Chipmaker AMD has spent the last couple of years trying to get out of Intel’s way. AMD used its Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) technology to develop semi-custom chips for the Sony PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It pivoted to dense, low-power servers using x86 and ARM cores. And the company launched a new line of processors for embedded markets such as gaming machines, digital signage, medical imaging, industrial, thin clients and communications gear. Along the way, though, AMD began losing ground in markets that still generate the bulk of its business, starting with Opteron x86 servers, and more recently with PCs and graphics.
Now there are signs that AMD may be trying to regain its mojo in PCs. Last week, at a “Future of Computing” event in Singapore, the company updated its mobile roadmap and provided the first details on two chips slated to ship next year. At the event AMD also talked about the work it is doing around power-efficiency, the, and the Mantle technology for better gaming graphics.
The first, and more significant update, is the “Carrizo” APU designed to replace the current A-Series “Kaveri” processors in mainstream laptops. The new APU combines up to four Excavator CPU cores with more advanced graphics.
Excavator is based on the same basic Bulldozer design that debuted three years ago — this will be the fourth-generation and final one after Bulldozer, Piledriver and Steamroller in the current chip — but AMD says it has done a lot of work to improve low-power performance for thinner laptops and convertibles. The “next-generation” graphics will support the DirectX 12 and Mantle APIs. Unlike Kaveri, Carrizo is a single-chip solution with the Southbridge (AMD calls it an FCH or Fusion Controller Hub) on the same die.
The other change in Carrizo is that it is AMD’s first processor to deliver full HSA 1.0 support (Kaveri offered only “HSA features”). The HSA hardware and software allows the CPU and GPU to access the same virtual and physical memory, making it easier to develop and run programs that leverage the GPU to deliver better performance and lower power. In its presentation, AMD talked about applications of HSA in computer-aided design for manufacturing; visual effects and video rendering; and visualization of seismic data in the oil and gas industry.
The outcome for HSA will depend on whether commercial software vendors support it, and it would help if other chipmakers in the HSA Foundation (Qualcomm, Samsung and Mediatek among others) adopted it as well. Of course, Intel and Nvidia are also working on accelerating these kinds of workloads and neither supports the HSA.
The second announcement was Carrizo-L, a more minor update to the low-power Beema B- and A-Series APUs for entry-level laptops (the current ultra low-power Mullins Micro Series APUs for tablets, which haven’t seen much adoption, remain on the roadmap through 2015). Carrizo-L uses up to four Puma+ cores, an enhanced version of the existing CPU design, and the same graphics. The only major change is that it now uses the same pin-compatible package as Carrizo, which makes it easier for AMD’s customers to build components and systems that support both.
In a video, John Byrne, the head of AMD’s Computing & Graphics business, said that the Carrizo and Carrizo-L chips were already being tested at AMD and are on schedule to ship in the first half of 2015. Although AMD mentioned Carrizo-based all-in-ones, it did not update the desktop roadmap, or the server or graphics ones — all of which end in 2014. Nor did AMD provide an update on , a family of 20nm APUs and SOCs with either x86 Puma+ CPU cores or 64-bit Cortex-A57 CPU cores in a common chip package that was also scheduled for 2015.
Ultimately AMD’s focus on new “growth areas” isn’t the culprit. What has hurt AMD is a big bet on a Bulldozer architecture — in which two CPU integer cores share a floating-point unit and other components — that simply didn’t work out. “Everyone knows that Bulldozer was not the game-changing part when it was introduced three years ago,” then-CEO Rory Read said at a Deutsche Bank event. “We have to live with that for four years [through 2015]. . .” (Read has since been replaced by Lisa Su.)
When you combine this with the fact that the foundries have not delivered new process technology — AMD’s mainstream APUs including Carrizo have been on either a 32nm or 28nm process since the arrival of Llano in 2011 — it makes it very tough to keep up with Intel. The next big bets for AMD will not arrive until 2016 when the company is expected to introduce an entirely new x86 CPU microarchitecture, codenamed Zen, and a custom 64-bit K12 ARM core — both manufactured on more advanced process technology.
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 disclaimed.