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AMD CEO Lisa Su talks cheaper GPUs, Intel competition, 3D chiplets, and Zen 4

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Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su is an old pro at showing off new products that can kick its competition’s butt. She did more of that this week with the unveiling of its next Ryzen mobile processors and its low-end Radeon graphics chips.

Su also teased Zen 4, the next generation of its butt-kicking architecture for processors.

I was part of a group of journalists that interviewed Su in a virtual press event during CES 2022, the tech trade show where we all hoped to go but didn’t. Even Su stayed back in Austin, Texas, rather than wade into the seas of Omicron in Las Vegas.

I asked her what she thought of Intel’s claims about having the fastest mobile processor and a new standalone graphics chip.

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She was accompanied by Laura Smith, corporate vice president of graphics MNC and product management; and David McAfee, corporate vice president and general manager of the client channel business. The smarter questions here are not my own.

Here’s an edited transcript of the group interview.

Above: AMD CEO Lisa Su kicks off CES 2022 press event.

Lisa Su: We’re talking to you from Austin today. We were almost in Vegas, but not enough of you guys were going to be there. I’ll keep my comments brief, because you’ve probably been listening to companies all day. We’re excited to kick off 2022. There are lots of different technologies and innovations we’re bringing to market. Today we focus primarily on PCs and notebooks with Ryzen 6000, our notebook and desktop graphics, as well as a bit of a preview into what’s next in desktop CPUs. We can talk about anything you’d like to talk about. It’s an opportunity to connect as we start the new year and see what’s on your minds.

Question: You’ve been committed to the AM4 socket for quite a long time. Can you give us any idea if you will stick with AM5 for a considerable amount of time as well?

Su: We’ve been extremely pleased with how AM4 has evolved. When we started in 2017 we said we would keep that socket for a long time, and we have. We continue to believe that it’s been good for the community. It’s been good for us as well, as we bring things along. It was time to do a socket transition for the new I/O and the new technology, but I think strategy-wise, it should be similar. I don’t have an exact number of years, but I would say that you should expect AM5 to be a long-lived platform as AM4 has been, and as AM4 will be. We’re expecting AM4 to stay in the marketplace for some years and have an overlapping type of thing.

Question: Gamers have been asking for affordable GPUs for many months. You finally launched an affordable GPU and the reaction that gauged, just looking at the reaction, was — even though you’ve given them a $200 GPU, people don’t believe they can get this card. Gamers are so dejected. It feels like we’re at a breaking point for people, where they’re ready to give up. Is there anything you can say or anything we should do to get these folks relieved? It’s not just you. Over at Nvidia, when they announced their card, it was the same thing. Is there anything you can do to make people feel better?

Su: The overarching message for gamers is that we look at this as a portfolio. We want to support the full range of gamers, from top of stack to more mainstream. We understand that there haven’t been enough GPUs out there in 2021. One thing I will say is, we did ship a lot more desktop GPUs in the second half of 2021 than we did in the first half. Not everyone has gotten them, but more people have gotten them in the second half. You’ll see many more in 2022. We’re positioning the launch such that at a $199 price point, it’s affordable to the mainstream. We intend to have a lot of product out there.

Laura Smith: I’d suggest that there are a lot of dynamics involved in the availability of the GPUs. We’ve optimized this one to be gaming first, aiming at that target market. You can see that with the way we configured the part. Even with the four gigs of frame buffer, that’s a nice frame buffer size for the majority of triple-A games, but it’s not particularly attractive if you’re doing mining or other blockchain activities. We’ve tried to make some real gamer-first transitions for the things that we don’t control, but we have influence over, to optimize that card to be as accessible as possible to that use case for gamers.

Question: I wondered if you had a reaction to Intel saying they had the fastest mobile processor today. It feels like we’re in a period of some fog around that, because it’s not in our hands today. Do you have some clarity to add to that? Is yours going to be faster when you ship? Anything that would help lift some of the fog?

Su: The most important thing is frankly for users to get the parts. We’re very excited about Ryzen 6000. If you look at the single-thread performance, multi-thread performance, graphics performance, battery life, it’s an all-out upgrade on all of those dimensions. We’re going to let the silicon speak for itself, but we feel very good about where it’s positioned, and we feel phenomenally good about the partnership we have with the OEMs in terms of the number of design wins and the number of premium design wins. If you look at the progress we’ve made in the notebook form factor over the last four or five quarters, it shows the strength of Ryzen. We think Ryzen 6000 will continue that strength in the premium segments.

