We’re pretty close to 2 March 2017, aren’t we? Ryzen is on the… horizon! Yeah, I know, that’s really cheesy, but perhaps that’s what AMD’s marketing teams were aiming for – meme-worthy material. But it’s close. Real close. Close enough that AMD felt confident enough to release some teaser benchmarks and recommended pricing for the US market way ahead of time. Along with the price leaks, spec leaks, and motherboard leaks that we have to go on, what we can glean from all this is that AMD is once again competitive with Intel’s latest and greatest chips in the consumer market, and that it will be disruptive and more affordable. But that begs a new question I have for myself and you: do we owe it to AMD to buy their hardware if they steal Intel’s thunder?
The idea for this question came from the AMD subreddit, which posed a similar topic, with a different slant. Let’s set the stage for this discussion: Intel has knowingly sandbagged on performance improvements since the Sandy Bridge days because they knew AMD had no comeback planned. They do everything to improve their product except release a drastically different processor microarchitecture. They stick to 5-10% performance improvements year-on-year through a structured product cadence, and later even increase the price of their processors to cover overheads from moving to a new process. They improve their onboard GPU component and put most of their power into tweaking and architecture optimisation, and it works out incredibly well for them, approaching nearly complete market share in some segments. It’s a virtual monopoly.
For the sake of clarity, let’s omit the possibility that Intel has sandbagged intentionally to allow AMD to catch up to them because they don’t want to deal with antitrust investigations and being legally required to split up to avoid a conflict of interest. That argument holds water, and there’s some evidence to suggest that this is the case, but for now let’s not go down that route.
A lot of people look at the current situation and think that it can get worse, but I contend that this is not the case. For all the fear-mongering about how evil Intel would be without competition to keep them on the straight and narrow, the reality is that we’ve been in that exact situation for more than five years now. We’ve had more than half a decade of stagnant performance from an old rival, and Intel has been able to run away with it, pushing more people to upgrading their systems every two years, charging up to $1,000 for chipsets in the high-end market, and generally picking up the mantle of being the main driver of the PC market. Heck, they even increased their prices.
Now, with Ryzen edging closer to launch, we’re going to see this situation slowly reverse itself. AMD is going to grab market share back from Intel, possibly making its way to a 30-70% split in the CPU market by the end of the year. I don’t expect AMD to yank every Kaby Lake sale away from Intel, and neither does AMD – they’re only aiming to be competitive and not in all-out price war with Intel. Part of this is due to brand power, which is Intel’s strongest play because their name is everywhere and known by almost anyone with a passing interest in computers. A short conversation with my brother this week revealed that most of his friends online have an implicit trust in Intel, and many of them still perpetuate old myths about AMD’s products.
The other reason why I think 30% is a more realistic margin than a 50-50 market split is down to the following statement seen basically everywhere on the Internet:
“I really want AMD to succeed with Ryzen and Vega this year, man. That will drive down prices from Intel and NVIDIA because they need to compete, and that means my Kaby Lake and Pascal build will be cheaper! I want them to succeed so that my next Intel rig is cheaper.”
Whoa Nelly, hold on a second there! You mean to say that you’re happy that the competition exists to drive down prices of the things you originally planned to buy, even though you know that those lowered prices are only a temporary retaliation to AMD’s aggressive pricing? I mean, sure, that’s how free markets work, but to support the incumbent monopoly rather than the company that seeks to disrupt the market and bring healthy competition back seems a bit nonsensical to me. Were it not for AMD, Intel’s Kaby Lake successor would probably see another price increase along with a socket change, and it isn’t even launching with a new process or with a tweaked architecture.
When one hardware company dominates the market for a decade, that becomes the de facto standard. Developers build their applications and software to target the baseline standard, and they run and test software on the same hardware that consumers will likely be buying. NVIDIA did this with CUDA in the GPGPU space, cementing their position in the server market. With such a huge mind share and market share, Intel can easily strong-arm some of their partners into decisions that benefit it solely, with the most recent example being that Kaby Lake supports Netflix 4K playback on Windows 10, despite GPUs from AMD and NVIDIA being technically capable of this already. I understand that people have their brand preferences, and through no force of nature will they ever change that. PC Master Race pundits won’t be buying a PS4 Pro. Call of Duty die-hards aren’t suddenly going to switch to Battlefield. People who drink Coke will never mix Pepsi and brandy together.
But what’s at stake here for consumers and AMD is a lot more than just a brand. If they don’t pull through with Ryzen in terms of sales to the consumer, then perhaps there’s something to be said about how we treat this market and its players. If consumers don’t reward innovation, if they don’t buy into disruptive products that bring us tangible benefits for a better price, then we’re at risk of supporting monopolies for years on end that have no problem getting fined in antitrust investigations every so often if they just keep selling more product every year. Cheering AMD on only because there’s a possibility of a looming price war with Intel isn’t supporting or promoting healthy competition.
This is not me telling everyone to buy an AMD chip – far from it. If you’re set on a Kaby Lake build, by all means go that route. You’ll be happy with the performance on tap, and it’s your money. But if you’re on the fence for the first time in years, perhaps upgrading from Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge or Haswell, or an A10, Athlon, or FX processor, and you’ve been looking at a Core i7 6800K with longing for a while, perhaps consider switching to AMD this time around. It’s not a permanent decision for you, and switching back won’t cost too much if you change your mind, but it’s the more sensible decision.
Aggressive, rigorous competition is one of the reasons why we can now all enjoy and afford solid state drives, or beautiful tempered glass chassis. If we want to see computing advance beyond consumer machines with four cores and eight threads, then I think we ought to support companies offering us a way to do just that at a reasonable price.