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Forget Big Navi, AMD are aiming for ray tracing processors

A photo of AMD's CEO Dr Lisa Su holding one of their new Ryzen 5000 CPUs.

Today might be the launch of AMD’s new Ryzen 5000 CPUs (and you can read my Ryzen 5 5600X review and Ryzen 9 5900X review if you missed them earlier), but the company already have their sights set on what’s coming next, and that’s ray tracing capable processors. Speaking during a behind-closed-doors Zen 3 engineering panel before today’s launch, AMD’s Joe Macri told RPS that the realistic lighting technology “will happen” on AMD’s APUs (that’s their accelerated processing units with integrated graphics, rather than their Ryzen central processing units, or CPUs) – it’s just a matter of time.

Macri didn’t elaborate on exactly when we might see ray tracing APUs start to hit the market, but his best guess was that they’d arrive in the “medium future”, as opposed to the “distant future”. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that mean in actual years, but it’s clearly something AMD are thinking about and trying to incorporate into their future APU line-up. Here’s the quote in full:

“We’re at the beginning of the journey on ray tracing. Today, there’s no doubt that it takes quite a bit of compute capability in order to do ray tracing, and do ray tracing at a high enough frame rate where you get all the benefits of ray tracing but you don’t get it at basically the expense of gameplay.

“If we look at our APUs today, the things that make ray tracing challenging are the memory subsystem – we have a limited amount of memory bandwidth, followed by the amount of compute we have. We design our APUs, you know, mobile first, desktop second, but what we have as tail winds is architecture – and we’ve been driving up memory bandwidth and compute capability via more efficient architectures like our Navi architecture – as well as new memory technologies and better caching subsystems.

“So, today, I would say ray tracing is still in the near… not today, but in the future, but we’re going to use techniques both on the architecture front – and some of them will be like upscaling, the ability to render at a lower resolution. Upscale I think will be so, so important to get ray tracing on an APU, as well as us driving better lithographies to get higher densities, and so it will happen. This technology will waterfall down into other areas, and it will allow us to build APUs that are more powerful than what we have today. Ray tracing will come. So not today, but I would say in the, not in the distant future, but maybe the medium future.”

At the moment, AMD’s most recent set of APUs is their Ryzen 4000 G series with Radeon Graphics. They first appeared on laptops earlier this year, before arriving on desktop back in July. It’s been a while since I’ve tested one of AMD’s Ryzen G processors – the last one was the Ryzen 5 2400G back in 2018 – but they’re surprisingly capable gaming processors at lower resolutions if you can’t afford a graphics card. Indeed, their latest flagship, the Zen 2-based Ryzen 7 4700G, is meant to be able to deliver “smooth 1080p gaming right out of the box”, according to AMD – albeit at lower quality settings than what we’re used to seeing from their desktop graphics cards.

Clearly, ray tracing is still some way off given we’ve only just got to the stage of “smooth 1080p gaming” on AMD’s top Ryzen APUs, but given the advancements we’ve already seen today from AMD’s new Zen 3 CPUs, such as the incredible gaming speeds from the Ryzen 5 5600X in particular, you have to wonder what their next generation of Zen 3 APUs will be capable of when they presumably arrive next year. I’m not expecting next year’s APUs to suddenly have ray tracing support, of course, but I could probably see it happening in maybe two to three years time, perhaps, if I had to make a wild guess, but honestly, who knows.

Still, the prospect of being able to play ray tracing games without a high-powered graphics card is an interesting one to say the least, and a vision I can definitely get on board with. Here’s hoping by the time AMD eventually manage to magic up some ray tracing APUs, we’ll have a larger library of ray tracing games to actually play on them come release time.

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Who am I?

Katharine Castle

Hardware Editor

Katharine writes about all the bits that go inside your PC so you can carry on playing all those lovely games we like talking about so much. Very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests. She's also RPS' resident deals herald.

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