Advanced Micro Devices is touting its Zen next-generation microprocessor core as something that will allow the company to compete with larger rival Intel in the area of enthusiast and gamer PCs, as well as servers.

Lisa Su, chief executive of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD, showed off working versions of the chip last night during an event at the San Francisco St. Regis Hotel, not far from the Intel Developer Forum. AMD says the “breakthrough performance” of Zen can challenge Intel’s fastest processor to date — the 10-core Broadwell-E processor.  The company says the chip will go into new kinds of thin laptops, high-end game computers, and data center servers.

“This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects,” Su said.

AMD’s first two chips based on the Zen cores are the eight-core (16-thread) Summit Ridge desktop processor and a 32-core (64-thread) Naples processor for servers. The Summit Ridge chips are expected to debut in the fourth quarter, while Naples is expected to debut in the first half of 2017, followed by laptop chips in the second half of 2017. Of course, that gives Intel plenty of time to catch up, said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner who remains cautious about AMD’s claims.

“They [AMD] really have to execute,” said Reynolds in an interview. “Obviously, we’ll have to wait until we see the final product. All of the changes they made in the architecture are the things they need to fix. We don’t have enough information to know if it will beat Intel.”

Summit Ridge has a 40 percent instruction-per-clock improvement. This means that a 3-gigahertz Zen processor is 1.4 times faster than a predecessor processor running at 3 gigahertz. Mark Papermaster, chief technology officer at AMD, called that a “landmark” improvement in performance that was made possible by clever redesigns of secondary memory, dubbed cache.

AMD's Zen processor debuts in late 2016.

Above: AMD’s Zen processor debuts in late 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

For the first time, AMD showed a demo of Summit Ridge in a PC running the new computer game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It did a good job running the game and its high-end graphics, such as cool shadow and lighting effects. AMD also showed a server with two Zen processors in a demo. The heatsinks on top of the chips were huge, suggesting that Zen is a big and hot chip. And AMD’s tests showed that it beat Intel’s fastest chip.

“What AMD showed on Zen last night was very compelling on performance,” said Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “AMD said that power would be competitive, the frequency we saw would be even higher at production than what we saw, and production of what we saw could be produced at scale. All of this sounds incredibly positive. There’s a lot of execution between now and launch, but at a minimum, I believe AMD will be in a much better position than they have been in years in processors. To put this in perspective, this is the biggest thing I’ve seen in 10 years in CPUs at AMD.”

Papermaster said Zen is based on a clean sheet design. The specific design improvements include a new cache hierarchy, improved branch prediction, and simultaneous multithreading. These changes allow AMD to fetch data faster, predict what kind of data has to be used, and process more instructions at the same time.

“We call this feeding the beast,” Papermaster said.

“AMD has a chance to come in and snipe because Intel has put most of its attention on everything but PCs at the moment,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group.

Lisa Su, CEO of AMD, introduces Zen.

“AMD invested where it counts, with an x86 core that can scale from PCs to high-performance servers,” said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the Linley Group. “Consumers today expect to get the most out of their systems to create transformative experiences. The versatile design of Zen delivers a highly efficient performance that should provide increased computing capabilities across the spectrum – from devices to cloud computing.”

Summit Ridge desktops will use the AMD AM4 socket, and they will debut in the second half of the year in systems that will be sold by PC makers. The 4K-based systems will include DDR4 main memory, PCIe Generation 3, USB 3.1 Gen2 at 10 gigabits a second, NVMe, and Sata Express.  The company will unveil more details about the design at the Hot Chips event at Stanford University on Monday.

AMD also demoed workstations and an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset powered by Summit Ridge and a Radeon RX 480 graphics chip.

“We have to be faster, we have to be more agile, we have to be more creative,’” said Papermaster. “We thrive on innovation. We had to use specific levels to get this kind of gain.”

Su, who joined AMD four and a-half years ago and was named CEO two years ago, said it has been a long journey. AMD undertook the design more than four years ago, and hundreds of AMD engineers worked on it.

“We’ve been on a journey and made quite a bit of progress,” Su said. “We are at our best when we are focused on our customers. We are at an incredibly interesting time in the semiconductor industry.”

AMD’s focus is on gaming, immersive platforms such as VR, and data center computing.

Summit Ridge is the first instance of AMD's Zen series chips.

Above: Summit Ridge is the first instance of AMD’s Zen series chips.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Su said that the Zen launch would cap a big year for AMD. She said the company is gaining market share in graphics, with the debut of its Polaris-based graphics architecture. She added that AMD is growing in the area of enterprise and mobile PCs. AMD is also ramping up shipment of new game console chips, and it returned to operating profits in the second quarter.

AMD is using contract chip manufacturer Globalfoundries to manufacture the chips. The chip maker is using a 14-nanometer process known as FinFet, which delivers improvements to power efficiency and performance. AMD’s own design techniques turn off power in parts of the chip that aren’t being used.

“Our team made energy-efficiency a full citizen from day one,” Papermaster said. “What is truly defying convention is we are using less energy per cycle.”

The Zen architecture

Above: The Zen architecture

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

AMD isn’t yet ready to talk about prices, and it will disclose more information as the actual launch date comes up.

“We’ll have a family of products roll out,” Papermaster said. “If you look at our roadmap, it is truly differentiated. We will always be paranoid about our competition, but we are playing our game.”

Two Zen-based chips in a server configuration.

Above: Two Zen-based chips in a server configuration.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi