Despite being just a modest CPU socket, AMD ‘boldly’ suggests AM4 has ‘legendary status’

When it comes to making headlines in technology, you normally expect it to be about new chips, architectures, power figures or clock speeds. A graphics card, CPU, laptop or telephone: they immediately attract a lot of attention. But processor sockets? No, not really, although there is one that stands out as an exception and AMD even “boldly suggests” that it has “legendary status.”

Square pieces of plastic with tens of hundreds of metal pins in them may not seem like cutting-edge technology, but CPU sockets are pretty important things. They host all the connections needed to power the chip and allow it to communicate with RAM, graphics cards, SSDs, and everything else on a PC.

There are two approaches to designing a new socket: (1) a short-term design that is fine with current technologies but will need to be replaced after a few years, or (2) a system that supports the latest technology but also has ability to support things that happen years later. For the modest PC, Intel takes the former approach, while AMD chooses the latter.

In September 2016, AMD released a slew of new CPU models for OEM partners, such as the base A6-9500. New chips often require a new socket, but AMD often had several on the market at the same time in recent years (e.g. AM1, FM2+, AM3+). These were all replaced by AM4: a square socket, 40×40 mm, with 1331 contact pins. The idea was to have An front socket all desktop processors and not just for the first generation of chips, but for many more.

It turned out that AM4 lasted far longer than any other CPU socket design and is still going strong seven years and eight months later. New processors were only released in January of this year.

It’s home to Zen, Zen+, Zen 2 and Zen 3 chips and while not every AM4 motherboard supports them all, the more recent ones can handle most generations of Ryzen chips.

AMD pins

AMD pins

I was recently chatting with Martijn Boonstra, AMD’s CPU expert and serious (serial?) overclocker, about many things that were all CPU related and we discussed the longevity of AM4 at length. Martijn explained AMD’s philosophy behind how it designs CPU sockets:

“You have your ultra-enthusiasts who upgrade every new generation of CPUs with new hardware, then you have your moderate enthusiasts, we might skip a year and not have done it again a year later. So I think there’s basically something for everyone But there’s always awareness, as long as you can put it in the same motherboard, keep the same cooler, keep the same RAM, and still fully enjoy next-gen performance without having to change any of the other ecosystem parts. to upgrade.

In the case of AM4, the first processors it supported were the Ryzen 7 1800X, an eight-core, 4.0 GHz CPU designed to work with DDR4-2666 RAM. Four years later, that same socket could house a Ryzen 9 5750X, with 16 cores, running at 4.9 GHz and supporting DDR4-3200 or faster.

Even more than six years after its first appearance, you can buy one of the best gaming CPUs, the Ryzen 7 5800X3D, and plug it in with ease. While that’s physically true, you’ll find that technically it’s not that simple. Yet this versatility has not been lost on PC gamers and AM4’s reputation is unmatched today.

An AMD Ryzen 9 5950X CPU in an AM4 socket on the motherboardAn AMD Ryzen 9 5950X CPU in an AM4 socket on the motherboard

An AMD Ryzen 9 5950X CPU in an AM4 socket on the motherboard

Can I boldly suggest that AM4 has legendary status?

Iain Bristow, AMD’s communications manager, who also joined our tech chat, offered a more succinct view: “Can I boldly suggest that AM4 has legendary status?”

From a technical perspective, it is difficult to disagree with such an assessment, regardless of who said it and under what circumstances. Designing a socket that can support multiple generations of architectures without being limited in areas like PCI Express capabilities is no small feat, but creating a socket that is still in use today. seven years lateris an astonishing achievement.

For AMD, locking multiple generations of CPU designs onto a single socket layout was quite a gamble. It could easily have turned out that after three or four years AM4 simply didn’t have enough pins to meet the power and signal requirements, requiring the design of a new socket and losing face since it had already claimed it would be supported for many years.

All that said, it’s not like you can use a 2016 AM4 motherboard and put in a 2024 AM4 CPU: it just won’t work. While the socket itself is fully backwards compatible, the processor must still be properly supported by the motherboard’s circuitry, BIOS, and chipset. Even the latest and greatest AM4 motherboards you can get, like the Asus ROG Crosshair VIII Dark Hero, don’t support every generation of Ryzen processors.

In 2019, AMD found itself in hot water when it announced that Zen 3 Ryzen processors would only work in some AM4 motherboards and that the new 500 series chipsets would not support first-generation Zen CPUs at all. If you had an AM4 motherboard with a 300 series chipset, there was no guarantee that a Zen 3 chip would work, as the memory chips used to store the BIOS were often not large enough to store settings for each Ryzen variant store. point.

It made AMD’s claim that it would support AM4 through many generations of Ryzen chips seem a bit hollow. Technically there was nothing wrong with such a statement, but the reality didn’t quite match up. It seems that time has faded these earlier issues from memory and all legends play a bit loose with historical accuracy, so Bristow’s statement is not entirely an exaggeration.

Of course, having that kind of socket longevity is usually only good for AMD, as well as motherboard and cooler vendors, as it helps reduce some of the costs when updating designs. However, the number of PC gamers who keep the same board for years, but regularly replace the CPU, is large terribly small: it’s a niche market, even among PC gamers. I’m certainly not one, as I use the same processor and motherboard for years before updating the whole thing when it’s no longer good enough for my needs.

Its successor, AM5, is only a year and a half old, so it’s far too early to say whether it will have the same longevity. AMD has officially stated that it plans to support the socket “until at least 2025” and likely beyond.

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Nvidia RTX 4070 and RTX 3080 Founders Edition graphics cards

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However, since it was designed with the same philosophy in mind as AM4, I have no doubt that AMD will be releasing Ryzen chips for it for many years to come. Whether that will still be the case in 2030 and beyond is hard to say for sure, but I wouldn’t bet on Zen 6 or Zen 7 processors finding a home in an AM5 motherboard or two.

Hopefully, AMD and its partners have learned valuable lessons from the 300 and 500 series chipset issues, and can ensure that all future AM5 motherboards fully support any Ryzen processor to use that socket design.

By the time we get to the next decade, there will be another new AMD chip socket to ensure the latest DDR RAM and PCI Express technologies are properly supported. Will people give AM5 the same ‘legendary’ badge as AM4 if that happens? I don’t think so, simply because AM4 is so remarkable compared to everything else, even something equally good just won’t have the same impact.

To mangle a well-known expression: the king is not (still) dead, long live the king.

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