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The AMD Ryzen CPU Preview; Zen Matures


Author: SKYMTL
Date: December 12, 2016
Product Name: RYZEN

Like many of you, the current state of the x86 processor market has me in a state of frustration. On Intel’s side that meant successive launches of parts with moderate improvements over their predecessors and, if leaks are any indication, the new Kaby Lake desktop lineup will be much of the same. It’s obvious they’ve run face first into the limits of Moore’s Law. For their part AMD has been mired in a world of lackluster APU throughput due to the woefully slow uptake rate of GPU compute into mainstream applications. Meanwhile, other than a precious few successes on the Athlon side, their own x86 processors have severely underperformed in relation to Intel’s offerings. With the upcoming Zen series and their move away from AMD’s Bulldozer microarchitecture, there’s a lot of hope that things will change in a big way.

Late last week AMD hosted a select group of journalists for briefings about their upcoming initiatives, discussing updates for everything from compute-minded GPUs for deep learning to what’s expected from their Zen CPUs. Unfortunately we can’t discuss everything here since various NDAs are set to expire between now and CES but there are some major announcements about upcoming processors and their potential competitive positioning within the broader market.

Even though it was kept to the end of AMD’s presentations, perhaps the most broadly reaching announcement was the transition away from the Zen designation we’re all familiar with. While Zen will still be used as a reference name for the underlying core architecture, the actual products themselves will be given the Ryzen designation. Naturally the term Summit Ridge will continue to be applied to the platform as a whole.

The actual thought process behind this change wasn’t really discussed but there were enough subtle hints that a pattern came into focus. AMD wanted the name of their new processors to better represent a new path for the company as a whole. The Ryzen name (pronounced Rye-Zen, not “raisin” for those of you wondering) point subtly towards these processors rising like a phoenix from the ashes of past failures on their way to take leadership positions within their respective segments.

Personally I’m on neutral ground when it comes to this change but I can’t see the Ryzen name being all that meaningful past the first generation of parts. Once the usual architectural cadence reaches its second cycle, the whole “rising from the ashes” spiel may become a bit dated. For now it will hopefully herald in a list of expectations that will be exceeded when Ryzen is launched in Q1 2017.

Speaking of dates, the launch of Ryzen represents a truly remarkable upcoming year for AMD and one that couldn’t have come soon enough. The Summit Ridge platform will be spearheading the revamped lineup with broad scale availability slated for Q1 2017 (enough though actual dates weren’t discussed I’d expect this to hit sometime in late February to early March) and that will be followed in Q2 by enhanced Zen SoC’s in the Naples ecosystem for the server market.

One of the more noteworthy changes to this generation of AMD processors is the rollout of APUs AFTER the initial enthusiast-oriented Summit Ridge platform becomes broadly available. Next generation Raven Ridge APUs which combine the Zen x86 microarchitecture and Vega-based graphics subsystems will be rolled out closer to the end of 2017. In the interim, already-launched the Bristol Ridge platform will endeavor to maintain AMD’s foothold in non-enthusiast, more affordable and notebook markets.

In my conversations with them, AMD were the first to admit Intel has taken advantage of their lack of high performance parts which can effectively compete within the enthusiast and PC gaming segments. Buyers were hungry for an alternative to Intel processors but AMD’s CPUs and their respective platform couldn’t deliver. As a result many feel that Intel have taken advantage of their commanding position by steadily increasing the prices they charge for what turns out to be middling performance gains.

Despite this unfortunate situation PC gaming hardware sales are steadily rising and this –to the joy of many I’m sure- is exactly where AMD is hoping Ryzen will fit in. It is meant to offer a high performance solution for gamers with optimizations focused on delivering framerates that meet or exceed the best Intel has to offer. That may not be an idle boast either since its one that was made several times by a company that has (for the most part) taken a back seat on the hype train in the last year.

Photoshop skills, courtesy AMD

At this point in time AMD’s partners have already begun designing their motherboards for the Summit Ridge platform. Based on a new AM4 socket and boasting features like DDR4 compatibility, USB 3.1 Gen 2 and NVMe, there’s hope the entire Zen / Ryzen ecosystem can deliver a holistic experience. But will that really be enough? Let’s take a look at some additional features of this new architecture.

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