AMD axes Zen 3 support on 400-series motherboards: Is AMD pulling an Intel?
Our thoughts on AM4 compatibility moving forwardBy Steven Walton 96 comments
In a surprising announcement, AMD last week said they would discontinue support for older chipsets with their upcoming Ryzen 4000 series, codenamed Zen 3. In the press deck we received for our most recent Ryzen 3 3100 / 3300X review, AMD included a slide that seemed to indicate that the B350, X370, B450 and X470 chipsets wouldn't support future Ryzen processors. It's been clarified since that support for future CPU generations, such as the upcoming Ryzen 4000 series would be limited to motherboards donning a 500 series chipset, so current X570 boards and upcoming B550 motherboards.
Some took this to mean (ourselves included) 300 and 400 series motherboards would still support Zen 3 processors through unofficial means. AMD's slide clearly states 300 series boards don't support Ryzen 3000 series processors, when in fact they do. The situation however is quite different, at least that's what AMD's telling us.
While AMD doesn't officially support Zen 2 processors on 300 series motherboards, they did invest engineering time to make it work and provided motherboard makers with the necessary AGESA code for support. It was then optional for board markers to implement this update and support Zen 2 processors on their older 300 series boards. Because no AIB wanted to look inferior next to the competition and alienate their own customers, every maker implemented this "beta BIOS" as AMD calls it, and as a result the Ryzen 9 3950X will work on most B350 boards.
However, AMD has now said no "beta BIOS" option will exist for Zen 3 and therefore the necessary code won't be made available to board partners. In other words, support for upcoming Ryzen 4000 processors on 300 and 400 series motherboards is a no go.
That's where we're at right now. AMD's saying it won't happen period. But could AMD's stance on this change between now and the release of Zen 3? We've reached out to AMD, but they have refrained from commenting and therefore addressing any of our questions at this point, but we have had some interesting conversations with a few of their partners.
Let's start with why AMD is limiting support for Zen 3/Ryzen 4000 to B550 and X570 motherboards. In the official AMD blog post, they said the following:
AMD has no plans to introduce "Zen 3" architecture support for older chipsets. While we wish could enable full support for every processor on every chipset, the flash memory chips that store BIOS settings and support have capacity limitations. Given these limitations, and the unprecedented longevity of the AM4 socket, there will inevitably be a time and place where a transition to free up space is necessary---the AMD 500 Series chipsets are that time.
I've gotta say that's a really disappointing response from AMD and it's a rubbish reason. There are 400 series boards with larger capacity BIOSes for that very reason, these boards were designed to ensure future CPU support and I'll talk more about that in a moment.
The second reason is one I discussed a long time ago when it first became apparent that BIOS capacity issues would be a problem moving forward. My idea was for AMD and its board partners to offer users with older boards multiple BIOS options: have a BIOS with 1st, 2nd and 3rd-gen support like what we have now, and then another version that drops 1st and maybe even 2nd-gen support in favor of 3rd and 4th-gen support. This is a relatively easy solution and certainly possible to implement.
In our opinion, the real reason AMD is axing support is because they don't have enough resources internally to support Zen 3 on older boards. That's not something AMD wants to admit to, but it's almost certainly the truth. It seems a lot less likely that they just want to sell more motherboard chipsets as many are suggesting.
Claiming that BIOS capacity is the reason for pulling support is just a poor excuse as there are ways around that if AMD wanted. What they should have said is something like, "We wish we could support Zen 3 on older motherboards, however in pushing the boundaries of CPU performance we ran into compatibility complications with boards designed for earlier Ryzen architectures. Focusing on adding support for older motherboards would compromise our ability to deliver a high performance, stable platform on 500 series boards so we decided to end support for older platforms with the upcoming generation."
To be perfectly clear, board partners cannot support Ryzen 4000 series processors on 400-series motherboards without AMD's help, it's simply not possible. So don't expect an AIB to crack the code and open up support. Anyway, AMD is going with the BIOS capacity story, so let's move on.
Something that I don't want to get too caught up in is what AMD has or hasn't promised. From day one AMD said a key feature of the AM4 platform would be 'socket stability' and they planned to use the same socket until at least 2020. They claimed that as recently as a year ago, in a blog post from May 2019: "With the launch of the AM4 platform in 2016, we at AMD made a commitment to maintain and support socket AM4 through 2020." So while that doesn't name chipsets, they do use the word 'maintain' and that implies that they will maintain motherboard support. At the very least AMD has misled customers.
I find it interesting that some people are saying "AMD told us this would happen" when they claimed AM4 support until 2020. For us it's ambiguous whether that's until the start or end of the year. It also only applies to the AM4 socket, not the chipsets as there was never promised chipset support and in any case the AM4 socket is continuing throughout 2020. It's just a bizarre justification to be honest.
But like I said, I don't want to waste time arguing about that because frankly it changes nothing. Rather I'm going to talk about why I think AMD's plans to axe support for older boards moving forward is nonsense. Actually, l should be a little more specific here, I think axing support for 400 series boards is a crap move... 300 series boards though, not so much.
It's not ideal, but if you bought a 300 series motherboard, particularly a cheap B350 model, I feel you've gotten your money's worth. The fact that a relatively inexpensive B350 board now has the option to support 12 and 16-core processors with relatively large IPC gains compared to the 1st-gen Ryzen parts, well that's unheard of.
If you were to tell someone buying a B350 board in 2017 that in a few years there would be 12 and 16-core parts offering solid IPC gains and massively improved power consumption, and that these would work on the same board, they'd have probably laughed at you. After all, the previous 9 years had seen nothing but Intel quad-core CPUs for the mainstream, so AMD should be commended for what they've done with Ryzen.
