AMD has collaborated with hardware manufacturer Zhongshan Subor to create custom console hardware for the Chinese market - and first impressions suggest a hardware specification similar to PlayStation 4 Pro in terms of GPU compute power, but combined with next-gen Ryzen processor architecture. New hardware set for a Chinese launch in the next month actually takes the form of a Windows PC, with a dedicated console using a custom OS due later this year.
But this initial Windows PC release will have a hardware make-up quite unlike any other. The semi-custom silicon takes the form of a fully integrated SoC (system on chip) combining x86 Ryzen processor cores with AMD Radeon graphics - in this case RX Vega technology, with 24 compute units at 1.3GHz for 3.99 teraflops of GPU power. Combining Ryzen and Vega into a single chip is nothing new - AMD has already done it with its excellent 'Raven Ridge' Ryzen 3 2200G and Ryzen 5 2400G APU products. However, the Subor project is much more console-like in its core hardware design and it will clearly be more capable.
For a start, unlike Raven Ridge, DDR4 system RAM isn't used. Instead, the new processor is connected to 8GB of GDDR5 - just like PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro. This offers a vast increase in memory bandwidth, eliminating the primary graphics bottleneck AMD's APUs suffer from. The use of GDDR5 means that the Subor chip can basically double Raven Ridge's compute power with far less possibility of hitting memory bandwidth limits. Again, similar to PS4 and Pro, the GDDR5 memory controller is integrated into the chip itself.
Further specs haven't been revealed so far, but with 8GB confirmed, a 256-bit memory bus (again, similar to PS4/Pro) seems likely. No specs for memory bandwidth have been revealed but to give you some idea of the window available, PS4 Pro delivers 218GB/s of bandwidth while a top-end GDDR5 solution (as found in Nvidia's GTX 1070) offers up 256GB/s. This figure could prove crucial to overall performance as unlike a traditional PC with separate CPU and GPU, AMD's integrated processors need to share bandwidth across both components.
|Subor||PS4 Pro||Xbox One X||Ryzen 5 2400G|
|GPU||24 CUs/ 1300MHz||36 CUs/ 911MHz||40 CUs/ 1172MHz||11 CUs/ 1240MHz|
|Memory||8GB GDDR5||8GB GDDR5||12GB GDDR5||User Configurable DDR4|
As you can see from the spec table, Subor's processor achieves Pro-like graphics capabilities in a very different way to PlayStation hardware. Sony's custom processor effectively doubles the base PS4's compute unit count and adds on a small amount of frequency, delivering 4.2 teraflops from 36 CUs at 911MHz (UPDATE: Article updated with correct Pro CU count!). The new chip runs faster at 1300MHz, but only features 24 CUs. It's also based on the latest AMD Vega design, whereas the Pro GPU is effectively an enhanced version of the original PlayStation 4 graphics core, with a number of additional features brought over from AMD's later Polaris and Vega designs. Although offering less overall compute power, a 75MHz overclock on the Subor's Vega core will deliver the same 4.2 teraflops, assuming overclocking is available on the new part.
Regardless, we're looking forward to testing the new product for a number of reasons. First of all, this console generation has been defined to a certain extent by relatively weak CPU power. The Subor machine could offer some illumination on what kind of experiences developers could have delivered if more CPU processing power was available. To give you some idea of what might be possible here, I produced an 'In Theory' piece last year on what a 3.0GHz quad-core Ryzen processor could deliver, and there were some fascinating results there. Our guesswork on frequency turned out to be the actual clocks AMD has delivered in the new processor - but to cut a long story short, the Subor PC should be able to run a lot of 30fps console titles at twice the frame-rate.
The second reason why I really want to test out the Subor PC is that it would finally answer the question of what kind of experience we'd get if AMD released a Windows PC based on the kind of integrated console design that has defined the current console generation. There's a reason why AMD's line of desktop PC APUs are typically backed by entry-level GPUs - the memory bandwidth simply isn't there with standard DDR4 memory to support a more capable graphics solution. Only a custom board with embedded high bandwidth memory could get the job done and until now, such a solution has never been released. There's a good reason why, of course - you'd never be able to upgrade anything about it, apart from the storage you attach. However, such a design could open the door to more powerful small form-factor PCs.
Battlefield 1 DX12: 1080p, Ultra, TAA
But how powerful could the new part be in comparison to other PC graphics cards? The Battlefield 1 benchmark above might offer a general ballpark. For desktop readers of this article, click on the bar chart for percentage differentials when mousing over the data or play the video for detailed telemetry. So, how are these numbers relevant? Well, AMD has already produced a similar Vega GPU for Intel for its 'Kaby Lake G' project, which I reviewed in the form of the NUC8i7HVK a while back. AMD provided a semi-custom GPU that Intel placed alongside one of its own quad-core i7 processors, and paired it with 4GB of HBM2 memory. It has the same 24 compute units as the Subor GPU but typically runs at 1190MHz - a touch slower than the Subor's 1300MHz. However, when I tested it, I was able to overclock it to 1350MHz.
Memory bandwidth variations may skew the results somewhat, but I would expect the overall takeaway to be similar to what you see above - in pure graphics tasks, a 24 CU Radeon part at 1300MHz should easily outstrip the GTX 1050 Ti and the best Radeon RX 560 variant, but will fall short compared to mainstream champions GTX 1060, RX 570 and RX 580. That's still a hefty chunk of graphics power though - Battlefield 1 on Kaby Lake G can run locked at 1080p60 at ultra settings, while reasonable settings tweaks should bring more titles closer to a locked 60fps.
Overall, AMD's latest semi-custom design looks like an absolutely fascinating piece of hardware and while it's destined for the Chinese market only, export options should be available for the curious. Just how much of a game-changer could Ryzen be in a console? What if PS4 Pro had integrated AMD's next-gen CPU rather than sticking with the old Jaguar design? What would it be like to run Windows - and its games - on an AMD console box? Those questions, and many others, can be answered by the Subor project and I'll be fascinated to see just how capable it really is.
Digital Foundry specialises in technical analysis of gaming hardware and software, using state-of-the-art capture systems and bespoke software to show you how well games and hardware run, visualising precisely what they're capable of. In order to show you what 4K gaming actually looks like we needed to build our own platform to supply high quality 4K video for offline viewing. So we did.
Our videos are multi-gigabyte files and we've chosen a high quality provider to ensure fast downloads. However, that bandwidth isn't free and so we charge a small monthly subscription fee of £4.50. We think it's a small price to pay for unlimited access to top-tier quality encodes of our content. Thank you.Support Digital Foundry