CES 2012: The next moves for Intel and AMD

CES is a gadget show. But there's always a lot of chip news too. This year Intel and AMD are expected to talk about how they will defend their traditional PC turf and make inroads in fast-growing mobile devices.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

The Consumer Electronics Show, which officially opens on Tuesday, is a gadget show. But there's always a lot of chip news too. Fast, multi-core processors have turned out to be as big a selling point in smartphones and tablets as they are in PCs. And with next version Windows set to work on both x86 and ARM-based CPUs, this year's show should be especially interesting. Intel and AMD are expected to talk about how they will defend their traditional PC turf from the likes of Nvidia and Qualcomm, and make inroads in fast-growing mobile devices.

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You can virtually set your watch based on the tick-tock cadence of Intel's product development cycle over the last few years. At CES last year Intel introduced its second-generation Core processor, known as Sandy Bridge, and despite an early glitch in the accompanying chipset, the new chip received strong reviews and sold well throughout the year. Sandy Bridge was a tock, meaning it used the the same 32nm manufacturing process as previous chips, but adopted a new architecture including more capable graphics on the same die for the first time (previous chips had a CPU and separate GPU in a single package), new AVX instructions and Quick Sync for faster video transcoding.

This year Intel will almost certainly announce its next "tick," the 22nm processor known as Ivy Bridge, though many details are already known. In May, Intel revealed that Ivy Bridge will use a new 3D tri-gate transistor, a structure the industry generally refers to as a FinFET. Intel said in comparison to its convention planar 32nm transistors, the tri-gate transistors are 37 percent faster at low voltage and can deliver about the same performance with 50 percent lower active power. Later in the year at the Intel Developer Forum, the company provided more details on Ivy Bridge.

Since this is a shrink, the CPU cores use the same Sandy Bridge microarchitecture with some tweaks, and Intel will continue to focus on dual- and quad-core chips for most laptops and desktops. Graphics is a different story, though. In fact, this may mark the first time Intel devotes more transistors to the GPU than to the CPU--even on a quad-core. The GPU will have more (and more capable) execution units and it will support the latest DirectX graphics and DirectCompute and OpenCL parallel computing standards.

These changes are so significant that Intel has been touting it as a "tick-plus," and it is easy to see why the company chose to focus on graphics and media processing. Intel has a sizable lead over AMD on CPU performance, but continues to lag behind in graphics. Ivy Bridge should narrow that gap and push the performance of Intel's processor graphics close to sub-$100 discrete GPUs. Intel began production of Ivy Bridge in the second half of 2011, but the first laptops and desktops aren't likely to appear for a few months (on the most recent quarterly call CEO Paul Otellini said systems would start showing up this spring). In the meantime, Intel will be pushing ultrabooks based on its second-generation Core processors. HP, Lenovo and LG Electronics--among others--will be showing new ultrabooks at CES.

Intel recently began shipping its 32nm Cedarview processors, including the N2600 and N2800 for netbooks and D2500 and D2700 for desktops, which are part of the Cedar Trail platform. But this category has cooled considerably. Instead Intel will focus on tablets and smartphones. The current tablet platform,Oak Trail, includes the 45nm Atom Z670 processor and is designed for Android 3.0 and Windows 7 tablets. When it launched in April of last year, Intel said 35 designs were in the works from companies such as Acer, Fujtisu, Motion Computing, Toshiba and ViewSonic, but it never really got off the ground. At IDF in September, Intel demonstrated a tablet with a 32nm Medfield processor and Android 4.0, or Honeycomb. The first smartphones and tablets with Medfield and Android 4.0 should arrive in the first half of this year. In the second half of the year, Intel should release a different 32nm Atom platform, Clover Trail, designed specifically for Windows 8 tablets.

AMD is more of a wildcard. Last year, at CES, the company announced its first Fusion processors with on-die graphics, which the company refers to as Accelerated Processing Units or APUs. These turned out to be the E-Series and C-Series processors, based on the Bobcat core, part of the low-power Brazos platform used in netbooks and ultra-thin laptops. AMD sold more than 20 million of these chips--manufactured by TSMC on a 40nm process--due to the popularity of laptops such as the HP Pavilion dm1.

The more powerful A-Series processors for mainstream laptops were not announced until June, and they remained in tight supply for the rest of the year as AMD's manufacturing partner, GlobalFoundries, wrestled with yields on its 32nm process. In December, AMD anounced several new, and slightly faster, A-Series chips for desktops and laptops, suggesting AMD and GlobalFoundries have made progress on manufacturing.

The logical step for AMD would be to announce at CES the replacements for the E-Series and C-Series, known as Wichita and Krisha, respectively, and manufactured on a 28nm process. This Deccan platform should span everything from mainstream notebooks at the high end to tablets at the low end. However, AMD's new managers, including CEO Rory Read, are rethinking the company's strategy and plan to update the product roadmap in February, so things may have changed. It's also not clear that any foundry is ready to manufacture 28nm processors in volume; AMD's new Radeon HD 7970 discrete graphics processor--one of the first 28nm products--won't begin shipping until this week.

AMD also has a Z-Series processor, also based on the Bobcat low-power core, for tablets, but it hasn't been widely adopted (MSI used it in Windows-based tablets). The replacement for that, which is rumored to be code-named Hondo and consume only a few watts of power, would most likely be designed for Windows 8 tablets and ship in the second half of the year. It would compete directly with Intel's Clover Trail as well as ARM-based chips from Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. There has also been a lot of speculation that AMD will design its own ARM processor, though it would have to compete with these same companies and several others cranking out low-cost chipsets for tablets running Android 4.0 and other platforms.

Given that the A-Series mainstream processors have only recently begun shipping in volume, it is unlikely that AMD will announce the replacement, code-named Trinity, this week. Similarly, AMD has only recently released its high-end FX Series desktop and Opteron 6200 server chips, based on the new Bulldozer architecture, so it isn't likely to make any big announcements there. Based on AMD's most recent roadmap, the successors to all of these later in 2012 will continue to use GlobalFoundries' 32nm process, but Trinity will get enhanced version of the Bulldozer core, known as Piledriver, and more powerful graphics.

Both Intel and AMD are now focused on more power-efficient chips for thin laptops and other mobile devices. But they have different challenges. Intel will emphasize its advanced manufacturing technology, and it has built a sizable lead in x86 CPU performance. But it must demonstrate that it can also build a powerful GPU that supports the latest standards. Ivy Bridge should be a big step in that direction. AMD has superior on-die graphics but its new designs--years in the making--so far can't match Intel's CPU performance. Moreover AMD must work closely with its manufacturing partners to avoid falling further behind on process technology.

Both companies face new competition from companies such as Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia and Texas Instruments that are coming from the opposite direction--increasing the performance of their ARM-based chips by adding cores and boosting frequencies at the expense of some battery life--setting up a battle over Android and Windows 8 tablets and ultraportables. All of this should make for a very interesting CES.

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