David McAfee: I’ll add a couple of things. From a specs perspective with the Ryzen 6000 series, getting over 5Ghz, bringing RDNA 2 into the processor itself, as well as the innovation that’s gone into the product to maximize battery life and deliver that incredible balance with the product — Lisa is right. It’s very well-positioned. We’re going to have to let the product speak for itself. We also don’t have our hands on the competitive systems. It’s going to boil down to the choices that OEMs make in those individual systems to determine, for specific use cases, which product delivers the best performance. But we think we’ve put our best foot forward and we think we have a great product in the 6000 series this generation.

Question: When Intel enters the market with graphics, it seems like the logical strategy for them is to come to market with a high-performing part that they crater the price on, a very low-priced graphics solution. Both Nvidia and AMD have launched low-priced graphics solutions today. Is that a counter-strategy? Maybe it’s not a coincidence that these things are happening?

Su: I can certainly say that from our strategy, we’ve always said, with RDNA 2, we wanted to cover the entire stack. We started at the high end with the 6800 and 6900 XTs. We’ve been coming down the stack. Competition is good and we welcome competition, but overall our strategy has not changed. It’s to offer very competitive graphics capability across the entire stack. This was the planned rollout we had for the products.

Question: I wanted to ask about the 3D chiplet technology. Obviously we’re getting that Ryzen 7 this year. We’re also getting some Milan X chips geared toward technical computing. Do you expect the 3D chiplet technology to be eventually used for most of AMD’s processors in the future, and if so, when do you expect that to happen?

Su: The 3D chiplet technology is just phenomenal innovation. If you think about what we’re trying to accomplish, we’ve been working on it for many years in terms of optimizing the cache together with the CPU. You’re right. What we’ve chosen to do in this generation is really — it’s an option that we’re adding on Milan that we call Milan X, as well as here with desktop gaming. I do expect, over time, that you’ll see it in more of our portfolio. But part of what we’re trying to build is a portfolio that’s workload optimized. It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re in a case where you want more cores, you may not need the additional cache. In the data center, when you have these scientific compute workloads that can take advantage of the additional cache, or on the consumer side with gaming, we would use it. Think of it as an option, but an option that will go more broadly in our portfolio over time.

Question: The smart technologies, I feel like everyone’s doing their own smart technologies, optimizing between GPU and CPU, things like that. How important are AMD’s smart technologies going forward for winning new designs and attracting customers? Is this a situation where you’d like to see OEMs eventually adopt AMD’s smart technologies across the board? And if you do want that, what do you need to get there?

Su: I would say it’s a great feature. The smart technologies bring together AMD CPUs plus AMD GPUs using our software capability. You’ll get better performance in that system. When you think about the user, the user doesn’t think about, “Am I using X or Y?” They think, “Is my gaming performance better on battery versus not?” If the compute technologies are smart enough to decide in different use cases, that’s all value to the user. I do think you’ll see more of that. It’s important as we think about how to build better and more optimized systems. I’m pleased with the work we’ve done. That being the case, we’ll always work — these are not exclusive things. We’ll always work interoperably with other technologies. But when you use AMD plus AMD, you’ll get a better answer. That’s the purpose behind the smart technologies.

Question: Regarding 3D chiplets, my question is a bit broader. You’re one of the first to innovate on chiplets. Now everyone wants to do it. But in a chiplet-dominated future, how critical is it to be the lead partner with your foundry partners and your OSATs for these new packaging technologies, these new process node technologies? Everybody is trying to throw money at TSMC to get the best. How are you able to aggressively assert that position in light of increasing competition?

Su: All technology is not created equal. Our view of the world — it’s very important to have strong process technologies and packaging technology. We think we have led the chiplet technologies and are continuing to innovate in that area. It’s really the package as it comes together. We’ve done very well with 7nm technology. We’re now introducing 6nm. We talked about Zen 4 and 5nm. We’ve talked about 2D chiplets, 3D chiplets. We have all these things in our tool chest. We’re using the right technology for the right application.

