AMD’s Laptop CPUs Have Stopped Fucking Around

AMD’s Laptop CPUs Have Stopped Fucking Around
Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)
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For years, gaming laptops have been threatening to match the portability and flexibility of their thin-and-light variants. And for years, AMD has threatened to disrupt the laptop market with the same energy and performance they brought to the desktop market.

Finally, that promise is starting to be realised.

The ASUS Zephyus G14 is the first laptop in Australia sporting Ryzen’s latest generation of 7nm mobile chips, alongside the discrete Nvidia gaming GPUs that have become pretty much standard for all gaming laptops. What’s genuinely exciting is how far along the laptops have come in performance – and just how slim a gaming laptop can actually get.

I’ll get into the details shortly, but the basic pitch is this: AMD and ASUS have made a gaming laptop that regular people can actually live with, instead of a gaming laptop that lives on a desk.

ASUS Zephyrus G14 / Ryzen 4900HS Specifications
CPU AMD Ryzen 4900HS
Graphics Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 with ROG Boost
Memory 16GB DDR4-3200
SSD 1TB PCIe 3.0 M.2 NVMe
Display 14-inch, 1920 x 1080, 120 Hz (1440p/60Hz option available)
Networking Intel Wi-Fi 6 (Gig+) 2×2, Bluetooth 5.0
Inputs HDMI 2.0b, 2x USB Type-C 3.2 Gen 2, 2x USB Type-A 3.1 Gen 1
Battery 76 WHrs
Power Adapter 180W
Operating System Windows 10 Home
Dimensions (WxDxH) 32.5 x 22.1 x 1.8cm
Weight 1.6kg
Price Starting from $2199

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The pitch with ASUS’s Zephyrus line is pretty straightforward: gaming laptops at the weight and width of a laptop you could comfortably carry around. And the new Zephyrus G14 actually manages to achieve that, to a degree. It’s not as light as the ultra-thin Acer Swift 5 series, or even regular laptops like the Dell XPS line, HP Spectres, Macbook Airs or Macbook Pros, but ASUS has done a remarkable job.

The new model comes in at 1.6kg and 17.9mm thin, which works out to be about the thickness of your thumb when the whole unit is closed. That sounds like a lot, but if you look at the weight and build of most gaming laptops – many of which are still over 2kg – it’s an astonishing achievement. The power brick is certainly chunky enough, but ASUS have cleverly allowed for charging over USB-C, although it takes a little less time to get to 50 percent juice (you’re looking at roughly 30 minutes compared to about 45 minutes).

amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14

ASUS have been pretty generous with inputs: the left hand side has 1x HDMI out, 1x USB-C, a 3.5mm port and the charging port, with two USB-A and a second USB-C port on the right hand side. I would have preferred maybe the headphone jack to be swapped with one of the USB-A ports, so you could plug in a mouse or mouse receiver without having it stick out onto your mousepad, but you can’t complain about the lack of options.

The whole unit also has a solid cooling setup. Similar to other ASUS laptops, the screen design leaves room between the hinge when tilted, allowing for better airflow and a fractionally raised position for typing. And the cooling is effective. The Zephyrus G14 will get loud when running at full blast, but not much of the heat is transferred through to your knees or the keyboard, a problem that thin gaming laptops frequently run into.

Ideally, I’d love all gaming laptops to be a few hundred grams less. But at 1.6kg the new Zephyrus G14 is light enough that you could comfortably carry it around, happily. A 15-inch MacBook Pro weighs over 1.8kg, as an example, and many 14-inch business, clamshell and 2-in-1 laptops are all around the 1.4 to 1.6kg mark.

It’s not even sporting the best version of Ryzen’s 4900 APU, either. Because of the thermal constraints with the design, ASUS advised reviewers that they were only able to use the 35W Ryzen 4900HS chip, not the slightly more powerful 45W 4900H.

Both chips are exciting, if only because AMD promised their high-end laptop chips would start offering the kind of graphical and multi-core performance that users are starting to really need in laptops.

To get a better sense of how the AMD chip stacks up synthetically, I paired the Zephyrus G14 against two fairly popular thin and light models: the 2019 i7 edition of the standard Dell XPS 13, and the most recent 2020 model with the i7-1065G7 CPU. They’re both very good laptops, very well designed, and the kinds of “laptops you can live with” that more people would have commonly purchased.

But you can already see that it’s not going to be a fair fight. Squeezing an eight core, 16 thread CPU into a laptop, especially one that’s selling from $2200, is going to utterly brutalise the poor XPS laptops with their quad-core chips. And that’s precisely what came out from the tests.

amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14

Not only was it not even close, but the Ryzen 4900HS managed to beat out the default score for the original Ryzen 7 1700X desktop CPU. That’s what powers my office rig. And the more workloads you throw at it, the uglier the comparison gets for Intel.

I’ve got three synthetic tests here: single and multi-core scores from Geekbench 5, the Cinebench R20 rendering suite (which doesn’t test the GPU, so the Zephyrus G14 doesn’t benefit from having the RTX 2060), and the browser benchmark WebXRPT 3. Results are averaged out from several runs.

amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14
amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14
amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14
amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14

The extra cores matter – a lot. That’s true if you’re one of those people who never closes a Chrome tab. But more practically, it means doing a lot of the heavier duty tasks on laptops – spreadsheets, Photoshop, video editing, compression, encoding and so on – will simply fly.

Obviously, that extra performance helps in games too. Which is where the RTX 2060 GPU comes in.

