Sony PlayStation 5 taps AMD’s radical SmartShift tech to push its GPU to ludicrous speeds

Sony pulled back the curtain on key technical details about the forthcoming PlayStation 5 in a streamed presentation on Wednesday. Add to that an early access deep dive by Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry launched simultaneously, and well, it’s all mighty interesting.

Like Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, Sony’s next-gen console is powered by a custom AMD chip with Ryzen CPU cores and next-gen Radeon “RDNA2” graphics cores. The PlayStation 5 also taps into yet another cutting-edge AMD technology being introduced in Ryzen 4000 laptops to provide more oomph intelligently, where it’s needed most. There’s nothing quite like it in desktop PCs or Microsoft’s console.

Graphics chips are limited by thermal and power constraints. Desktop GPUs like AMD’s Radeon RX 5700 series hit a maximum “Game clock” influenced by your specific graphics card’s cooler. The Xbox Series X designed its maximum clock speeds around the console’s cooling capabilities, with both the CPU and GPU running at locked frequencies. But Sony is using adaptive power controls and AMD’s new “SmartShift” technology to have the CPU and GPU loan more power to each other intelligently when it’s needed in games, enabling the PlayStation 5 to hit much higher clock speeds than its rivals.

playstation 5 chip design Sony

Power management inside the PlayStation 5’s custom AMD chip uses laptop-class SmartShift tech to help allocate clock speeds dynamically between components as needed.

The Xbox Series X’s graphics cores run at a locked 1.825GHz, already faster than the 1.755GHz Game Clock in the $400 Radeon RX 5700 XT, AMD’s current desktop champion. The Sony PlayStation 5 hits a blistering 2.23GHz. PlayStation architect Mark Cerny says his expects the GPU to spend most of its time at that ultra-fast frequency.

Cue Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

Desktop graphics cards dynamically lower clock speeds as the GPU gets hotter—if you stuff your graphics card in an airflow-restricted case or use it during sweltering summer months, for example. Because it has a locked configuration with an enhanced cooling solution, the PlayStation 5 will always perform the same regardless of the ambient temperature, allowing Sony to give the PS5 a set power budget and have clocks revolve around that instead.

“Rather than look at the actual temperature of the silicon die, we look at the activities that the GPU and CPU are performing and set the frequencies on that basis—which makes everything deterministic and repeatable,” Cerny said in his presentation. “While we’re at it, we also use AMD’s SmartShift technology and send any unused power from the CPU to the GPU, so it can squeeze out a few more pixels.”

amd smart shift AMD

SmartShift for Ryzen 4000 laptops

AMD’s SmartShift technology was introduced as a feature for the company’s upcoming Ryzen 4000 laptops, and it takes advantage of AMD’s full control of both the CPU and GPU silicon. Its Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs can talk to one another over the company’s Infinity Fabric technology. If the CPU isn’t being driven hard, more power can be allocated to the GPU, or vice versa. On the PC side of things, AMD said this can result in a 10-percent boost in performance in games like The Division 2, or a 12-percent bump in Cinebench R20 results.

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