I think we’ve made good choices. These technology road maps are all about making the right choices at the right junctures. For example, our 5nm technology is highly optimized for high-performance computing needs. It’s not necessarily the same as some of the other technologies out there. We think we’ve optimized as well, and it shows in some of the growth we’ve had, both from a market share standpoint and an overall customer adoption standpoint.

Question: Talking about how RDNA scales from PC and console to notebook, you mentioned automotive as well in the presentation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the latest Tesla AMD Ryzen chip, if you decode the ID string, it’s Zen plus Vega. Is RDNA coming to embedded in automotive? Can you talk about that relationship with Tesla?

Su: We’re very proud of the fact that we have RDNA in so many places, from consoles to PCs. We have our partnership with Samsung in the mobile space. In automotive we announced last year that we are partnering with Tesla on the Model S and Model X, where they adopted both our APU as well as GPU technologies. You might have seen recently that they’ve also started with the Model 3 and Model Y, adopting some of our technologies for their infotainment solutions. It’s a great partnership. They’re always pushing the envelope in what you can put into the car. We appreciate that they’ve chosen Ryzen and Radeon for their technologies there.

Question: Regarding the 3D V-cache and the selection of the 5800X to bolt that onto, considering it’s going to be a premium product, likely going to have a premium price, why not associate that with your flagship CPU? What were the thought processes there?

Su: We were looking at where we would add the most value in terms of workloads. For the gaming workload, the 5800 was actually a nice sweet spot in terms of where we saw the significant improvement in the gaming capabilities.

McAfee: Centering on the idea that we wanted to deliver the best gaming part we possibly could using the technology in our tool chest that we had, that was what drove us to that eight-core 5800X 3D product definition as the right choice. If you look at it, most games stay within a thread pool of 16 threads or less. Having a single CCD solution with that stacked cached on top of it really provided, as we looked across the range of options we had, the most optimal game uplift across a wide variety of titles. As we looked across the portfolio of games out there, as well as choices we had in our product portfolio, that’s what led us to the choice of the 5800X 3D. It was by far the most advantageous from a gaming performance standpoint and delivered the best gaming experience we could possibly hope for with that technology.

Question: Have you explored having a 3D V-cache on one compute die and not on the other, so you don’t give up the multi-thread advantage of a 5950 versus a 5800? Are there similar gaming performance gains there, or does the imbalance throw things off?

McAfee: We looked at many different configurations during development of the product, both homogeneous as well as asymmetric configurations in how the stacked dies are used in the product definition. The biggest complexity in those asymmetric configurations is getting consistent performance and consistent scheduling in a Windows environment. That was something we wanted to avoid, putting a product in the market that didn’t deliver, time in and time out, just a superior experience for the end user. That’s why we stayed away from those particular options in the initial productization of the 3D stacked cache product.

Question: I’m not sure if you’ve commented, but is socket AM5 going to address all of AMD’s future desktop processors, including the high-end desktop and mainstream, or is it really just the next iteration of AM4, and we’ll probably see new high-end desktop processors as well?

McAfee: Socket AM5, we haven’t talked about those plans in detail yet. You’ll get a lot more details about socket AM5 as we roll into 2022 and unveil more of the details around the product. But as the name would suggest, it truly is a successor to our AM4 socket infrastructure that’s in the market today. Expect more details throughout the first part of the year, but we do expect it to be in line with the AM4 positioning in our portfolio.

Question: You mentioned more than 50 power optimizations in Ryzen 6000 series, but fundamentally it’s using the same CPU architecture and RDNA 2 GPU architecture that’s already existing. Can you provide some additional color on where the power optimizations come from?

McAfee: The power optimizations are a combination of design enhancements on existing IP. For instance, within the processor domain alone, there were around a dozen feature additions on top of the Zen 3 core architecture that provide superior performance per watt. You saw that throughout the SOC, both in terms of new features layered on top of existing capabilities on the chip, as well as new innovations that came into firmware and other parts of the product. It’s a combination of silicon enhancements and firmware that show up in the 6000 series mobile parts.

Question: In the keynote, one of the presenters touted that AMD is the only company that can deliver efficient cores and performance cores in the same core. That seems like an odd statement, but is this focused more on the client space? Does it just mean AMD is committed to maintaining its current cores and not mix and match different types of cores in client the way that Intel and Apple have?

