There’s a rumor going around that Intel and Nvidia have conspired to block AMD’s Ryzen Mobile 4000 series from high-end gaming laptops. This information has supposedly been provided by an unnamed OEM, and claims that a secret agreement between Intel and Nvidia specifies that top-end RTX GPUs can only be paired with Intel 10th Generation CPUs. Intel and Nvidia have both denied the allegations.
The conspiracy theory argues that Intel and Nvidia formed an alliance to keep AMD out of the mobile gaming market by denying it access to top-end GPUs. This, in turn, would keep AMD out of the highest-priced and most lucrative mobile market.
There are some objective reasons to think this isn’t happening, but before we dig into them, let’s address the elephant in the room. The reason conspiracy theories about blocking AMD from accessing the market find a home online is that there has been a lot of bad blood between the two companies over the decades. Intel went all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to revoke AMD’s right to manufacture x86 CPUs. AMD filed an antitrust lawsuit against Intel in 2005, alleging that the company had abused its monopoly in the x86 market by creating a rebate system that effectively locked AMD out of certain market segments. While these claims were never evaluated in a court of law, the court of public opinion had a lot to say about Intel’s behavior, and not much of it was good. Intel paid AMD $1.25B and renegotiated its x86 license to settle the case, and paid a $1.45B fine to the EU.
I covered the antitrust lawsuit when it happened and I’ve conducted my own investigations into the related compiler optimization differences that also formed part of the lawsuit. While obviously, ET cannot comprehensively declare that no Intel-Nvidia agreement exists, there are some objective reasons to think it doesn’t.
For starters, because AMD hasn’t put the same emphasis on mobile that it did on desktop. We talk about desktop Ryzen and mobile Ryzen as two halves of the same product, but the two have faced very different competitive environments.
On desktop, Ryzen’s story is simple: At launch, Ryzen punched Kaby Lake in the throat. Intel’s Core i7-8700K landed its own headshot later on in 2017, but from 2018-2020, Intel’s position in desktop steadily weakened. The Ryzen 5000 desktop launch in the fall of 2020 gave AMD a real claim to all-around fastest CPU, including gaming. While Rocket Lake may change this calculus in about eight weeks, AMD currently holds a leadership position in desktop.
Mobile isn’t that simple. Ryzen Mobile didn’t launch until nearly a full year later, in 2018. The first Ryzen desktop chips had featured up to 2x the core count of an equivalently priced Kaby Lake CPU. On mobile, Ryzen 2000 topped out at four cores. Intel pushed six-core mobile chips out in 2018 to take the highest-end gaming space. Ryzen was a breath of fresh air in mobile, but it wasn’t a Coffee Lake killer.
In 2019, AMD launched 7nm desktop CPUs, but kept mobile chips on refreshed 12nm silicon. The Ryzen 3000 version of the Surface Laptop was very well-reviewed, but a head-to-head comparison versus Intel’s Ice Lake showed that Intel retained an advantage in CPU performance and battery life. It was only in 2020 that the Ryzen 4000 series pulled ahead of Ice Lake, and Intel took the CPU and GPU performance crown back with Tiger Lake later that same year.
One of the advantages of partnering with Microsoft on the Surface Laptop 3 was the degree of optimization Microsoft did for the platform. AMD told the press some of this work would help other OEMs improve their AMD offerings.
Part of the reason for this just boils down to timing. Since 2017, AMD has launched new microarchitectures first for desktop, then for mobile. Intel, in contrast, has led with mobile. The Ryzen 7 1800X debuted against Intel’s 7th Gen processors. The mobile Ryzen chips, which launched nearly a full year later, faced 8th Gen mobile CPUs with higher core counts than their 7th Gen counterparts had offered. If AMD had led with 7nm mobile chips in July of 2019 it would have launched against Coffee Lake, not Ice Lake, and looked even stronger by comparison.
This timing tradeoff has consequences for how well AMD has compared against Intel at any given point in time. When AMD’s Frank Azor appeared on The Full Nerd in May 2020, he specifically noted that OEMs weren’t confident that Ryzen 4000 would offer a real challenge to Ice Lake, and were cautious about adapting the design.
“I think Ryzen 4000 has exceeded everybody’s expectations, but for the most part, everyone tip-toed with us. Because of that, it was hard to imagine a world where we were the fastest mobile processor,” Azor said.
OEMs plan out their refresh cycles well in advance, and while the Ryzen Mobile 2000 and 3000 were good mobile CPUs, they weren’t cleanly better than what Intel was shipping at the time. Ryzen 4000 was the first AMD mobile CPU to challenge Intel in gaming, and OEMs don’t commit to shipping new system designs if they think all they’ll get is a single viable product generation. There are also some platform-level reasons why OEMs might prefer Intel, like the latter’s support for x16 PCIe connections on mobile, but that’s secondary to the question of absolute performance.
Another reason to doubt this theory is that we’re already seeing evidence of more Ryzen 5000-powered laptops with high-end GPUs this year than last. AMD’s consistent roadmap execution, and its demonstrated ability to navigate multiple microarchitectural shifts and a full node transition, has built faith with both OEMs and customers. If you look back at AMD’s claims against Intel in 2005, one of the arguments AMD made was its suspicious inability to claim more than 15-20 percent of the worldwide CPU market.
From AMD’s 2005 lawsuit against Intel.
There’s no equivalent glass ceiling visible in the data today. AMD’s market share in mobile, desktop, and server have all been growing since Ryzen was introduced into each product family. Last summer, AMD hit the highest market share it’s held since 2012. At no point has the company indicated to ExtremeTech that it believed the same shenanigans might be in play today.
From an OEM’s perspective, Ryzen 4000 proved Ryzen Mobile had the chops to compete in gaming notebooks. Now that Ryzen 4000 and (presumably) 5000 are offering much-improved competition against Intel, we can expect to see the number of top-end gaming systems featuring an AMD CPU to rise. The delays we’ve seen thus far make sense, given how recently AMD started competing in high-end mobile gaming.