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Interview: AMD’s Chief Architect Of Gaming ‘Frank Azor’ On Ryzen 4000 Series Mobility CPUs, Smart Shift And The ‘AMD Advantage’


Like all of the PC triumvirate, AMD has an appetite for a star-studded cast. Frank Azor, the co-founder of Alienware, is the most recent member of AMD's high-powered roster and joined the company back in June 2019. He has been working as the Chief Architect of Gaming Solutions ever since and considering we were the first publication to talk about Frank moving from Alienware (Dell) to AMD, this is an interview we wanted to do for a long time. In this short interview, we talk about what he has been working on for the past couple of months: Ryzen 4000 series mobility processors, AMD Smart Shift, and something Frank calls the "AMD Advantage".

Interview: Frank Azor talks about the 'AMD Advantage'

Frank had been with Alienware, Dell Inc. for almost 25 years before joining AMD and brought with him a wealth of experience, knowledge, and industry contacts. Considering AMD is in such a transformative state right now, Frank would have proven to be invaluable as the company chased design wins for its impressive Renoir lineup (the codename for AMD's Ryzen 4000 mobility series). It seems like nothing can stop AMD right now, and with industry veterans like Frank onboard, it's easy to see why.

Without any further ado, let's get started with the interview:

Q: So how has your time been at AMD so far?

A: Nearly a year in, I can say AMD has truly provided me a unique opportunity to make an impact on the gaming industry. I have big ideas that can only be executed by a company that owns an end-to-end ecosystem of intellectual property across CPUs, GPUs, APUs, Chipsets and software. AMD is the only company that has this portfolio of high-performance IP today with key design wins across every segment of gaming hardware including PCs, consoles, cloud and mobile; I call this the “AMD Advantage.” The team at AMD is open to the opportunities I see for the industry and the benefit they will bring to gamers and they are enabling me to deliver on this vision.  It’s been a really exciting experience so far filled with new friends, opportunities and challenges and we are making incredible progress.

Q: So, I know you have been winning a lot of hearts with the Renoir launch, what with the huge battery life increase it brings to laptops and the sheer performance. What would you say is your vision for Renoir and its successors?

A: The new 4000 Series Mobile Processors are just awesome! They’ve brought unprecedented performance to mobile CPUs along with significant design enhancements and incredible power efficiency. The CPU design and development teams under AMD leadership have done a really impressive job at bringing leaps and bounds innovation to us. We are not taking our foot off the gas pedal, AMD engineers are super-aggressive and will continue to innovate in the mobile computing space at a rapid pace.

Q: I know it’s already doing great, but how do you see Renoir competing in terms of design wins against offerings from your competitors? And for that matter how has the response been like from OEMs and ODMs?

A: We are expanding our OEM product portfolio and on track to launch more than 100 Ryzen Mobile designs in 2020. We are also expecting to double our gaming-specific notebook launches compared to 2019. With systems coming from most major OEMs, including Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo and MSI, I think it is safe to say that our OEM partners are excited about the performance and power efficiency of the Ryzen 4000 Series Mobile Processor family.

Frank here not only confirms that AMD is on track to launch more than 100 Ryzen mobile designs in 2020 but also reveals that the company is going to be doubling their gaming-specific notebook launches as compared to 2019. With most major OEMs already on board for the 'AMD Advantage', and considering the competitive price/perf positioning compared to Intel parts; it's not surprising that the company wants to double down on OEM expansion. Renoir has also managed to offer generational leaps in battery life compared to the past generation, on top of everything else. Mobility constitutes a big chunk of revenue for a chip-designer like AMD and can usually be very reliable - unlike the DIY PC market.

Q: I know you guys went with the Vega IP in the iGPU for Renoir as opposed to the newer Navi IP and it makes a lot more sense from an economical point of view (especially considering AMD's vision to reduce the cost to gamers) but was there any other reason behind not picking Navi/RDNA IP right now?

A: When we locked the design for Ryzen 4000 Series Processors, our RDNA GPU architecture was not yet ready to be integrated into an SoC. Instead, we chose to port the Vega architecture to 7nm and make additional power & performance optimizations. The net result was up to 32% better performance than our previous-generation graphics even though we are only using 8 graphics cores vs. 10 graphics cores on the previous generation. It is surprising to see, but gaming on a Ryzen 4000 processor powered system is actually possible at a reasonable frame rate and resolution on many games especially some of the most popular ones being played today.

And there you have it, folks, the answer to your question as to why AMD chose to go with Vega IP instead of an RDNA-based one. This also clarifies that Vega 7nm Enhanced is essentially a port of the original Vega architecture along with some improvements. That said, a 32% increase in performance while reducing the overall core count is very impressive and can be credited largely to AMD's aggressive approach with bleeding-edge nodes. 7nm is showing its power here and for all practical purposes, Vega Enhanced is very much an independent GPU IP in its own right.

Q: How would you rate the efficiency of the Renoir Zen 2 package vs the normal desktop counterparts?

A: Our mobile designs are optimized with different thermal levels required for laptop designs which are commonly 15, 35 and 45 watts along with additional system-level optimizations that have resulted in our most efficient processors yet. Desktop processors have more thermal headroom to work within typically 65 and 95 watts if not higher so we get to turn everything up to 11 on those which can be a lot of fun.

