Microsoft’s 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 running a “custom” AMD Ryzen CPU was one of the big surprises of Microsoft’s new Surface lineup, unveiled October 2.
Although the chip is still under fairly tight wraps, PCWorld had a chance to chat with AMD officials about its big splash with the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, as well as the future of AMD in Microsoft products.
And yes, it was a big splash for AMD, which has seen huge success on desktop with Ryzen, but a more muted response on laptops thus far. AMD’s main problem has been resistance against going into expensive laptops.
AMD VP Jack Huynh told PCWorld that the new Surface Laptop 3 is the culmination of a two-year journey with Microsoft that grew out of work on the Xbox. Microsoft’s involvement led to optimizations that AMD hasn’t seen in some time. “Having the opportunity for the first time to have Windows, Office, Skype all optimized on AMD silicon was key to bring this experience to life,” Huynh said.
The chip itself looks very familiar to many but for the “Surface Edition” moniker on the package.
Inside it’s a quad-core APU using AMD’s Zen+ cores, with simultaneous multi-threading enabled to bring the total thread count to eight. Although it uses a 3000-series model, it’s still built on the slightly older 12nm process.
With its boost speed matching the Ryzen 7 3700U’s 4GHz, the only noticeable difference is an extra Radeon Vega-based graphics compute unit—the Ryzen 7 3780U features 11 compute units instead of 10.
The lower-end Ryzen 5 3580U found in lower-priced versions of the Surface Laptop features 9 compute units. AMD didn’t confirm the exact clock speeds, but Tom’s Hardware reported the the CPU clocks look exactly like those of today’s Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 mobile parts, with the Ryzen 7 3780U ranging from 2.3GHz to 4GHz and the Ryzen 5 3580U ranging from 2.1GHz to 3.7GHz. Both are low-power-consumption, 15-watt TDP chips.
But if you’re thinking these are just Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 variations with one more graphics compute unit, big whoop, that’s where AMD says you’re wrong.
What makes it custom
For this project, AMD and Microsoft collaborated closely on the processor’s firmware and software stack. AMD officials say the chip’s firmware was essentially “rebuilt” for the Surface Laptop 3.
The most obvious feature is the ability to receive all updates directly through Windows Update—something most Surface users are accustomed too.
More importantly, AMD officials said the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3’s Ryzen features predictive algorithms and will boost to higher speeds than off-the-shelf Ryzen 7 3700U chips. It essentially “learns” from the system’s behavior and can tell if you’re just editing a document or encoding video. It makes appropriate adjustments for performance and battery life.
Yes, that sounds reminiscent of Intel’s “Dynamic Tuning 2.0 with Machine Learning” to us, too. The Dynamic Tuning 2.0 feature introduced in Ice Lake tries to improve performance by using machine learning to look at the workload and optimize accordingly.
AMD wouldn’t lay out exactly how the method works, nor was it willing to pin a performance figure to the custom algorithms. AMD just leaves it to Microsoft’s official stance that the new Surface Laptop 3’s are “twice” as fast as the previous model, which was only Intel-based. Microsoft is also selling an Intel-based version of the 15-inch Surface Laptop, with Intel’s newest 10th-gen 10nm CPU, just for corporate customers.
AMD officials said to expect better-than-average performance, but not necessarily better peak performance.
Besides performance yields, AMD said the custom work also led to improved battery life—something AMD seems pretty proud of. Battery life has been a sore spot with prior AMD mobile chips. Thanks to the close coupling of the OS and processor, it should yield better performance while using less power than other Ryzen-based designs.
For the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, Microsoft has said to expect 11.5 hours of life. Interestingly, Microsoft is not claiming better battery life from the Intel-based commercial version.
AMD officials also shed a little light about the “on die” pen support the Surface Laptop 3 has. The controller is inside of the Ryzen processor and is essentially a microcontroller that is responsible for the high response rate in pen and touch on the laptop.
What’s to come
When asked whether this would be the only AMD-based product from Microsoft, Huynh said to stay tuned.
“It’s absolutely to be continued,” Huynh said. “We didn’t spend the past three years just to do one project. This is the beginning of a long-term partnership with the Surface team. Just like what we did with Xbox. We don’t enter into these co-engineering projects to go small. To be continued.”