Four months after AMD announced SmartShift, we’re finally getting a taste of the new technology that will feature in a whole lot of gaming laptops going forward—as well as Sony’s PS5 later this year. Today, Dell launched the G5 15 SE, a new laptop equipped with the brand new Ryzen 4000 series CPU and the Radeon RX 5600M GPU, and, for the PS5 nerds, SmartShift.
First, let’s talk about the G5 itself. Designed to be a sub-$US1,000 ($1,516) gaming laptop it’s not gonna go toe to toe with Nvidia’s latest GPUs or Intel’s latest CPUs. Instead it’s intended to undercut them while still giving a reasonable boost of speed over the previous generation of Intel and Nvidia products.
There are three CPU options ranging from the Ryzen 5 4600H with 6 cores and 12 threads and up to a 4GHz boost, to the Ryzen 7 4800H with 8 cores, 16 threads, and up to a 4.2GHz boost, to the Ryzen 9 4900H with 8 cores 16 threads and up to a 4.4GHz boost. AMD claims its Ryzen 9 4900H is nearly 69 per cent faster than the Intel Core i7 9750H in Cinebench R20, 57 per cent faster in AMD’s 7zip benchmark, and 30 per cent faster in Fire Strike. With a big speed boast like that it could be quite a bit faster than i9-10980HK announced in April too. Though we won’t know until we actually test the two in similar laptop designs.
As for the GPU, it’s packing the Radeon RX 5600M, which is roughly equivalent to Nvidia’s RTX 2060. Lucky for AMD, as Nvidia hasn’t released a version of its latest GPU, the 2060 Super, for laptops yet. The 5600M is based on the first generation of AMD’s RDNA GPU architecture too, and it lacks flashy features like ray tracing.
AMD also acknowledges the GPU is a little power hungry compared to Nvidia’s offering. “What we have in the market right now, it’s not the most efficient, honestly, in performance per watt,” Frank Azor, AMD’s chief architect of gaming solutions, told me over the phone. But it’s at least faster than the RTX 2060 in the benchmarks AMD has shared thus far.
So, how is the ageing GPU holding up so well? Supposedly because of SmartShift.
Traditionally, the GPU and CPU are two completely separate components that rely on a computer’s BIOS and operating system to communicate with one another. When you get a laptop with Intel and Nvidia inside, the two processors will be separate. If you were to crack open the case and take a peek, you’d see the two parts physically separated on the board. Sometimes, however, the two processors can be on the same chip, or even die. Intel’s integrated GPUs, and its i7-8809G, which paired an AMD GPU with an Intel CPU, all function this way.
SmartShift is a little different. The CPU and GPU are technically separate, but they’re paired together and sharing the same heatsinks. AMD provides guidelines for laptop makers to integrate the technology. “There are little things you have to do here and there to properly architect it,” AMD’s Azor said. The idea was to have hooks in both the CPU and GPU so that a laptop maker could pair the two together “so that they can communicate with one another very similarly to how they do so within an integrated graphics processor.”
Azor noted that other companies could do something similar, and they do via software tweaks to the BIOS and drivers in the operating system, or directly on the silicon. However, “it requires an enormous amount of collaboration many, many years ago for two separate companies to be able to do that,” he said.
All the back-and-forth communication between the CPU and GPU can add costly power draws and thermal demands—particularly as the communication has to travel through the silicon, BIOS, OS, and any additional applications and drivers. “The way SmartShift works is all of that happens in real-time within 2ms constantly between the silicon,” said Azor. “The OS doesn’t know or care what’s going one, and there’s no whitelist. It is not application-specific. It’s just very smart at understanding what kind of a workload is being processed at any given time.”
Ultimately, the CPU and GPU can be a whole lot more efficient. And because they’re being more efficient, they’re going to create less heat, which means they can operate more powerfully for longer than a non-SmartShift pairing. While Azor wouldn’t speak to the performance gains in upcoming products (including the PS5), he did note that in the Dell G5 SmartShift resulted in up to a 14-per cent boost in performance.
That would make it a lot more difficult to say the PS5 is just a PC with Sony’s PlayStation operating system tacked on, despite the PC-like specs. The PS5 is using upcoming AMD CPUs and GPUs while relying on the same architecture found in its PC products. You could theoretically build something just as powerful as the PS5 yourself given the time and money. Only SmartShift is exclusive to laptops and devices like the PS5. So that 14-per cent performance boost won’t be found in any PC you built out of AMD parts.
It also means any discussions of performance as compared to traditional PC gaming desktops are going to be a lot more complicated.
The G5 only came out today (we’ll be reviewing it shortly), so we won’t know just how efficient SmartShift is, or what a potential boon it could be for the next generation of consoles until more testing occurs. What we do know is that SmartShift is part of AMD’s long-term plan. Azor repeatedly emphasised to me that performance would be AMD’s primary focus in the years ahead and that SmartShift would be a big part of that.
“We haven’t announced any of the other products yet. And you’re not going to see very many of them in 2020,” Azor said. “A lot of them will come next year. But you can expect all shapes, all sizes, all colours, all flavours, all performance level, all price points.” The challenge will be getting more companies than Dell and Sony (and presumably Microsoft in its Xbox One Series X) to adopt SmartShift. But if AMD and Azor’s boasts hold true, it could be a pretty big no-brainer for laptop makers.
As always, if you know more about AMD’s SmartShift plans or how they’ll be implemented in future products, including the PS5 and Xbox One Series X, you can hit me up at [email protected], [email protected], or reach out for my Signal number.