AMD's Ryzen Mobile Faces an Uphill Battle

Following the launch earlier this year of the desktop variants of Ryzen, Advanced Micro Devices' (NASDAQ: AMD) latest generation of CPUs, the first products powered by the mobile variants are starting to hit the market. AMD officially unveiled Ryzen Mobile in October, announcing the Ryzen 7 2700U and the less powerful Ryzen 5 2500U. These chips feature AMD's Vega graphics, providing substantially improved graphics performance compared to the company's previous generation of mobile processors.

The HP Envy x360 is the first Ryzen Mobile laptop to become available, powered by the Ryzen 5 2500U. The Tech Report ran it through its paces, comparing it to a few configurations of the Acer Swift 3, all powered by Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) CPUs and one featuring a discrete NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA) MX150 GPU.

One thing is clear from the review: The success of Ryzen Mobile will depend on pricing. The Envy x360 configuration tested was $760, a bit more than the current $719 price tag on Amazon for the Swift 3 with NVIDIA graphics. Priced in the same ballpark, the Intel-NVIDIA option is the clear winner for gaming.

Not an NVIDIA-killer

Based on The Tech Report's testing, the Ryzen 5 2500U trounces the integrated graphics built into Intel's chips. In some cases, games go from being unplayable on the Intel-only system to playable on the AMD system. This isn't surprising -- Intel's integrated graphics have never been particularly good for gaming.

The Ryzen 5 chip represents "good enough" gaming performance. The problem is, for the same price, gamers can get a more powerful system with NVIDIA graphics. In all of the gaming tests, the system with the MX150 graphics chip handily beats the Ryzen system, sometimes by 50% or more in terms of average frame rate.

It's not surprising that a discrete graphics chip beats the integrated graphics in the Ryzen system. But I'm not sure why someone interested in gaming on a laptop, given the choice between a Ryzen Mobile system and an Intel-NVIDIA system for roughly the same price, would opt for Ryzen Mobile.

The story may change as more Ryzen Mobile laptops become available. At a lower price, a system like the Envy x360 would offer a compelling, and cheaper, alternative to an Intel-NVIDIA system. All of the games tested were playable on the Ryzen system, and there's certainly a market for gaming laptops that provide just enough oomph to get the job done.

Beyond gaming, Ryzen Mobile lags Intel in terms of single-threaded performance. The same story played out with AMD's desktop Ryzen chips. Single-threaded performance is important for general responsiveness, app start-up times, and any case where multiple cores can't be fully utilized. In The Tech Report's tests involving web browsing, app start-up, and productivity software, the Ryzen 5 chip came in dead last. In the case of productivity software, it fell short of the Intel-based systems by a wide margin.

For those interested primarily in gaming, the single-threaded shortcomings may not matter. But as a general-purpose laptop, the Ryzen 5 system doesn't justify its price.

A tough road ahead

AMD isn't going to pick up much laptop market share if the pricing on all Ryzen laptops is similar to the Envy x360. For those not interested in gaming, an Intel laptop with integrated graphics offers better performance for everyday computing tasks. For gamers, a similarly priced laptop with discrete NVIDIA graphics offers substantially better gaming performance. I'm not sure where Ryzen 5 really fits in.

Cheaper Ryzen 5 laptops may be on the horizon, which could change the story. Lop $100 to $200 off, and a Ryzen 5 laptop makes a whole lot more sense as a gaming laptop, and it's much more competitive as a general-purpose laptop. But if prices end up in line with the Envy x360, Intel and NVIDIA probably don't have too much to worry about.

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Timothy Green has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Nvidia. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.