For these tests, I’ve run the Zephyrus G14 by itself. The XPS laptops don’t have a discrete GPU, and while there’s an interesting test in pitting the 10th gen’s integrated graphics against the 4900HS’s integrated performance, unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for that comparison.

amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14
amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14

A bit of explanation with Overwatch here. It’s a game that’s regularly played at the lowest possible settings, as players often prefer higher frame rates on higher refresh rate screens over better quality presets.

As for Resident Evil 3, the game’s presets work a little differently. The game options between Max, Graphics Priority, Balanced and Performance Priority, as well as an automated “Recommended” setting. The Max and Graphics Priority by default use more video memory than what the RTX 2060 has available, so the test could only be reasonably run on the “Balanced” Preset.

RE3 doesn’t have an automated in-game benchmark either – like Overwatch – so the test was averaged out from a three-minute section of gameplay from early on, where Jill starts running from Mr. X and has her first encounter with zombies. There’s a lot of fire, explosions and bodies in that section, and while you’re not always hovering around the 120Hz refresh rate of the screen, there’s plenty of headroom.

amd ryzen 4900hs review asus zephyrus g14 Psyduck approves. Not of Doomfist, though. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

I’ve very specifically not mentioned the one elephant in the room up until this point: battery life. And that’s deliberate, because every other part of the Zephyrus G14 does what you think a modern gaming laptop should do. It’s faster. It’s better in games. It’s more efficient. That’s cool, but no company would release a new device that couldn’t surpass the previous generation.

What’s exciting is that there’s some genuine, beefy power in a laptop that you can feasibly carry around. 1.6kg is still a bit much for some people – particularly those who are younger, or anyone who prefers the weight of the ultra thin and light laptops. The Zephyrus G14 and Ryzen’s 4900HS won’t help much there.

But for the weight that it has? The battery life is also … actually pretty good.

I ran a couple of tests over the course of a couple of days, not expecting a whole lot. One test, connected to Wi-Fi and binge watching Cowboy Bebop at 50 percent brightness ran the battery down in just under five hours, which was nothing too shabby. I didn’t mess around with any profiles or do anything fancy, other than just ensuring the Windows power options didn’t disable the screen or shut down the hard drive for the duration for the test.

But you can squeeze a few more hours out of the laptop.

The Zephyrus G14 ships with ASUS’s ARMOURY CRATE software, which just gives you live analytics on the frequency, speeds and temperature of the laptop. There’s five different settings while plugged in and three when you’re on battery, including one for Windows which drops the frequencies and base clocks right down, or a Silent configuration that focuses on minimising fan speeds.

If you’re using the lower frequency profiles, you can comfortably get around six or seven hours of battery life (depending on the brightness). I got just short of seven hours working off the laptop, connected to Wi-Fi and using multiple browser tabs, occasionally ducking into YouTube videos and working in the CMS.

The keyboard and touchpad are solid too, and I mean that in every sense of the word. There’s a weight to the touchpad, but it’s not stiff to use or click in like the Huawei Matebook series. There’s a healthy amount of travel distance on the keys and a good amount of space between them, making for a good typing experience. The chassis design is a lot nicer too, with the gaudy, gamer-centric RGB strips and trims being ditched for a sleeker, white design. That perforation on the back isn’t just for show either: it’s to show off the LED Animatrix display that lets the user display various images or messages on the back. I didn’t mess around with it – it’s not really the best gimmick if you’re stuck in isolation – but being able to display something like, say, the time is a neat trick.

What I like is that the Zephyrus G14 is a decent gaming laptop that just looks like a nice laptop. It won’t play games at 4K, but you’re not going to get that from a device that starts from $2199. The only real kicker is the choice between a 1080p/120Hz screen or a 1440p/60Hz model, the latter of which is quite rare to see in laptops. But more and more laptops are sporting 144Hz screens now, and there’s talk that 200Hz, 240Hz and more might be on the way. There’s enough grunt between the 4900HS and the RTX 2060 to pitch it as an esports laptop for CS:GO, Valorant and games like Overwatch, but 120Hz is at least a decent fallback if you don’t have a second screen.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway of all: AMD has finally, finally, stopped fucking around in laptops. The company has been smashing Intel’s market share in desktop CPUs for the last couple of years with a solid value and performance proposition. That competition was missing in laptops, though, but not without good reason. AMD has to work with laptop manufacturers on laptop designs, so it’s much harder for companies to pivot to AMD mobile chips. And the early iterations of the Ryzen mobile platform were good, but the performance wasn’t there to justify the extra efficiencies Intel had gained in battery life.

Now, AMD’s chips aren’t just good: they’re outstanding. Getting 8 cores and 16 threads in a laptop at this price, for something that uses 35W of power, is a bit bonkers. Can you imagine what thin and light laptops will be like that just use the 4900HS alone, without the RTX 2060 GPU?

It’s exciting to think about. And it’s a prospect the laptop space genuinely needs right now. Without competition, and the prospect of constrained supply from the coronavirus and unprecedented levels of demand, prices can only go in one direction: up. But if AMD supplies manufacturers like ASUS with more products like this, and they keep working with industry on motherboard designs to make AMD chips easier to implement, then Intel has an actual fight on their hands – and that’s good news for consumers, and better news for gamers.

Comments

  • I had an AMD-based ASUS laptop a few years ago and it was complete garbage. It couldn’t even run Linux properly. I sold it to a mate and it literally fell apart on him after six months.

    So good to see that the new ones aren’t quite as garbage.

  • I’m fairly sure there isn’t a webcam on some of these. Pro for some and con for those that want to use Hello.

  • its all well and good to run cinebench and claim the cpu is good. but provide a more sustained cpu load and this thing will go the way of any other amd cpu. a hot mess.
    running overwatch on low settings at 1080p at 181fps? someone could match that frame rate with an abacus.

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