Su: The overarching statement is that we’ve looked at all different types of architectures. We do that for both the client space and the data center space. We believe that the optimization of Zen 3, particularly for the client form factor, is really good. It’s a very efficient core to start with. From a power standpoint and area standpoint it’s a very efficient core. When we put all that together, we get the Ryzen 6000 product, and that’s the way to think about it.

We will always do the right thing for the right application. A few months ago we announced, on the server side, that we have our Zen 4 baseline, but we also have a dense version that we will put out into the market, because there are some cloud-optimized applications that could use a more dense application. It’s an overarching view of — we believe we have an extremely efficient core for the client space. The Zen 3+ implementation, most people would not have expected the performance uplift. Kudos to the team for doing those optimizations. We believe that once you see it in action you’ll be pleased with the overall performance and power. That’s what we were trying to say.

McAfee: It’s the dynamic range of that core in client applications. It’s led us to the conclusion that there’s no better solution than eight homogeneous cores as a part of that product, to deliver both the performance and the efficiency. That’s a client statement.

Question: You’ve gone all-in on DDR5 memory with the Ryzen 6000 APUs. Right now there’s some severe pricing and shortage issues there. Do you have a back door with DDR4 support somewhere? How are you going to overcome that if it presents itself?

McAfee: As we look at the RDNA 2 engine as a part of the 6000 series processors, moving to DDR5 memory and the faster speeds associated with it was the right choice for the product. I think you’ll see more adoption of LPDDR5, which doesn’t have some of the same constraints that go along with more SO-DIMM types of DDR5 memory in the market. You’ll start to see some of those products as well. We’ve been closely with partners across the ecosystem and our OEMs to make sure we’re well-positioned from a supply standpoint to satisfy the demand for DDR5 and LPDDR5 memory associated with our 6000 series. We’re in a good position there. You’ll see the benefit of those LPDDR5 and DDR5 systems in the graphics performance and the bandwidth that goes along with it.

Question: I wanted to take a step back on general supply shortages, especially with Ryzen 7000 coming later this year. What steps are you trying to take to mitigate supply chain issues with these new chips coming out later in the year, especially given all the other difficulties in every piece of silicon right now?

Su: It’s a generic question that everyone has in terms of — the semiconductor demand has been so high. When does supply catch up? There are still some supply and demand imbalances in the supply chain right now. What we have been able to do throughout 2021 has been to increase supply every quarter. That’s across all of our product lines. As we go into 2022, we have made very significant investments across the board to ensure that we can continue to ramp our supplies across CPUs and GPUs overall. The first half of 2022 will continue to be tight. My expectation is that things will get a bit better as we go through the year. But our goal is to get as much product as we can out there. The investments we’re making with our partners are there to ensure that we can continue to ramp supply across all product lines.

Question: AMD, taking a broad view, has a finger in a lot of more affordable gaming options out there now. You have the first $200 raytracing GPU now. You’re in Xbox and PlayStation and Stadia. You have a ton of laptops. 2021 was a pretty bleak year for anybody who wanted to game on affordable products. Since you do have so much impact on so many different markets, can you share any idea of what you think lies in store for mainstream gaming in 2022?

Su: We’re excited about the new GPUs we’re launching. We view that as a strong way to get more GPUs that are, as you say, affordable in the hands of gamers. We continue to ramp up supply across the board, whether it be the Radeon product lines or our console product lines. Back to the earlier comment, we’re investing very heavily to ensure that we bring that capacity to market. I know that it’s somewhat frustrating when people are looking for product. We shipped a lot in 2021 and we’ll ship a lot more in 2022. We’re going to be prioritizing a number of those more affordable price points to ensure that there’s good supply out there.

Question: It’s no secret that the cost of wafers is rising, whether you have deals or not. It’s a whole market trend. Is the cost of packaging moving in lockstep with those wafer costs? And to that end, is the search for new innovative packaging techniques outweighing the benefits of using mature packaging processes? To tie in to the other questions, it gets difficult to bring these technologies into more cost-sensitive markets, especially as we look forward to the rest of the decade. What are your thoughts there?

