In­tel lap­tops are too ex­pen­sive. Will AMD Ryzen ma­chines be cheaper?

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Jack Schofield

The good news is that Ryzen-based lap­tops will be here soon. The bad news is that the first ones won’t be ul­tra­light mod­els like the Dell XPS 13. Also, they prob­a­bly won’t bring prices down as much as you hope.

Sup­pose you buy a new lap­top with the lat­est In­tel Core i7-8550U. For that pro­ces­sor, In­tel sug­gests a “rec­om­mended cus­tomer price” of $409 (£310). You can safely as­sume that lead­ing PC man­u­fac­tur­ers, who are buy­ing thou­sands of chips, are not pay­ing the rec­om­mended price. Even if AMD sup­plied Ryzen Mobile pro­ces­sors free, it wouldn’t knock £400 off the price of high-end lap­top. In fact, I’ll be quite sur­prised if it knocks £100 off, though that may change if AMD can sell chips in large vol­umes.

I know peo­ple are hop­ing that in­creased com­pe­ti­tion will force In­tel to lower the prices of its high-end chips. How­ever, so far there is no ev­i­dence that the cur­rent range of Ryzen desk­top pro­ces­sors is hav­ing that ef­fect.

For ex­am­ple, Ama­ is charg­ing £281 for the Core i7-7700K, which is its best seller. It was £312.97 in July. The Core i5-7500 costs £161, down from £176.97 in July. How­ever, the AMD Ryzen 7 1700 now costs £262, com­pared with around £278 in July, while the Ryzen 5 1600X has fallen from around £220 to £187. The In­tel chip prices have fallen by around 10%, but the AMD chips are down by 6% and 15%.

His­tor­i­cally, AMD has un­der­cut In­tel: you can buy its 6-core FX6300, for ex­am­ple, for only £70. With the Ryzen line, it’s get­ting closer to In­tel pric­ing lev­els but com­pet­ing on fea­tures in­stead. It seems more likely to in­crease AMD’s av­er­age sell­ing price than to bring In­tel’s crash­ing down.

How­ever, it may have some ef­fect in giv­ing PC man­u­fac­tur­ers a bar­gain­ing chip when they ne­go­ti­ate prices with In­tel.

Be­hold the Ryzen

It’s no se­cret that AMD had fallen a long way be­hind In­tel both in high-end pro­ces­sor de­sign and in man­u­fac­tur­ing. AMD was still mak­ing chips on a 28nm fab­ri­ca­tion process when In­tel had moved to 14nm.

AMD needed to make a big leap for­ward. To do that, it re-hired a very ex­pe­ri­enced de­signer, Jim Keller, and asked him to de­sign a next-gen­er­a­tion ar­chi­tec­ture, which is called Zen. Keller had worked on the DEC Al­pha – once the world’s fastest pro­ces­sor – be­fore mov­ing to AMD and work­ing on the suc­cess­ful K8 and Athlon chips. Af­ter leav­ing AMD, he even­tu­ally ended up at PA Semi, a chip com­pany that was taken over by Ap­ple. There he worked on the A4 and A5 SoC (sys­tem on a chip) pro­ces­sors used in prod­ucts from the iPhone 4 to the iPad 2.

Keller spent the next three years at AMD (2012-2015), with the Zen­based chips due to ap­pear in 2016. The first Ryzen chips were man­u­fac­tured on a 14nm process and fi­nally reached the mar­ket in March this year.

These are hot-run­ning chips for desk­top PCs, and tests sug­gest they are quite com­pet­i­tive with In­tel’s Core range.

AMD has even adopted a BMWstyle 3/5/7 nam­ing scheme, which prompts you to com­pare a Ryzen 3 with a Core i3, and so on. The Ryzen Thread­rip­per tops the range – there are ver­sions with 8, 12 and 16 cores and dou­ble the threads – and will com­pete with In­tel’s new Core i9.

Ryzen Mobile

Sell­ing desk­top pro­ces­sors doesn’t get you very far. AMD is now work­ing to fill out the range with Ryzen Mobile and Mobile Pro chips for lap­tops and ul­tra­porta­bles, plus a ver­sion for servers, which is called Epyc. Ryzen Mobile chips are due to ap­pear this year. Ryzen Mobile Pro chips are ex­pected in the first half of next year.

