New details on AMD, Intel chips for back-to-school PCs

Summer isn't even here yet, but chipmakers AMD and Intel are already gearing up for back-to-school. AMD is set to release its Llano processor for mainstream laptops and desktops, and Intel has countered with Sandy Bridge chips at lower prices.

Summer isn't even here yet, but chipmakers AMD and Intel are already gearing up for back-to-school.

After some manufacturing delays, AMD is set to release its Llano processor for mainstream laptops and desktops. I expect them to make it official at the Computex tradeshow in Taiwan next week, but some technology sites in Asia are already reporting details of these new processors. It is probably no coincidence that Intel has just updated its processor list to include Sandy Bridge chips at lower prices, which will compete directly with Llano.

Rather than CPU, AMD uses the term APU, or Accelerated Processor Unit, to describe chips like Llano that include both CPU cores and a graphics processor. It took longer than expected for AMD's manufacturing partner, GlobalFoundries, to work out the kinks with its 32nm process using new materials (a high-k dielectric and metal gates), so in the interim AMD released low-power C-Series (Ontario) and E-Series (Zacate) APUs manufactured by a different foundry, TSMC, using a more conventional 40nm technology. But the Llano APUs, most of which will be branded as the A-Series, are critical because they are designed for mainstream laptops and desktops, an area where AMD has been relatively strong.

Llano will be available in dual- and quad-core versions, according to a report from DigiTimes. The dual-core desktop processors, the E2-3250 ($70) and A4-3350P ($80), will compete with Pentium-branded processors. The quad-core A6 ($110-130) will compete with the Core i3 dual-core desktop processors and the eight-core A8 ($150-170) will compete with Intel's mid-range Core i5-2300, which has four cores and four threads. For desktops, AMD will have a different processor, code-named Zambezi, which is a traditional CPU with separate graphics to compete with the higher Core i5-2500 (four cores, four threads)and Core i7-2600 (four cores, eight threads). The first Zambezi chips will reportedly include the quad-core FX-4110 ($220), six-core FX-6110 ($250) and eight-core FX-8130 and 8130P ($290-$320). These will also be manufactured on GlobalFoundries' 32nm process and will be available later this year.

This is consistent with everything we've heard about Llano: core-for-core, the CPU likely won't match the performance of Intel's Sandy Bridge. To compensate for this, AMD will offer more physical cores for about the same price. Llano's on-die Radeon graphics should also offer better 3D graphics performance than Intel's HD 2000/HD 3000 integrated graphics. At the high-end, AMD doesn't have graphics advantage since both AMD's FX Zambezi processor and Intel's Core i7 will generally be used in high-performance desktops with discrete graphics from AMD or Nvidia. Though these are all desktop processors, the match-ups should be similar on the mobile side except that Intel only offers the HD 3000 graphics n laptops and AMD will not mobile version of Zambezi.

Over the weekend, Intel updated its processor price list to include seven new Sandy Bridge desktop chips most of which compete directly with Llano. In the mid-range, this includes the 3.10GHz dual-core Core i3-2105 ($134) and the 2.90GHz quad-core Core i5-2310 ($177), plus a low-power Core i5. Intel also introduced four Pentium dual-cores ranging from 2.20GHz to 2.90GHz at prices from $64 to $86. These are Intel's first Pentium-branded chips using the new microarchitecture, but they do not include several features of Sandy Bridge including hyper-threading, Turbo Boost 2.0, and hardware-accelerated HD video encoding and decoding.

[Here's a link to Intel's processor price list PDF, which lists the new chips.]

All of this is setting the stage for a big battle this summer over back-to-school systems. Expect to see a wave of mainstream desktops and laptops using these new processors starting in June.

More coverage of AMD's Fusion APUs: