AMD’s Zen processor family is undoubtedly the most talked-about architecture hitting the ground next year, and rumours have been flying everywhere on the net with people trying to speculate what it will look like, and what kind of performance it’s going to offer to enthusiasts. Most rumours start out on Chinese forums with little substance or evidence to lend them some credibility, but some come from sources that couldn’t possibly be false, and this generates a flurry of new discussions on the internet as people try make sense of them. As it happens, a deluge of new rumours arrived this past week from a thread on the locally-based Carbonite forums. The contents of the thread were never meant to be shared all over the internet, but it happened anyway. Let’s dig into the rumours and what they might mean for AMD’s launch in 2017.
The source of the claims was our own Neo “ShockG” Sibeko, who has his own source that shared the information with him. There are several rumours to dig into here, but none of them spell doom for AMD. AMD has said very little about what makes Zen tick internally, and they’ve only revealed what’s strictly necessary up to now. All the information has been taken off Google caches of the thread on the Carbonite forums, because the original thread is now locked and no-one can view it. You can see the contents of page1 and page 3 in cached format, though.
Rather than paste the claims verbatim, I’ve summarised them to fit better here to make them more readable.
- AMD has a hardware bug in the design that requires a BIOS workaround. That workaround reduces the performance by between 30-40%, but it can be disabled selectively.
- All overclocking is now done through AMD Overdrive, and not in the motherboard’s BIOS setup menu.
- The BIOS/UEFI firmware is now built into the CPU package rather than on the motherboard separately. Clearing it takes up to 30 minutes, and the UEFI settings might be re-applied even if the CPU is inserted into another motherboard.
- The eight-core, sixteen-thread CPU might retail for about $300 (approx. R4200*). There might be the same chip that costs more, with higher clock speeds to match.
- AMD’s version of hyper-threading is called SMU, and may have the same level of efficiency as Intel’s method.
- Integer and floating-point performance is on par with Intel’s offerings. Single-thread performance is around the level of Intel’s Haswell-E platform.
- The memory controller currently only allows DDR4 speeds up to 2133MHz, and the Northbridge clock speed is 2400MHz (more on this later).
- Gaming performance in CPU-limited scenarios may be on on par with Intel, even at low resolutions.
- Overclocks range from 4.1GHz to 5.2GHz using extreme cooling measures. In August 2016, the highest overclocks were in the 3.8GHz range.
- Operating voltages are as low as 1.3v for a nominal value, and 1.5v for overclocked chips.
- The possible launch window is now pushed back to March 2017, and high-end boards for the AM4 socket won’t appear before then.
All of these rumours paint the picture of a teething stage in the switch to only producing system-on-chip designs for a performance-orientated product from AMD. Many of the threads online discussing these rumours are filled with people who are fearful that AMD is heading for another disaster, but look at the picture overall – without the fix for the hardware bug enabled, AMD is right on target with performance. They’ve got silicon that performs as expected, and they’re on schedule. If anything, this is a positive sign if you bundle it in with the lack of rumours and leaks up to this point. When Bulldozer was released, the months leading up to it had AMD overselling its capabilities, and leaks coming out of your ears. Errata bugs typically take a few months to work out if there’s time to replace the silicon, but often this never happens because a product can’t be delayed any further.
My interest was piqued when I started reading about the UEFI issues, and the thirty-minute wait to reset it. I’m not sure exactly why this is the case, but I’ve encountered similar issues with laptops that had to have the CMOS battery unplugged for more than an hour to reset the BIOS defaults. This would be a weird issue for AMD to have, because they shipped a SoC platform already on the AM1 socket, and that has not had any issues clearing the BIOS quickly. Perhaps it is because the chipset in its entirety is in the Zen packaging, that it takes that long to drain the non-volatile memory the BIOS is stored in. It’s also possible that this behaviour is seen only on pre-production samples with engineering boards from AMD. We’ll have to wait and see.
The other really juicy tidbit is the price. $300 for an octo-core, sixteen-thread processor? Get out of here! That’s the kind of pricing that was only thought possible in dreams, and it would push Intel into a tight corner with the Core i7 family unable to compete. Some people might claim that Intel will just launch six and eight core processors to answer the threat of an eight-core Zen processor, and I also think this is likely. There have been times in the past where AMD offered a competitive solution to Intel’s products, but Intel has never dropped consumer prices to remain competitive. Instead, they typically turn to their OEM partners and work on deals to keep their products selling in the market.
Finally, the March 2017 launch announced in the leaks is a possibility, but it would be coming out after Intel’s Kaby Lake family, and by then any enthusiast tired of waiting will have already picked up a competing Intel system. AMD’s official statements have claimed that they’ll be doing an initial, limited launch in December 2016, with general availability ramping up in January/February 2017. That matches what new launch leaks seem to be confirming, so everything’s probably still on track. March may turn out to be the launch window for cut-down chips, however. AMD’s plan has always been to push Zen out into the enthusiast space first, with cheaper consumer versions and server variants coming out in the first half of 2017.
More leaks about Zen are bound to come out soon as we draw nearer to CES 2017, so stay tuned!