Q: How much of a difference (in broad terms) does smart shift make to the performance and power efficiency of Renoir?

A: Our SmartShift technology allows users to harness the combined power of our Ryzen 4000 Mobile Processors, Radeon Graphics, and the latest AMD Radeon Software Adrenalin 2020 edition together to deliver an improved computing experience. With SmartShift we can automatically shift power between the Ryzen processor and Radeon graphics as needed enabling the CPU to perform faster during CPU intensive workloads and inversely the graphics chip during graphics intensive workloads. We do this seamlessly to the operating system and via the Infinity Fabric architecture in real-time and within 2ms of whatever the workload demands. As for how much of a difference it makes, we have seen up to a 14 percent performance increase with AMD SmartShift but it varies from app to app/game to game.

This is the first time (I believe) we have seen an actual number on just how fast AMD's SmartShift is. With a response time of under 2 ms, this would make the dynamic system incredibly responsive to pretty much all scenarios and would feel real-time for all practical applications. Frank also mentioned that they have seen up to a 14% increase, on average, from Smartshift in apps, which should set the upper limit of what users can expect from the feature (although this has been covered before and is not new information). 14% off the back of dynamic power shifting is a huge performance gain that an AMD customer is essentially getting for free and one that I am sure will be very welcome for gamers on the move.

Frank Azor, AMD at CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, Monday, January 6, 2020.

Q: Is SmartShift 100% automated or can its bias (towards CPU/GPU) be user-defined?

A: It is automated and can’t be turned-off but you can see it in action within our Adrenalin software. In there you can see it in real-time shifting power and performance between the CPU and graphics processor.

Q: I know the current implementation of SmartShift requires a singular power source (and package?) for both the CPU and GPU but are there any plans to bring SmartShift to desktop platforms or is this a mobile-only solution? I.e. could users expect the future Renoir Desktop APU series to utilize some sort of smart shift?

A: I can’t comment on what may or may not be in our future roadmap, however, we are actively working with OEM partners on helping them improve their gaming systems and experiences. SmartShift, as you know it today, is just the first of a bunch of awesome technologies only possible with the combination of an AMD CPU, AMD GPU and our AMD software that we have in the works and that will advance the PC gaming experience significantly in the coming years. Implementing SmartShift requires a small set of additional requirements that we work hand in hand with our partners to enable including the right components, firmware design, and thermal designs.

Q: The SmartShift on the PS5 can help boost the GPU all the way up to 2.23 GHz, is this a behavior gamers can expect from laptop implementations as well?

A: In line with the previous question above, we have seen up to a 14 percent performance increase with AMD SmartShift on the Dell G5 SE 15. Any additional PlayStation 5 questions should be directed toward Sony.

Oh well, you can't blame a guy for trying. Frank's answer seems to indicate that you will likely not be seeing the same level of SmartShift as PS5 claims on the laptop implementations (as we already know the clocks of existing implementations). Assuming PS5's claims of 2.23 GHz are true, this could be because of a number of unrelated reasons, including but not limited to the architecture and the highly centralized power design of the console - not to mention that it features a vastly more powerful AMD GPU that is tuned for sheer performance and likely highly binned.

Q: What is your favorite feature of Renoir?

A: The battery life and performance are just incredible.  I’ve strived my entire career to bring desktop performance into a portable/mobile computer like a laptop and The Ryzen 4000 series mobile processors have made it possible in form factors that are practical to carry around with you all-day.

I must say I absolutely agree here, the battery life to performance ratio of Renoir-based laptops seems to be the defining feature of the series and a major selling point for power users like me.

Q: What is your favorite feature/use-case for SmartShift in laptops?

A: SmartShift is like a free upgrade for your CPU and Graphics card to the next higher tier. You get a performance boost on CPU and graphics intensive workloads where it would cost you significant amount of dollars more to equip that performance uplift individually. This is only possible because the AMD Advantage in that we are the only PC technology provider that has the complete high-performance ecosystem across CPUs, GPUs and software. How awesome is that? It’s been a long time since we’ve seen cross-component innovation like that for consumers and gamers outside of console architectures. This is disruptive stuff and it’s only the beginning of what’s possible.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

A: AMD has a history of innovating in mobile computing; from introducing the first APUs, integrating CPU and GPU, in 2011 to launching the first x86 7nm mobile SoC this year. 2020 is an important year for us with our launch of the Ryzen 4000 Series Mobile processors and now with the Dell G5 15 SE being the first to have the Radeon RX 5600M integrated with SmartShift. This will be the fastest laptop featuring the RDNA architecture when it becomes available and will be offered at a disruptively compelling price point. We have never had such a solid selection of strong laptop solutions like we have today and I think people are going to be very excited to see so many compelling options coming to market for them to choose from..

Frank's coined term of 'AMD Advantage' is something that we have already begun to witness to a large extent. AMD has presence in pretty much all parts of the ecosystem; from CPUs to GPUs to APUs. When all of the products in a consumer device are designed by AMD, they can create some wonderful synergy that would normally not be possible between chips of different IHVs. This is something that as of this moment, neither Intel nor NVIDIA can reproduce - although that might change a couple of years later when Intel has its GPU side up and running.

Marrying Frank's industry expertise with AMD's technical skills seems to be a recipe for success and all in all, this was a wonderful chat. We wish him the very best of luck at AMD.