What AMD's new roadmap means for users

At its long-awaited analyst day AMD's new executive team presented a bright future, but also pushed out or canceled several products on its roadmap. Here's what you need to know if you plan to buy a new PC or tablet this year.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Chipmaker AMD's long-awaited analyst day turned out to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, AMD's new executive team presented a vision of a  bright future including a shift to complex system-on-chip designs and the development of a Heterogeneous System Architecture to unlock the power of its Fusion CPU+GPU chips. On the other hand, the present is much more practical with many of the most ambitious products on AMD's roadmap now either pushed out or canceled. So what does this all mean for those of us who buy desktops and laptops?

The heart of AMD's product line is its A-Series APU (meaning a multi-core CPU and GPU on the same die) for mainstream PCs. Known by its code-name, Llano, the A-Series is designed primarily for 14- and 15-inch laptops, though it is also used in desktops. AMD launched the A-Series in June, but its manufacturing partner, Globalfoundries, spent much of the year resolving issues with the 32nm process. In December they seemed to have turned a corner with shipments and the A-Series is now widely available. Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba all offer some mainstream notebooks using A-Series APUs.

The replacement for Llano, known as Trinity, is manufactured by Globalfoundries with the same 32nm recipe and scheduled to ship in mid-2012. Those plans are unchanged. AMD executives said customers already have samples and PCs will be available this summer. The Trinity APU combines a new CPU core known as Piledriver-an updated version of the Bulldozer core used in the high-end FX Series CPU-with more powerful Radeon graphics. It will provide twice the performance at the same power, or roughly the same performance while consuming half the power, according to AMD.

One new wrinkle is a low-power version of Trinity designed specifically for ultra-thin laptops-AMD's answer to Intel's Ultrabook. These notebooks will be very thin (at the analyst day last week AMD showed a reference design that measured 18mm thick), last for up to 12 hours on battery power, and cost $600-$800. If AMD can deliver a Trinity APU with solid CPU performance and good graphics, and undercut Intel's third-generation Core processors (Ivy Bridge) on price, they could steal some Ultrabook business.

Trinity will be followed in 2013 by an APU code-named Kaveri. The details on this APU are still sketchy but it will include an updated CPU design, code-named Steamroller, and a new graphics architecture (known by the generic "Graphics Core Next"). It will also be one of AMD's first APUs to introduce some of the heterogeneous computing features.

The Low Road: Ultra-thin laptops and tablets While the mainstream A-Series got off to a slow start, AMD's low-power Brazos platform was a surprise hit. AMD executives said they shipped more than 30 million Brazos APUs in its first year making it the fastest-growing platform in the company's history. These simpler C- and E-Series APUs, manufactured by foundry TSMC on an established 40nm process, are used in a variety of systems including netbooks and budget notebooks. But it was relatively inexpensive ultraportables such as the HP Pavilion dm1z that really put Brazos on the map. I had a chance to test out the original dm1z, and more recently the updated model, which starts at $400 with a faster E-Series processor and Beats audio, and it remains one of the top picks for an affordable ultraportable.

AMD originally planned to replace Brazos with the Deccan platform, which included the Krishna APU with two or four Bobcat cores (replacing the E-Series), and the Wichita APU with two Bobcat cores (replacing the C-Series)-both manufactured on a 28nm process. This has been replaced by Brazos 2.0, which will be manufactured on the same 40nm process, but will have a faster CPU and GPU and other unspecified features. AMD says the change allows them to maintain "platform continuity," but it's also likely that the 28nm manufacturing process simply won't be ready in time at the right price. Radeon 7970 and 7950 graphics cards based on AMD's Tahiti GPU and manufactured on TSMC's 28nm process, only began shipping in the past few weeks. (These will be followed by lower cost GPUs in the Southern Islands family known as Pitcairn and Cape Verde.)

It won't be until 2013 that AMD will introduce a 28nm version of its low-power platform, called Kabini, with an updated Bobcat CPU core, code-named Jaguar, and the heterogeneous computing features in other 2013 products including the Kaveri APU and Sea Islands GPUs. AMD got a lot of press for its tablet roadmap, but a lot of this wasn't really new, though the company did provide more details. AMD already has a Z-Series dual-core APU for tablets--used in MSI's WindPad Windows 7 tablet--but the Hondo processor, slated for release later this year, is labeled as its first ultra low power APU for tablets. It will be manufactured on a 40nm process and is designed for Windows 8 tablets. In 2013, AMD will release a 28nm version, Temash, with the Jaguar CPU update.

All of the current APUs require a separate Hudson FCH (Fusion Controller Hub) for connecting to devices using SATA or PCI-Express interfaces. By 2013, both the Kabini and Temash APUs will integrate this FCH directly onto the die creating a single-chip solution for ultraportables, netbooks and tablets.

The High Road: Desktops The most significant changes, though, are at the opposite end of AMD's roadmap with the high-end desktop chips. The current FX Series CPU (Zambezi)-and the related Opteron server chips (Interlagos and Valencia)-suffered from some of the same 32nm manufacturing woes last year, but there are issues with the new Bulldozer design as well. AMD reorganized the chip into modules, each of which contains two x86 CPU cores but shares a floating-point unit and other components. The catch is that Windows 7 doesn't know how to efficiently parcel out work to these modules. Microsoft has since released a patch that improves performance a bit, but it won't be until the release of Windows 8 later this year that we'll be able to see whether Bulldozer can really deliver. At the analyst's' day, AMD's Lisa Su conceded that Bulldozer "was a bit ahead of its time."

AMD had planned to follow Zambezi with a new 32nm CPU, Komodo, with six to 10 of the updated Piledriver cores (in other words, three to five Bulldozer modules). