Say Hello to the AM4 Platform
Say Hello to the AM4 Platform
AMDís 990FX flagship platform may have been around for the better part of six years, but much of its epic staying power is an attestation of how forward looking it was back in 2011. It had PCIe lanes aplenty so adding third party controllers was easy, memory support was broad and pricing remained respectable. Naturally, some minor revisions like PCIe 3.0 compatibility were added over time but for the most part the 990FX boards stood the test of time.
With Ryzen comes a new AM4 socket and also an updated chipset lineup with some very interesting offerings. More importantly, these new processors take a page out of the APU playbook and integrate a large amount of I/O functionality directly onto the die, thus acting like a quasi-SoC.
Even if you donít read any further, make sure you remember this small bit of information: The AM4 platform is meant to serve as a foundation for both Ryzen CPUs and upcoming Raven Ridge APUs. Hence, many supporting motherboards will integrate display outputs into their designs. AMD also expects this particular platform to be around until at least 2020 provided next generation technologies like PCI-E 4.0 and the advent of high speed DDR5 donít necessitate a pin-out change to the processors themselves.
Each Ryzen 7 processor has 16 native PCI-E 3.0 lanes which are dedicated for graphics use. On a higher end X370 motherboard, these can be configured towards either a single x16 graphics solution or a dual x8 partition. This design is exactly the same as what Intel has been pushing on their more mainstream Z-series platforms for years now. It can also be considered a step backwards from 990FX which had the capability to run dual x16 slots, much like the enthusiast X-series Intel chipsets.
This PCI-E lane layout is actually quite odd considering AMD has routinely highlighted their ongoing support for three or more Radeon graphics cards. NVIDIA meanwhile has stepped away from triple and quad card setups, rather deciding to focus their efforts on delivering strong single / dual GPU configs. Some vendors could launch more capable motherboards with PLX PCIe multipliers but that may be some time off.
Thereís plenty of other functionality here too. AMD has packed in four additional on-die Gen3 PCIe lanes that are set aside for high bandwidth NVMe or SATA storage solutions and guarantees they communicate directly with the processor over a dedicated bus. Four USB 3.1 Gen1 (the artist formerly known as USB 3.0) are also included which will come into play with the upcoming X300-based boards, but more on that later.
While the processor itself has more than enough connectivity for basic needs, the X370 chipset is where most of the fun happens on this particular platform. It is connected to the processor or APU via a quartet of PCI-E lanes for quick communications and includes eight general purpose PCI-E 2.0 lanes and two native USB 3.1 Gen2 ports alongside six USB 3.1 Gen1 and six USB 2.0 connections. That native USB 3.1 Gen2 support is a key element here since partitioning chipset-bound PCI-E lanes and adding third party controllers wonít be necessary. This could keep board costs down.
On the mass storage side of the equation, thereís a pair of SATAe ports which can be effectively segmented into four standard SATA Gbps connections if a motherboard vendor doesnít want to utilize that already-dead standard. Finally, AMD has added four native SATA 6Gbps ports as well.
While much of this page has been dedicated to the enthusiast level X370, there will be plenty of other motherboard options cascading downwards into lower price points. The B350 for example will offer very similar functionality when compared to X370 while still offering overclocking. Granted, there are a few reductions in available USB 3.1 Gen 1, SATA and general purpose PCI-E connections but other than the loss of dual graphics capabilities, this chipset looks pretty capable.
The A320 chipset is the budget-focused member of this particular family and thereís good reason for this. It receives I/O cuts across the lineup and it wonít support overclocking in any way. This is all to be expected from a chipset that will target entry level markets.
In my opinion the most interesting addition to this lineup has been conveniently pushed to the bottom of the chart you see above: the dedicated small form factor ďchipsetsĒ. This is one of the first times an entire desktop motherboard range is being conceived at a platform level and the way AMD has gone about this is quite interesting. Since the Ryzen 7, 5 and 3 processors feature basic built-in I/O functions (USB 3.1. Gen1 and four PCI-E lanes dedicated to high bandwidth storage) and mini ITX form factors typically donít require tons of storage options AMD decided to revise their chipset design.
That revision took on an extreme form since the X300 and A/B300-based motherboards donít have a secondary chipset at all. Rather, in the place of the traditional chipset is a simply Trusted Platform module that handles security, BIOS management and other baseline tasks.
Since there isnít a chipset per se, the quartet of Gen3 PCI-E lanes that are normally used for chip to chip communications between the Ryzen CPU and its associated controller have been repurposed. These can now be used by motherboard vendors to feed into third party controllers for key features like USB 3.1 Gen2, SATA, WLAN / Bluetooth and so on. This is also where that ALC1220 codec comes into play since it can be easily enabled to provide a high fidelity sound solution on a compact mini ITX platform.
It will be really interesting to see what motherboard vendors can accomplish with this new type of simplified enthusiast platform.
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