lightweight gaming systems in 2016 – 2017 are likely approaching an upgrade cycle.

With so many gamers already using six-core and eight-core systems, this may finally be the console generation where we start seeing games practically optimized for high core counts on upper-end Ryzen and Core systems. If quad-cores continue declining at the current rate and six cores keep growing, the two markets will switch places in the next few years. Between the growth in CPU core counts and the likelihood that we’ll start seeing games beginning to play with using AI for calculations this cycle, we could see a bit more innovation in the gaming market than we’ve seen in the past seven years or so. The improvements to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will help with this — outfitting both consoles with an eight-core Ryzen CPU will ensure developers have reason to target optimal performance on a modern high-end CPU as opposed to optimizing against last-generation’s Jaguar.

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