April 30, 2019
Joel Hruska

Not All AM4 Motherboards May Support 3rd-Gen AMD Ryzen CPUs

Motherboard manufacturers have begun to release UEFI updates for AMD’s upcoming third-generation Ryzen microprocessors and users have noticed that the updates are only coming to certain motherboards. Companies like Asus have released a long list of X470, B450, X370, and B350 motherboards that will support 7nm chips — but motherboard updates based on AMD’s A320 chipset are nowhere to be found, at least not yet.

It’s possible they may not happen. AMD’s A320 is a budget chipset, intended for low-end systems with relatively modest power requirements and performance. These are the lowest-end boards that are produced for the Ryzen family, with relatively low prices.

Bios_updates_8

Asus’ UEFI updates.

There have been some headlines claiming that this would represent a breach of AMD’s promise to support Ryzen motherboards across multiple product generations. But AMD’s original promise was that it would support Socket AM4 through 2020, not that every Socket AM4 motherboard would support every processor. Granted, this turned out to be the case for the Ryzen 2SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce family, but AMD never formally committed to blanket cross-chipset support for the entire product line. It’s not clear that they could. There are technical and economic factors to consider.

First, as a matter of practicality, A320 motherboards are a low-end chipset not intended for the enthusiast market. If you’re reading this on an AMD system, chances are it’s based on either an X-series or B-series motherboard. AMD’s Ryzen launch-era chipset diagram (with the A320’s features and positioning) is shown below:

RyzenPlatform1

AMD’s various Ryzen platforms. Click to enlarge.

The number of enthusiasts with a low-end A320 motherboard looking to upgrade is going to be fairly low. These are inexpensive boards for the most part, with a price tag around $60. Historically, lower-cost boards on lower-end chipsets haven’t always supported top-end microprocessors as well as high-end motherboards do. OEMs are typically willing to spend more money on power circuitry or more PCB layers on products that will sell for higher retail prices.

Second, the OEMs themselves may not be willing to do the update work. It costs money to assign UEFI engineers to write updates for products. If said products only sold for $50 or $60, the motherboardSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce manufacturer may not be willing to provide the same level of updates and support. There are also some UEFI capacity limits that have prevented support updates from containing data from every processor; some motherboard OEMs have removed Bristol Ridge support from the latest UEFI updates to afford space for supporting third-generation Ryzen.

AMD and Intel have pursued different motherboard strategies for the entirety of my nearly two-decade career. Between the two of them, Intel has historically offered far fewer upgrade paths, when it has offered them at all. Typically, Intel will offer an upgrade path for one generation of CPU at most and may lock features out between chipsets even when multiple generations are supported. Kaby Lake CPUs can work in Z170 motherboards, for example, but Optane drives are not supported in this chipset.

AMD has typically done a better job of offering cross-generational motherboard compatibility, but there are still limits to what the company can practically do. It can’t force OEMs to develop and release UEFI updates for products, and from the OEM perspective, every UEFI they release with third-generation Ryzen support is a third-generation Ryzen motherboard they won’t sell. AMD couldn’t predict in 2017 which OEMs would or wouldn’t maintain UEFI update schedules for future products, or the exact motherboards they’d agree to support. The motherboard companies themselves would not have known how well Ryzen would sell or which boards would prove popular.

I want to make it clear that there’s been no formal announcement that A320 won’t receive third-generation Ryzen support. We’re just seeing motherboard companies post lists of the boards they intend to update without A320 listed. If you’re an A320 owner and feel strongly on the issue, I suggest contacting your motherboard manufacturer.

I suspect the reason AMD’s “We’ll support AM4 through 2020” morphed into an expectation somewhere in the realm of “We’ll support every AMD CPU on every chipset” is a mixture of wishful thinking and strong support for the Ryzen 2 family on original chipsets. Once AMD had demonstrated that X370, B350, and A320 motherboards would also support Ryzen 2, it was much easier to read the company’s promise as a blanket guarantee of CPU compatibility across the entire motherboard lineup.

But that’s not what AMD actually said, and as a practical matter, it’s not even clear that this issue is going to hit the customers who intend to upgrade. So far, the list of X370 and B350 motherboards being upgraded to support third-generation Ryzen looks pretty good.

AMD has demonstrated that it’s willing to go the extra mile for customers who want to upgrade their CPU without swapping motherboards. The company proved it when it created an entire program to ship APUs to customers who bought new chips and then needed to update their motherboard UEFI to support them. The rumor mill generally expects that AMD will ship up to 16 cores for its top-end mainstream desktop platform. That means a buyer who picked up an eight-core Ryzen 7 1800XSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce in 2017 will — if rumors prove accurate — have the ability to upgrade up to 16 cores in 2019. That’s an exceptional upgrade path and a historically rare opportunity.

AMD’s formal commitment is to support AM4 through 2020. The company has gone beyond that, as far as continuing to support two-year-old chipsets with 7nm processors. The limits of support might clip the A320’s wings, as far as 7nm Ryzen is concerned, but OEMs appear to be updating most, if not all, of their B350 and X370 chipsets. That should address most of the enthusiast market actually interested in moving to new processors.

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