Last week, Microsoft and AMD announced that a new AMD APU would power the 15-inch Surface Laptop intended for the consumer market (there’s also an Ice Lake variant built for corporations). It’s a unique chip, with 11 Vega graphics units in a 15W TDP, when all of AMD’s other parts in this segment have either 10 GPU units in 15W or 11 units in 35W. The “Surface Edition” APU is a modest tweak to AMD’s existing product stack — but it’s also apparently just the beginning of what looks like a sustained hardware collaboration effort between the two companies.
That’s the word from Anandtech, which interviewed two AMD executives, Jack Huynh and Sebastien Nussbaum. According to them, AMD is working with Microsoft on a multi-year product life cycle that covers multiple hardware generations, as well as multiple products. The reason Microsoft used a relatively modest Ryzen CPU is that’s the chip AMD knew it would have available when Microsoft and AMD started the design process over two years ago.
Just because this CPU is a mostly standard part doesn’t mean the two companies aren’t collaborating closely, however. According to AMD, working with Microsoft as a semi-custom partner means providing them with additional knobs and dials to turn, both during the hardware design phase and while co-developing drivers and software for the platform. The two companies apparently worked closely together in areas like power efficiency and voltage control. Between 50-70 percent of this work has benefited or will benefit the larger Ryzen Mobile ecosystem.
I’ll reserve comment on the Surface Laptop 3 (in either the Intel or the AMD flavor) until we see hardware, but it’s easy to see why AMD wanted to land a contract like this. One of AMD’s biggest problems, both historically and today, has been visibility. The Xbox One and PS4 are great for earnings, but they don’t really do much to build brand loyalty for the company. AMD has always had a vibrant enthusiast community who look for and seek out AMD hardware, but they’ve had particular trouble convincing laptop OEMs to treat their platform seriously. This doesn’t mean there are no good AMD laptops, but it has sometimes meant we see laptops sold in configurations that effectively handicap them (most commonly by opting for a single-channel RAM configuration).
If I have ever seen an OEM arrange their SKUs so as to imply a mobile AMD was the more-expensive or premium option, I do not recall it. In the 18 years I have been a journalist, I have often visited OEM websites and examined how they arranged their Intel systems compared with their AMD ones. I have seen OEMs arrange their product pages to deliberately display AMD systems in an off-screen horizontal scroll bar, ensuring they wouldn’t be seen unless the customer noticed the bar or was running a higher-than-normal desktop resolution. Back in the P4 era, vendors would sometimes sell a top-end P4 system that was significantly slower than the Athlon 64 or FX rig they had in the second-best spot, simply because customers associated Intel with top-end performance. Even at the peak of Athlon 64’s strength, most vendors hedged their bets. Given that AMD’s position in mobile back then was weaker, it never even had a shot at securing top billing.
Here’s a recent screenshot from Dell’s website. Each of these links leads to a new set of sub-configurations for that specific model. All of the links that say “Intel” underneath lead to an Intel-only set of SKUs. So are all of the links that don’t say “Intel” underneath them, which raises the question of why there’s an “Intel” underneath any of the icons at all. Intel is the default. You only see AMD systems if you specifically choose to see AMD systems, and all of the AMD options in the Inspiron 5000 series are underneath the AMD branded model (and nowhere else).
That’s why this product placement is such a big deal. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s precisely the opposite of how AMD products are typically treated. This kind of higher-profile placement still demands that the products justify the price, but AMD is finally winning acknowledgment for its products in their own right as opposed to being treated as the less-desirable default. It might not seem like a big thing for Microsoft to show AMD on the right-hand side of the page in comparison to Intel when doing spec sheet checks. It’s more important than you think.
If AMD can continue to deliver the hardware Microsoft is looking for, it has an opportunity to expand its own brand visibility and premium presence in a way that’s previously been very difficult for the company to achieve. It can then build on that foundation over successive product generations and take a shot at creating a new premium market for its own hardware in the process.
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