Su: There’s a couple of aspects to that. First, on overall costs, when we look at it, this is about building the infrastructure necessary to supply all the computing everybody wants. Whether you’re talking about wafers or packaging, there’s a significant amount of investment. You’ve seen the numbers. Tens of billions of dollars are going in. We’ve spent a significant amount of money ourselves to both help our partners as well as encourage our partners to put the right capacities on board. Some of that is translating into some of the additional costs. It’s all for the right reasons, in terms of how we get more chips out there. That’s that piece of it.

In terms of, is one thing rising more than the other, I think everything is relatively in line. We’ve always learned over time that as things ramp into higher and higher volumes — as we take, for example, the 3D chiplet technology into higher volume, we will expect to see economies of scale. That’s how you’ll see some of these technologies go across more of the product line. The interesting part about it is you have so many choices now. Our architects have a tremendous number of choices when they’re deciding, and they make very active decisions. When do you use chiplets? Where do you use chiplets? What’s the most efficient way to go from a top to bottom stack? All of those tools in the toolbox are extremely good for the consumer, because what comes out is something a lot more optimized, because we have all of these choices. Net net, I think we’re on a good path there with, one, significant investment in overall manufacturing capacity, and two, a lot more flexibility in how we put together products.

Question: All this talk about going off to the low-end market, isn’t that margin [hurting] in the long run?

Su: Well, I don’t know if I would call it low-end. Brad used the term “affordable.” Affordable price points. We’re trying to ensure that we service the broad market. We’ve done very well in the premium segments. We’ll continue to focus on the premium segments. But we want our technology to be accessible across the board. The GPU plan very much was — we set that road map up a couple of years ago, and it’s nice to see it all come to fruition. Again, you’ll see us continue with that mantra as we go into RDNA 3 as well.

Question: In the past, AMD has always had a lot of affordable products, but over the last couple of years that’s stopped happening, especially with the 5000 series. We still don’t have anything lower-end than the 5600X, which is Zen 3. Is there any reason why that keeps happening?

McAfee: First and foremost, we do understand the broad market needs. Servicing each of those markets with the right product that has the right capability and delivers the right experience is important to us. When you look at a product like the 5600X, imagine scaling that lower price points with different capability, it may not satisfy the needs of what that segment is really going after. That’s where we see some of our APU products, or in many cases Zen minus one products, stepping in and filling some of the more mainstream and value-oriented price points across the portfolio.

One thing you’ve seen from us more and more on the notebook side is addressing some of those broader needs in the portfolio. Even as we launch the 6000 series products this year, we’re refreshing our 5000 series with new mobile parts to address a broader range of price points in the market. We’ve used that strategy for a couple of years now: leveraging those economies of scale and manufacturing learnings to stretch the price point coverage and system price point coverage that we’re able to deliver while still maintaining the quality of experience we want to deliver to that end user has been the approach we’ve used over the past couple of years to broaden the market coverage we can deliver.

Su: You’re making a point that we’ve heard from the community. I hear you. As we look at the product portfolio going forward, trying to fill out — let’s call it some of the below 5600 lineup. That’s something on our minds. Your comment is well taken.

Question: There’s a lot of hype around the metaverse and NFT games right now. I remember how blockchain and mining came back to affect your business, even though you were on the sidelines of that. How do you look at these things? Are you wary of how much hype has gone into the subject, or are they coming into the reality phase as something you have to think about? Raja Khoduri had his prediction about how computing has to get a thousand times faster in order to accommodate a metaverse with billions of people interacting in real time.

Su: On the broader question of a metaverse and how we view it, it’s a great evolution of what computing power can do for you. The fact that if you have more powerful CPUs and GPUs, you can create these virtual worlds, that’s a good thing. There’s not a point in time where suddenly this becomes possible. It’s a continuous evolution of what you can do with more and more horsepower. We love the fact that we’re in the places where people want more technology. We’re motivated by delivering better experiences to more users. You’ll see us bring out more powerful CPUs and GPUs. We’ll look for ways to work with cloud providers to put those things together, as well as the ecosystem and the software capability to do that. The vision of more computing in lots of different places is a good thing.

I don’t worry about hype too much. I don’t think that’s the case. This trend line we’ve been on where more compute is needed for all of these applications is a real trend line. We see that demand whether you’re talking about the infrastructure or the client side of computing. We get to play in all of those places.

