AMD’s mobile Ryzen APUs are as important to the company’s long term future as its desktop chips, if not more so. The clear majority and future of the PC market these days is in laptops, which account for far more unit share than desktops. Given this, we were glad to see the company launching new mobile parts last year and we’re glad to see Dell adopting said parts for a new lineup of Inspiron systems. Unfortunately, Dell’s design decisions makes these laptops a poor buy. Again. It’s like déjà vu around here.
First, the basics: Dell has updated its Inspiron 17 product line with new AMD chips; while AMD APUs are available in the Inspiron 15 family as well, these are all older chips based on Carrizo and are not suitable alternatives to Ryzen or Intel’s Core family. So far, so good. Unfortunately, these new AMD SKUs are crippled compared to their Intel counterparts.
First, let’s take a look at the SKUs as they existed at the time of writing (3/5/2018). Here’s the Intel page (screencap below):
And the equivalent AMD page (also screenshotted below):
Both images are screen-capped to allow readers to refer to the price of each system, since they are not constant. To start with, we’ve got an AMD system with a 2C/4T CPU (Ryzen 3 2200G) and just 192 GPU cores at $679 supposedly competing against a Core i5-8250U — a 4C/8T Intel CPU — at $600. Granted, that extra $80 gets you 1080p on the AMD system versus 1600×900 on Intel, but the lack of GPU horsepower on the AMD solution and the weak CPU kicks the legs out from under this system. Intel’s official list price on the Core i5-8250U is that the chip costs $297, compared with the $600 retail price on this Inspiron, which tells you everything you need to know about how reliable Intel’s published pricing is, at least as far as what companies pay.
Intel doesn’t have an option between $600 and $850, but the only difference between the $680 and $730 AMD systems is an additional 4GB of RAM. This raises the question: What the heck kind of configuration is that $729 system, given that nobody makes 6GB DIMMs? Our money is a dual-channel DRAM configuration with a 4+2 split, as opposed to Dell chiseling the last 2GB off a bunch of Samsung DRAM sticks. But this presents additional problems. An unmatched dual-channel configuration with a different amount of memory per-channel will typically either default to single-channel operation or will use single-channel mode for accessing the last 2GB of RAM space. Neither are good. Also, why is a $730 laptop still fronting the kind of APU I’d expect in a $400 netbook? If Dell can put a quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU in a $600 system, it can put a quad-core CPU in an AMD system priced 1.22x higher. No excuses.
Let’s move on to our next Intel point of comparison. On the Intel side of things, $850 buys you a Core i7-8550U, 8GB of RAM single-channel RAM, a dual-drive storage system (128GB SSD + 1TB 5400 RPM HDD), and a discrete AMD GPU, courtesy of the Radeon HD 530. The Radeon 530 is a bottom-end OEM GPU that ships in two flavors, a terrible DDR3 option and a slightly-less-terrible GDDR5 option, with either a 320:20:8 (DDR3) or 384:24:8 (GDDR5) core. The GDDR5 option is better, though not by much.
On the AMD side of things, $900 buys you a Ryzen 5 2500U, 16GB of RAM (no word on RAM channel configuration), and a flat 2TB drive with no fast storage option. The only advantage to upgrading from the $899 to the $999 AMD system is that you get a year of “Premium Support Plus” instead of one year of mail-in service.
How to Bias Product Listings
The $900 AMD system has precisely one talking point — more RAM — in its favor. The Intel Core i5-8550U systems, in addition to benefiting from their brand recognition and strength, have a discrete GPU (a marketing selling point). AMD’s don’t. The Intel CPU listings call out their maximum clock speeds, the AMD systems don’t. The Intel systems note that they are single-channel, the AMD systems don’t. So now a would-be AMD buyer has to call the company to find that out — or, more realistically, just buy Intel in the first place. And that’s before we toss in the weird 12GB configuration, which could actively hurt performance in games if titles start tripping over a weird RAM split in which the last 2GB of RAM is only accessible at half memory bandwidth.
You can buy at least a 128GB SSD in the Intel system starting at $850 or 256GB + 2TB of HDD space for $1,200. You can’t buy an AMD system with an SSD at all. Evidently, only Intel owners could ever want relief from cutting-edge HDD performance, circa 1994.
Dell lists the same starting weight for its Intel laptops with or without the dGPU as 6.15 pounds, while the AMD systems all start at 6.55 pounds. No explanation for the nearly half-pound difference is given.
The low-end Radeon 530 dGPU in the Intel systems may not be necessary in the AMD APU systems. But Dell found a way to cover the cost of a more powerful CPU, 128GB SSD, and Radeon 530 when moving from $600 to $850 for the Intel system (+$250), along with a resolution bump from 1600×900 to 1920×1080. It could only manage a faster APU and an extra 8GB of DDR4-2400 when bumping up the Ryzen system’s price by $220.
Somehow, Dell managed to find an awful lot of breathing room to upgrade those Intel SKUs, and not nearly so much upgrading the same AMD products. Once again, we’ve got a vendor with AMD products supposedly on the board, only to discover they’re designed to not be nearly as attractive as their Intel counterparts, for reasons that have nothing to do with the capabilities of the SoCs that power them or the prices charged by the smaller competitor.
Dell’s Alienware Laptop GPU Upgrades Are a Conceptually Great Idea
Dell has made good on its promise to offer upgradeable modules for the Dell Alienware Area-51m laptop family. Despite the eye-watering cost, these packages could be good deals — at least in the long-term, if Dell keeps offering them over time.