Can AMD Stay In The Game?

You have to give AMD credit for persistence.

The company’s stock price is in the tank, at under $2 per share. Total revenue for calendar year 2015 came in at under $4 billion, a pretty big drop over 2014. Yet AMD continues to motor along, recently announcing its next generation Polaris GPU architecture and working diligently to bring its Zen processor by the end of the year.

What about today? If you’re in the market for a new gaming PC, can an all AMD-based system pass muster? It’s true you can build a killer gaming system using an AMD-based graphics card, as I did with the itty-bitty gaming PC. However, my main production rig, which I also use for most of my PC gaming, still runs an Intel CPU and an Nvidia-based graphics card.

Enter iBuyPower

AMD's high-end Wraith CPU cooler.

AMD’s high-end Wraith CPU cooler.

AMD touched bases with me shortly after releasing their Wraith CPU cooler, which received generally positive reviews. You might wonder why AMD makes such a big deal about a new CPU cooler. In recent years, AMD’s processors tended to run hotter than the equivalent Intel CPU. AMD still included CPU HSFs (heat-sink fans) based on a pretty old design. The combination resulted in pretty noisy systems. Most AMD power users simply discarded the default cooler and bought a separate one.

AMD returned to the drawing board and developed the Wraith, redesigning the fin structure and implementing a better fan and fan housing. The result is a cooling fan that generates about 39dBA constant noise, a substantial improvement over previous generations. To keep cost low, the fan lacks PWM control — in other words, it spins at the same RPM no matter the load. The uplift in cost for a retail CPU is just $10.

The Wraith offers one other key benefit: it fits. If you’ve ever wrestled with a large CPU cooler, the massive fans in some high-end coolers make installation a significant chore. The Wraith will fit in almost all small form factor cases.

AMD shipped me a fairly stock PC build with an AMD FX-8370 processor running in a Gigabyte AM3+ motherboard and PowerColor 8GB Radeon R390 graphics card. The system also included a 700W PSU, 16GB Corsair DDR3, 128GB SSD, and 1TB hard drive. The approximate pricing comes in at under $1,300, which puts it squarely into midrange gaming rig territory.

So far, so good, right?

The AMD Curse

I seem to bring out some kind of arcane curse whenever I deal with AMD products. When I built the itty-bitty gaming PC, the first Radeon Nano Fury card had graphical glitch issues. When the iBuyPower system arrived, I unpacked the system, opened up the side panel, and discovered problems before ever plugging it in.

I don't think it's supposed to look like that...

I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that…

See the hard drive cage? That leapt out at me immediately. The HDD cage came loose during shipping. If you examine the photo a little close, you may notice the graphics card appears a little askew. Clearly, the gorillas were at work at Fedex that particular day.

I reseated the hard drive and the graphics card. The system booted Windows 10 off the SSD, and I immediately encountered a graphics

MSI dual-fan R390

MSI dual-fan R390

problem: a giant vertical green stripe, about an inch wide, 1/3 the distance from the left side of the display. AMD quickly drop-shipped an MSI Radeon R390. Instead of the triple-fan construction of the PowerColor, MSI builds their R390 with a pair of slightly oversized fans.

During the initial setup process, Windows became corrupted, so I needed to reinstall the OS. That gave me the opportunity to replace the 128GB SSD with a 960GB Micron SSD. That would be a little fairer in usage testing, since my other gaming PCs all have SSDs large enough to hold multiple games.

Usage Impressions

I fired up the FX8370 system and ran a few benchmarks, mostly to break in the system. 3DMark results seemed fairly decent, posting in excess of 5,500 on 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme. After years of running benchmarks, though, I’ve begun to question their utility for most users — but that’s a topic for another blog post.

So far, so good.

But then the curse struck again, though in smaller ways. At one point, while games downloaded simultaneously from Steam and EA Origin, the system spontaneously rebooted. I reinstalled the latest AMD chipset drivers. Then I updated the GPU drivers to the latest 16.1.1 hotfix… or so I thought. Despite the installer declaring a successful update, and a reboot, I kept getting nagging notifications from AMD’s driver utility telling me to update my driver — to 16.1.1. At first, I ignored the message, but after Warhammer: Vermintide refused to run and XCOM2 crashing frequently, I ran the driver installer a second time. This time, it must have installed properly, because games stopped crashing.

I played extended sessions of XCOM2 at 2560×1440, a bit of Warhammer: Vermintide and an evening of Diablo III. At high detail settings, all the games ran pretty smoothly by my eye. It’s all subjective, of course, but the system certainly kept up with an Intel Core i5 plus GTX 980 system that a friend played on adjacent to the AMD system I was on. Everything now seems to be stable, and the noise factor is certainly acceptable.

Final Thoughts

I believe some of the issues I encountered with stability lies partly with AMD having to live at the low end. Motherboard makers have little incentive to build super-high-end motherboards, as they do with Intel. They also seem to spend as little time and resources testing drivers and installers. AMD fares a bit better on the graphics side, since AMD GPUs are generally pretty competitive. Of course, I seem to attract more than my fair share of problems, too — I have friends running AMD systems who never encounter the small issues that seem to dog me.

To be fair, most of the glitches I encountered setting up the iBuyPower system seemed to be standard burn-in and setup issues. Some problems no doubt resulted from the graphics card damaged in shipping. Once I wrapped up installing all the drivers, updates, and hardware, the system seems stable.

To its credit, AMD keeps moving forward, even with its limited resources. The company recently tweaked the design and process implementation of its latest APUs (processors with integrated Radeon graphics), reducing power consumption to a more amenable 65W. The company also announced a companion CPU cooler to ship with the APUs, lower cost than the Wraith, but still relatively quiet. Also, AMD announced its next generation Polaris GPU architecture at the 2015 CES show, with products likely by the end of summer.

All that’s well and good, but what about now. On the surface, the iBuyPower system I’m running now seems well-priced and performs well. After my initial setup issues (plus the shipping problem, which isn’t AMD’s fault), the system seems pretty solid. So I’ve got this FX8370 running alongside the other LAN party rigs in my basement lab. I’m determined to give it a good shakeout during our Friday Night Follies gaming sessions, where we play a variety of online PC games. So expect to see the result of further actual system use over the next several months.



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