AMD says "Fusion" chip looks good, but is 2011 too late?

Summary:AMD appears to be on track to release its first "Fusion" processor that combines an x86 CPU core with a graphics processor on a single silicon chip sometime in 2011. The first so-called APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit, is code-named Llano and will be manufactured using 32nm process technology.

AMD appears to be on track to release its first "Fusion" processor that combines an x86 CPU core with a graphics processor on a single silicon chip sometime in 2011. The first so-called APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit, is code-named Llano and will be manufactured using 32nm process technology.

In an interview with the enthusiast site X-bit Labs, Chekib Akrout, an executive who heads up AMD's central engineering group, said the company was happy with the results so far. "The current schedule is for 2011 introduction so it is still early, but because we are using an existing CPU core for the first product and not making big changes in the memory structure right away, we feel quite confident about where we are with Llano," he told X-bit Labs.

Last week, a hardware site in China, Expreview.com, posted what appears to be a detailed AMD notebook roadmap. One slide shows the Sabine notebook platform with Llano APU arriving in 2011, on the heels of a 45nm dual-core Caspian chip this year and a 45nm quad-core Champlain CPU in 2010. These are all designed for mainstream notebooks, though Llano, which will have up to four CPU cores, will also be used in mainstream desktops. AMD currently manufactures desktop and server chips at 45nm, but it has not yet released a 45nm mobile processor.

By reducing the complexity of PC designs, these APUs should enable computer makers to smaller and less-costly laptops and desktops. In theory, by putting the CPU and GPU on the same chip, you can also distribute computing tasks among the cores more efficiently--what Chekib alluded to as "the more interesting optimizations possible with the two different types of cores." Both Intel and Nvidia have made similar comments about the opportunities for "repartitioning" the work handled by CPUs and GPUs.

Llano will arrive some five years after AMD closed its $5.4 billion acquisition of ATI and immediately announced the Fusion project. Since then AMD has run into both financial and technical difficulties, and recently was forced to spin-off its manufacturing to a new, consolidated unit known as GlobalFoundries. All of AMD's CPUs are manufactured using a process known as SOI, for Silicon-On-Insulator, while the ATI Radeon GPUs use a different bulk silicon process. GlobalFoundries will have the ability to manufacture chips using both techniques, and it will be interesting to see which technology they choose. It is also likely to be the first time that AMD and GlobalFoundries will be working with new materials, specifically the high-k insulator and metal gates, which could make things more challenging.

Intel is taking a less ambitious approach--at least in the short term. Rather than putting the CPU cores and the GPU on the same piece of silicon, Intel plans to put the two chips into a single package--a configuration known as a "Multi-Chip Package" or MCP. Then again, this family of products, known as Westmere, should ship before the end of this year.

The first versions, the Clarkdale desktop chip and Arrandale notebook chip, will combine Intel's first 32nm CPU--a dual-core chip with two threads per core--with a 45nm GPU and memory controller. Because Intel already uses high-k materials and metal gates at 45nm, the transition to 32nm should be relatively easy, and a multi-chip package is less technically challenging than a single die, but delivers many of the same benefits for PC designers. Like AMD's Llano, Clarkdale and Arrandale are designed for mainstream PCs.

In last week's earnings call, CEO Paul Otellini revealed that Intel had already shipped thousands of sample 32nm Westmere chips to more than 30 customers. Take this one with a big grain of salt, but Expreview.com has posted some photos and early test results from what is supposedly a sample 2.4GHz Clarkdale.

Topics: Networking, Hardware, Intel, Laptops, Mobility, Processors

About

John Morris is a former executive editor at CNET Networks and senior editor at PC Magazine. He now works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are... Full Bio

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