However, if you bought a 400 series board, particularly if you did so after the release of the Ryzen 3000 series, then I think you have a right to be more than a little pissed off. If AMD knew BIOS sizes were going to be a problem and as a result would have to axe support, why didn't they make this clear when X570 boards started showing up? Instead they continued to promote 400 series boards, stating that Ryzen 3000 CPUs would perform just as well on last-gen B450 and X470 products. Therefore they were essentially saying there is no need to invest in an expensive X570 board if you don't require PCIe 4.0 support.
Fast forward to today and that's not really true is it? The key feature of the X570 chipset is future CPU support, namely for Zen 3. Had many of you known this I'm sure you would have spent $40 more for something like the Asus TUF Gaming X570 over the MSI B450 Tomahawk Max.
This suggests to me that at the time AMD didn't know how they were going to tackle future CPU support and they were kind of winging it. I mean, it'd have been dumb for AMD not to advertise X570 as the only chipset to support future CPUs, given the only other selling point was PCIe 4.0, a feature that 95% of users don't need or use, at least for the first year or so.
We know AMD didn't communicate any of this to their customers, either because they didn't want to or at the time didn't yet know what the future plans were, and I'm starting to think it's the latter as it appears board partners were in the dark as well. It does seem as though this was a recent decision by AMD and their partners found out the same time we did, which is truly bizarre.
When Zen 2 launched, there were some issues caused by BIOS sizes. MSI went ahead and relaunched most of their 400 series lineup with the Max series. The Max boards were identical to the original models in every way with the exception of the BIOS chip, which was upgraded from 16MBto a 32MB capacity, allowing these boards to comfortably support all Zen processors.
Naturally those seeking future CPU support on a more affordable B450 board went with something like the MSI B450 Tomahawk Max. Those of you who bought one of these boards over the past few months will no doubt be feeling shafted. In fact, this decision by AMD has landed MSI in hot water as they clearly advertised their Max range with support for future AM4 processors. Not to throw MSI under the bus, but in their own blog post they said, they recommend grabbing a B450 Max motherboard if you want a value-oriented motherboard that'll support not only the latest AMD releases but will also have you covered for all future AM4 product releases... yikes!
It's hard to give AMD the benefit of the doubt given how this has played out, not to mention they just refreshed Ryzen 3 with the R3 3100 and R3 3300X. What was the point of releasing these budget Zen 2 processors without first releasing the B550 chipset? Given this new information, who is going to spend ~$100 on a B450 board to take advantage of these new Ryzen 3 processors, if those boards don't support at least one more generation of AM4 processors? That's a horrible investment at this point.
The 3100 and 3300X aren't exactly upgrade options for anyone who already owns a Ryzen processor, maybe an R3 1200, but that's about it. So it seems strange to release quad-core Ryzen 3 parts before B550 boards hit shelves. It's been suggested by a few reliable industry sources that the B550 chipset has been delayed multiple times, and ultimately AMD decided to hold off until Intel released their 10th-gen Core series, using the B550 chipset as an opportunity to steal some of Intel's thunder while also spoiling their more affordable B460 release. If that is the case, AMD has played themselves and screwed over their customers in the process.
No doubt I'm now hearing some people say things like "AMD's just as bad as Intel now, they've tasted success and now they're ready to screw us over". Personally, I think that's a pretty bad take for a few reasons.
First, the degree of compatibility AMD has managed so far is worlds better than anything Intel has provided in recent history. Granted, those who bought a B450 board have now unexpectedly just a single generation's worth of support, but at least they have more than just quad core processors to choose from. Again, I have to give credit for AMD here, in a few short years they've progressed desktop CPU performance beyond everyone's expectations.
Where AMD has messed up is in communicating what their plans are, considering promises were made. At least with Intel we know we're getting a tick, then the tock, and then the bugger off and buy a new motherboard fools.
At the end of the day, we can't be happy about this move and we strongly urge AMD to reconsider, and at least open up support to 400-series owners. Apparently we can influence AMD pricing, so hopefully we can finally use that power for good, let's just hope those powers translate beyond just inflating prices of products that we deem too good to be true. But in all seriousness, we really do hope AMD makes a change here.
Having that said, maybe most of you don't care all that much based on feedback we received on a recent poll. Just 25% of the 60K people who voted think this move by AMD sucks and they're disappointed. The vast majority agree that it's unfortunate but ultimately aren't all that upset, while 15% think the move is fine and are prepared to upgrade their motherboard.
Obviously those holding out for B550 or who pulled the trigger on an X570 board don't care, if anything this just re-enforces that they made the right decision. Those who bought a 300-series board years ago probably aren't all that phased either, as they've done extremely well already. So it's just those who bought a 400 series board that'll be upset and in particular those who bought in the last year.
Moving forward, AMD says B550 and X570 chipsets will support Zen 3, but beyond that we're completely in the dark. Is this the end of the AM4 platform? Will Zen 4 adopt DDR5 and move to a new socket? If so, why break compatibility with the final CPU release? It seems like the worst possible way to end the AM4 platform. We could be looking at a situation where 400-series boards were good for just two generations and the succeeding 500-series are also valid for just two generations, and that would make AMD just as bad as Intel in terms of platform compatibility.
In the past few days we've had industry contacts confirm that the AMD BIOS excuse is rubbish and that simple workarounds are possible, just like the one discussed here. One good example: there could be a single large BIOS file that you download, then upon flashing you would select the CPU series you want to support, and it'd flash the appropriate code.
It's now up to the community to pressure AMD into changing this decision and to open up support for 400-series boards. You better believe that if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile, and we'll be back to where we were just a few years ago.