Question: It feels like the path forward for performance is big investments in high-profile application developers, namely everyone’s friends over at Adobe. Do you have any concerns that you’ll be outspent by Apple, Nvidia, and Intel, where they get all the attention for their hardware? What are your plans in that area?

Su: Overall, this is an area of significant investment for us. I’m extremely happy with the amount of attention and partnership that we’re getting across the development community, whether you’re talking about the productivity development community, as you mentioned, or game developers. We’ve come up with some very cool technology. FSR, for example, has done well on the gaming side. We just previewed our RSR technology. We’re absolutely going to continue to invest. What is more important is that people see some of the performance capabilities we’re bringing out there. That’s causing people to want to optimize more for AMD technology. It’s a vicious positivity cycle.

Question: Now that Intel has shown their hand and you know how healthy Zen 4 is as we head into this year, where do you see AMD positioned at this time next year, once Zen 4 is out in volume and people can get their hands on it?

Su: We’re excited about Zen 4. I know some of the community wanted us to say more, but I thought we said a good amount. Zen 4 looks great, whether you’re talking about Zen 4 in servers or Zen 4 on the client side. We feel very good about where we’re positioned and we’ll continue our principles of great performance top to bottom of the stack, ensuring that you see it across our portfolio.

McAfee: We’re very excited about what Zen 4 is going to bring. Following that road map we’ve been on for a number of years, bringing leading-edge IPC and capability into all of our computing segments has been a recipe for driving growth in our Ryzen portfolio. Zen 4 is just the next step in that. We can’t wait to get there and can’t wait to get it in your hands.

Question: We talked a little over 12 month ago for a story about AMD’s channel partner strategy, particularly around commercial channel partners. There’s been a lot of activity in the last year, but could you characterize AMD’s strategy and level of investment in commercial channel partners for this year compared to where it was by the end of 2020?

Su: We continue to believe that the commercial market is an extremely strategic market for AMD, whether you’re talking about the commercial client market or the commercial server market. We’re very happy with the team we’ve built servicing the commercial channel. They’re doing a great job. We did a partner summit not too long ago. Lots of excitement around the partners. Some of what the channel has been looking for is more support in terms of just — there has been a somewhat supply-constrained environment. Ensuring we get more support out there. We’re absolutely committed to the channel from that standpoint, both on the server side as well as on the client side. We’ve seen a nice strong set of design wins, and there’s a lot of pull coming in now. You’ll see more commercial designs from us in 2022 that will be very much targeted at the channel. We look forward to building that business.

Question: I’ve been going around saying that having a chiplet-based design for under $300 is counterproductive, because it just costs too much making sure all the chiplets are shipped everywhere and the packaging is too expensive. If I said that to you, what would your response be? Is that correct or incorrect? How should I be thinking about this?

Su: It’s a point in time. As I said earlier, our architects look at every possible way of putting chips together. We look at monolithic chiplet, all different types of packaging, all different process technologies, because we now have all the variants we can do. We look for the best performance, power, cost point for that. Today what you say may be true. I would expect that, in the future, that dynamic might change as silicon cost goes up and that changes the optimization point. But we’re always looking at that. That’s done with every product generation. We’ll pick the right time such that you’ll see chiplets at the lower end of the market.

Question: What can we expect at the Zen 4 announcement launch, the architecture reveal? Anything special you have planned aside from the content itself?

Su: We would be super thrilled if we could actually do that reveal with you guys in person. My sense is we’d all enjoy that.

Question: You have the Ryzen 6000 in laptops now, which can do 1080p gaming with some of the integrated graphics technology you have surrounding that. Do you fear that will cannibalize entry-level GPU sales, both in laptops or also on the desktop?

Su: We look at the road maps of the integrated APUs and the discrete GPUs together as we’re developing the road maps for the next three, four, five years. There’s some overlap at the low end, but I think that’s natural. It’s natural that as the technology gets more powerful, you can do more gaming in integrated GPUs. That’s totally fine. The discrete GPU capability with RDNA continues to improve by leaps and bounds. What you’ll see from AMD is a road map that allows you to go anywhere you want to go in terms of price, performance, and power. That’ll be a combination of integrated plus discrete. With our smart technologies, that gives you even more capabilities. It’s not something we worry about, but it’s something we actively think about, so that we have the right product portfolio to do whichever system you’re trying to accomplish.

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