In early October, Microsoft will unveil the latest hardware for its upcoming Surface products. In the last few years, these updates have mostly been modest, with a few new product introductions (Surface Studio, Surface Laptop) to fill out various market niches. There are rumors that Microsoft will announce a major change at its October event — a Surface Laptop with an AMD chip in it, rather than an Intel microprocessor.
[D]ue to a series of corresponding entries in non-public databases of European retailers, we are confident that the new Surface Laptop 3 15-inch model will definitely be equipped with AMD CPUs… According to the current state, we have encountered three AMD-based models of the Surface Laptop 3 with a 15-inch display.
If true, this would represent a major marketing win for AMD. Surface might not have the marketing cachet of Apple, and Microsoft’s PC business isn’t nearly as large as a major OEM, but it would still be a visibility-raising move for the company’s APUs. At the same time, however, it would be a little surprising. AMD’s current mobile APU lineup may label the Ryzen 7 3700U and Ryzen 5 3500U as 3000-class CPUs, but they are built on the company’s 12nm Zen+ designs — not the 7nm mobile APUs currently under development. Given how much AMD improved its CPU performance and power consumption with 7nm, we expect the company’s actual 7nm mobile products to be a strong leap forward. But those parts aren’t here yet.
Intel’s Ice Lake and Coffee Lake CPUs are still generally faster than the 3700U in a number of head-to-head comparisons, though readers should be aware of two important factors there. First, these systems may have significantly different price points (PC Perspective compares a $ 1300 Lenovo AMD-powered system against a ~$ 1900 Ice Lake). Second, the AMD systems may be designed in ways that hold their performance back. Lenovo AMD systems hold clocks up to 60 percent higher than HP AMD systems equipped with the same APU, according to a comparison by NotebookCheck.
Now, this type of OEM-driven stupidity doesn’t necessarily weigh on Microsoft’s product plans in any fashion. But it’s interesting to see Microsoft rumored to be using AMD at a junction like this. About eight years ago, there was a persistent rumor that Apple had seriously considered using AMD’s Llano for an iteration of the MacBook Air. Rumors like this aren’t uncommon, but this one was stronger than most. According to sources we spoke to at the time, one reason Apple didn’t move forward with the product was that it had concerns about AMD’s long-term roadmap and ability to deliver iterative editions of the CPU family that would improve on the Air’s thermals and performance.
It’s possible that Microsoft’s interest was piqued by the reverse this time around. Ryzen 7 3700U and Ryzen 5 3500U are solid parts to start with. While this story is a rumor and deserves to be treated as such, it’s not impossible that the Ryzen family on 12nm hits a series of price/performance balances that Microsoft found attractive, particularly on the GPU side of things, where the Ryzen family offers strong performance (Ice Lake has a faster integrated GPU, but is also still comparatively hard to find). What would be more interesting is if Microsoft felt confident building out a product line based on Ryzen because it believes the 7nm APU family from AMD will continue to deliver excellent performance scaling.
Even if that’s true, we probably won’t hear about it on October 2, and we don’t even know if this first rumor is true. I’m assuming Microsoft won’t be a surprise launch product for AMD’s new 7nm APUs. It’s not impossible, but I suspect we would have heard already if this was happening, and there’s been no word to-date. Either way, winning space in a Microsoft Surface product would be a major victory for AMD in either a 12nm or a 7nm product. Absolute sales volume may not be huge for any given Surface device, but the marketing win would be significant.
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