How to Upgrade Your AMD CPU

Introduction

Since the release of the 12th Generation Intel “Alder Lake” desktop processors, AMD Ryzen 5000 Series “Vermeer” desktop processors have become considerably less expensive. AMD has been using socket AM4 motherboards for Ryzen desktop processors since early 2017. That means there are many AM4 desktop systems of various ages out there. This post will discuss “How to Upgrade Your AMD CPU.”

Since 2017, there have been several generations of “compatible” AM4 motherboards and AMD Ryzen processors. I have compatible in quotes for a reason, which I will explain later.

Depending on the exact motherboard and processor in question, there is a pretty good chance that you can upgrade just your processor to a newer generation Ryzen processor that will work just fine in an existing older motherboard. Newer generation Ryzen processors also have higher core count models which give you additional upgrade choices.

This means you might be able to get a pretty substantial performance upgrade for a relatively small amount of money, just by upgrading your processor. This is exciting, but you need to do some research and preparation first.

Understanding AMD Processor Names

AMD has released four generations of AMD Ryzen desktop processors since March of 2017. These are shown below.

  • First Generation: 14nm Zen released in March of 2017
  • Second Generation: 12nm Zen+ released in April of 2018
  • Third Generation: 7nm Zen 2 released in July of 2019
  • Fourth Generation: 7nm Zen 3 released in November 2020
  • Fifth Generation: 5nm Zen 4 due to be released in Q3 2022

A fifth generation is probably going to be released in Q3 2022. FYI: Zen 4 will require a new chipset and motherboard socket, so the AM4 party will be over. I have a more detailed post about Understanding AMD Processor Names.

What Processors Are Compatible Your Motherboard?

Since 2017, AMD has had three main generations of motherboards, with eight different chipsets. The first AM4 generation had the X370, B350, and A320 chipsets. AMD’s second AM4 generation included the X470 and B450 chipsets. Finally, the third generation of AM4 has the X570, B550 and A520 chipsets.

Normally for an all-new system, you want to match the generation of the motherboard and the processor. For example, you would have an AMD B550 chipset motherboard with an AMD Ryzen 5 5600X processor. AMD has always had some flexibility here as far as backwards and forwards compatibility goes, but it was not unlimited.

Until recently, you could not use a 4th generation Ryzen 5000 series processor in a 1st generation AMD X370 motherboard. You also could not use a 3rd generation Ryzen 3000 series processor in a 1st generation AMD X370 motherboard.

AMD has recently changed that, letting you use newer Ryzen 3000 and Ryzen 5000 series processors in many older AMD 300 series motherboards. You will need a BIOS update to do this, and it is not supported for all motherboards. The figure below outlines the new compatibility policy.

How to Upgrade Your AMD CPU
AMD Chipsets and Processor Compatibility

If you have a 2nd generation 400 series motherboard, you will also need a BIOS update in order to use a Ryzen 5000 series processor. This has been possible and supported for quite a while.

Note: Processor compatibility is dependent on your motherboard brand and model and what BIOS version it has. It is critically important that you check the processor compatibility list on the motherboard vendor’s web site for your exact motherboard model to see whether it will support the new processor model that you are thinking about using. With older motherboards, it is very likely that you will have to update your BIOS in order to support a newer processor.

How to Upgrade Your AMD CPU

Once you are 100% sure that a newer processor is supported in your motherboard, it is a pretty simple procedure to actually upgrade your processor. It involves these steps:

  • Buy the newer processor
    • It could be brand new or used from the secondary market
  • Have a fresh tube of thermal paste
  • If necessary, update (flash) your BIOS to a new enough version to support the newer processor
    • Being on the latest BIOS version for your motherboard is usually a very good idea
    • I have made many YouTube videos about how to update the BIOS on various motherboards
  • Reenable AMP/XMP in your BIOS after flashing the BIOS
    • This is not required, but gives you better memory performance
  • Update your AMD chipset software to the latest version
    • This is not required, but it is a good idea
  • Shutdown and unplug your system completely
  • Lay the system on its side and take off the side panel
  • Remove your GPU
    • This makes it easier to get to the CPU cooler and CPU
  • Remove the CPU cooler
  • Carefully clean off the CPU thermal paste from the CPU cooler
  • Carefully clean off the CPU thermal paste from the IHS (top surface) of the CPU
  • Lift the CPU retention bar to release the CPU
  • Remove the old CPU, only touching the edges. Do not touch the pins!
  • Carefully install the new CPU in the socket
    • You have to match the gold triangle marking on the corner of the CPU and the marking on the motherboard
  • Lower the CPU retention bar to secure the CPU
  • Apply a small line of thermal paste in the middle of the IHS of the processor
  • Reinstall your CPU cooler and GPU
    • Leave the side of the case off (for good luck)
  • Plug in the system and connect the peripherals and see if it will POST
    • The first POST will take much longer than usual (don’t panic)
    • You will get an F1 prompt telling you that the CPU has changed

This may sound complicated, but it actually goes pretty quickly in most cases.

Here is an example video about how to update the BIOS on an MSI motherboard with M-Flash

Final Words

Brand new Ryzen 5000 series desktop processors are available at very reasonable prices right now, typically for around $30-$35 per core. If your motherboard supports it, you could go from something like an older Ryzen 7 1700 to something like a Ryzen 7 5800X and see a very substantial increase in single and multi-threaded performance.

Over the next few months there should be lots of used Ryzen 3000 and 5000 series processors for sale at even lower prices, which gives you even more affordable CPU upgrade possibilities. You should be able to sell your older CPU on the secondary market to recoup some of the cost of the new processor.

If your budget allows, getting a new motherboard to go with your new processor has a lot of benefits, mainly from an I/O perspective. For example, you need a 500 series motherboard to get PCIe 4.0 support. But replacing your motherboard is also a more involved procedure.

A friend of mine, Aaron Bertrand, recently took my advice and upgraded his CPU from a Ryzen 7 3700X to a Ryzen 9 5900X. It went very smoothly for him, and I think he is pretty happy with the results.

If you have any questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerryThanks for reading!

AMD, PC Hardware

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