A few weeks ago I became a happy owner of a ThinkPad A485, the first ThinkPad (together with the E485 and related variants) to use an AMD CPU. History buffs will know that it’s far from the first ThinkPad with a non-Intel CPU; the very first ThinkPad-branded laptops (ThinkPad 700/720 in 1992) used IBM’s own 486 SLC and SLC2 processors, the 1995 ThinkPad 365 used Cyrix Cx486DX4 processors, and the 1996 ThinkPad 365E sported the IBM-built Cyrix 5×86. But for over 20 years, ThinkPad meant Intel, until the Summer of 2018.
What I just realized is that the A485 is only the second AMD-based machine I ever bought. The first one was a Lenovo IdeaPad Z75 in 2014, a laptop with an AMD A10 APU based on the infamous Bulldozer microarchitecture. Ironically I never had any real complaints about the Z75’s CPU, but the low-res display was absolutely horrible and made the laptop too painful to use very often.
Throughout the years I bought a number of Intel CPUs (386SX, Pentium, Pentium III, Pentium 4, Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, Core i7) but somehow never an AMD. Now, that’s not to say I don’t own any AMD CPUs. I have quite a few, from 286s to Phenoms and Opterons, through Am386DX, Am486DX, 5k86, K6, K6-II, K6-III, and a smattering of Athlons and Durons. But that’s not the same thing as buying a new one.
For several years, an AMD Athlon was my office machine, until its motherboard died. It was a good workhorse, but I never much liked the VIA chipset. In fact that was probably the biggest reason why I never bought AMDs until recently. In the good old days of Socket 7 boards one could pair a rock solid 430HX chipset with an AMD K6 processor. But at that time I used a Cyrix 6×86 and later 6x86MX. When Athlons came around, the most widespread chipsets for AMDs were from VIA, with all kinds of niggling issues. Later there were nForce chipsets, perhaps better engineered but with their own set of problems.
In the early 2000s I had a budget board built around the Intel 440ZX chipset, which was just slightly stripped down 440BX, a rock star among chipsets. Later I bought several Intel boards (865PERL, DG965RY, DQ67OW) and those were all extremely solid motherboards, causing basically zero problems over many years of 24/7 use.
While I believe boards for AMD-based server and workstation boards have been generally solid, my experience with desktop AMD boards was not so great. Several Phenom boards which I used at work (from MSI and ASUS) gave me all sorts of trouble. Random instability, strange NIC behavior, boards outright dying.
Whether it was Intel killing the 3rd-party chipset business or nVidia not wanting to supply chipsets to its arch-rival (once AMD bought ATI), AMD was eventually forced to supply chipsets for all of its CPUs, and I believe that was a good thing. Unfortunately this more or less exactly coincided with the introduction of the Intel Nehalem microarchitecture, and for years AMD flailed around, offering CPUs which for relatively little money produced a lot of heat and not so great performance.
As someone who used mostly Intel CPUs I found that extremely distressing, because the effect on Intel was very obvious. With no competition, Intel was able to charge a premium for each new edition of a slightly warmed over design. Want more than four cores in a desktop? ECC? More than (for years) 32 GB RAM? Forget it. Or buy a super overpriced workstation board with a workstation CPU. Want a cheaper CPU that doesn’t have half the features disabled? No can do.
When AMD Ryzen showed up, Intel suddenly discovered how to produce six-core desktops (and now even laptops), and all sorts of things started happening. Competition can do that. For that reason, I’m glad that Ryzen-based ThinkPads are now available.
Written on a ThinkPad A485 and AMD Ryzen Pro CPU