This will in­volve re­duc­ing the heat gen­er­ated from a TDP of 65W and 95W in the main­stream desk­top ver­sions to around 30W for pro lap­tops and 15W for ul­tra­porta­bles.

You may have heard that Asus has al­ready launched a Ryzen lap­top. How­ever, it didn’t wait for the mobile chips. In­stead, its ROG Strix GL702ZC packs a Ryzen 5 or 7 desk­top pro­ces­sor and an AMD Radeon graph­ics card into a gam­ing lap­top with a 17in screen. (ROG stands for Repub­lic Of Gamers.) Ul­tra­light it is not.

As be­fore with AMD, the Ryzen Mobile SoCs are APUs (Ac­cel­er­ated Pro­cess­ing Units) rather than CPUs, to in­di­cate their built-in graph­ics pro­ces­sors. AMD says these chips of­fer up to 50% more pro­cess­ing power and 40% faster graph­ics than its pre­vi­ous 9000 se­ries of APUs. This is com­par­ing Ryzen Mobile (aka Raven Ridge) with its older Bris­tol Ridge chips, not with In­tel pro­ces­sors.

Yes, there’s a leaked Geek­bench score, but I wouldn’t put too much faith in that.

When, and how much?

AMD said it ex­pected to ship Ryzen Mobile chips in the sec­ond half of 2017, which could take you up to the end of De­cem­ber. Lap­tops may ap­pear be­fore then, of course, but they could be in short sup­ply. Given the stan­dard in­dus­try warn­ing – never buy ver­sion one of any­thing! – I’d cer­tainly leave it an ex­tra cou­ple of months be­fore part­ing with any cash.

If com­put­ing is your hobby, you might en­joy de­bug­ging sys­tems. If not, let some­one else do it. It of­ten takes hard­ware a while to set­tle down, and early driv­ers can be no­to­ri­ously buggy. With­out good driv­ers, you won’t get the best out of any new hard­ware.

Will it save you any money?

I ex­pect most of the large PC man­u­fac­tur­ers will sup­ply at least one or two Mobile Ryzen sys­tems. How­ever, this will in­volve ex­tra costs in de­sign and man­u­fac­tur­ing, qual­i­fy­ing parts and sys­tem test­ing. There will also be ex­tra stock­keep­ing, dis­tri­bu­tion, ad­ver­tis­ing, train­ing and sup­port costs. Some man­u­fac­tur­ers may sac­ri­fice some In­tel ad­ver­tis­ing or mar­ket­ing sup­port, be­cause In­tel isn’t go­ing to help pro­mote AMD-based lap­tops.

These ex­tra costs will have to be cov­ered by a lower vol­ume of sales of Ryzen Mobile lap­tops, which is why it’s hard to com­pete with Win­tel.

Un­der those cir­cum­stances, would you re­ally want to slash the price of Ryzen lap­tops? Mar­gins on Win­dows lap­tops are thin as it is. If I was get­ting Ryzen chips a bit cheaper than In­tel chips, I’d price the lap­tops the same and hope that – af­ter swal­low­ing the ex­tra costs – I came out with a slightly bet­ter profit mar­gin.

For the next year or so, I ex­pect Ryzen PCs to be sold on their ex­tra cores and threads, bet­ter graph­ics, and other fea­tures that appeal to a geekier au­di­ence. Gamers are al­ready the pri­mary mar­ket. From there, AMD can ex­pand into the wider mar­ket for peo­ple will pay for ex­tra per­for­mance, such as video ed­i­tors, pro­gram­mers and graph­ics artists. There’s no rush for peo­ple like us.

Have you got a ques­tion? Email it to Ask.Jack@the­

‘Now that AMD has pro­duced Ryzen chips, can you fore­see if and when these mak­ers will pro­duce de­sir­able lap­tops with cheaper AMD chips?’ Pho­to­graph: Alamy Stock Photo

AMD’s Ryzen chip is a must for hard­core gamers – but is it a cheaper al­ter­na­tive for the rest of us? Pho­to­graph: Paul Sakuma/AP

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