Could Sony secure PS5 exclusivity for an AMD Navi APU?

AMD, Sony, Microsoft, and that special secret sauce...

Sony PS5

AMD CEO, Dr. Lisa Su, has once more been talking about the work its semi-custom division has been doing with Sony to get the Zen 2 processors, and the upcoming AMD Navi silicon, working for the needs of the PS5. But just how much influence has Sony had on AMD’s next-gen graphics architecture? And if the answer is ‘a lot’ does that mean it has any call on hardware exclusivity, potentially shutting Microsoft out of a Navi-based APU?

“What we have done with Sony is really architect something for their application, for their special sauce,” Dr. Su told Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money after its Q1 earnings were announced.

Sony isn’t just taking an off-the-shelf component and jamming it into a PlayStation-designed chassis, no, AMD has been working specifically with Sony to produce technology that fits whatever the ‘special sauce’ is that’s sloshing around the PlayStation 5.

But Dr. Su does so love a good sauce. Whether it’s Sony’s PS5 special sauce or the secret sauce gooing up the insides of Microsoft’s next Xbox, AMD’s CEO is all over it. Especially when chatting tech with Cramer it seems. Similarly, last year the pair were talking shop when she explained about the relationship with two of AMD’s most important semi-custom clients, Microsoft and Sony.

“We’re working with both Sony and Microsoft on consoles,“ says Dr. Su, “and they both have their specific secret sauce that we’re helping them do.”

So much sauce. Now, we know that AMD is going to be at the beating heart of both the next-gen consoles, but you also know what they say: too many cooks spoil the…er, sauce. So, which of Sony or Microsoft has had the most input into AMD’s next-gen CPU and GPU technologies, if they’ve had any tangible influence at all, and what impact will that have on the PC?

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So far we’ve only really heard concrete tech specs talked about for the Sony PlayStation 5, with not a lot mentioned about the next-gen Microsoft alternative. The proposed Microsoft Anaconda device, the supposedly benchmark-setting sequel to the Xbox One X, is going to remain an AMD-powered device, but that’s about all we know right now.

AMD Xbox hardware

On the Sony side, however, a lot more has been confirmed, namely that it will definitely contain a CPU component based on the Zen 2 processor architecture – set to hit the PC under the Ryzen 3000 name – and graphics silicon using the upcoming Navi GPU design. There’s also some interesting info regarding the PS5’s switch to solid state storage too, but that’s a whole other story.

What’s intriguing about all this, however, is when you factor in the earlier rumours that Sony isn’t just using Navi for its PS5 console, but that Navi was explicitly made for Sony’s new games machine. The suggestion, from anonymous sources, was that while still in the final stages of the Vega architecture’s development around two thirds of Raja Koduri’s graphics team was co-opted to go and work on the Navi project. And that happened because Dr. Su wanted more resources devoted to making sure the GPU design was right for the company’s semi-custom client.

Now, if Sony really has been that deeply embedded in the actual design process of Navi, and isn’t just popping up at the end to say which SKU of a particular chip it wants to use, then where does that leave Microsoft? Has Microsoft had the same sort of direct input into the makeup of Navi?

We certainly haven’t heard any rumours of any Redmondos tipping up at AMD HQ, getting down and dirty with its GPU engineers. And we’ve not really heard any explicit rumours about the next Xbox actually using the Navi design at all.

AMD graphics chip

And if Sony really has been putting that much time, effort, and money into the design of AMD’s next-gen GPU, would it really be happy for all that work to then just be handed over to Microsoft for it to benefit with its own next-gen console? You’ve got to think not. But could that mean Sony isn’t just nailing down game exclusives, it could also be about to swing some serious hardware exclusivity too?

It is possible then that Sony could get its own very specific Zen 2/Navi APU for the PS5, a chip with some special Navi sauce that the Xbox can’t have.

But maybe Microsoft doesn’t want it. Maybe the next Xbox is shooting for something greater than Sony’s PS5. Certainly, after the Wired article with the confirmed PlayStation 5 specs was released, rumours started that the Xbox Anaconda was going to be a far more advanced beast

Microsoft has prior form for just going brute force, though that’s not necessarily always worked out so well. The PS4 wasn’t as powerful as the Xbox One and yet still unquestionably won the console war. But if Microsoft wasn’t allowed the same Navi SKU as Sony then what if it decided to go all out with a 7nm Vega chip instead?

We know Navi is going to be positioned below Vega in the PC market, so it stands to reason that the same would be true from a semi-custom position. We might then see a Navi-powered PS5 and a potentially a more powerful Vega-based Xbox.

Thankfully, even if Sony is somehow able to claim Navi-exclusivity in the console market, that shouldn’t materially impact our gaming PCs. For a start Navi graphics cards are launching in Q3 of this year, with the PS5 unlikely to launch until 2H 2020 – we might even have higher-spec, second-gen Navi GPUs by then. But it’s also unlikely because if there was any kind of exclusivity in place it would likely cover just the APU and not any particular discrete GPU configuration.

Sony PlayStation 4 Pro APU

At least I hope so. I can see a lot of red fans getting red in the face if Sony nets a more powerful Navi GPU than will ever see the light of day in discrete graphics trim on the PC.

But honestly, I don’t really think Sony could have had that much direct input into the design of Navi, certainly not enough for it to be able to garner some sort of tangible hardware exclusivity for the PS5. At least not without Sony paying such a huge amount of cash for the privilege that AMD’s financials would already be bloated with a fresh influx of semi-custom cash.

And it really isn’t…

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It’s more likely then that AMD is just talking up Sony’s involvement in the development process, extolling the virtues of a client working with its semi-custom division because it will work super closely with you just to get you the perfect component for you and your product.

But just how much influence Sony has been able to exert on the Navi design process might become more clear when Microsoft does eventually get around to unveiling its Anaconda specs. If Navi’s nowhere to be seen we’ll know why.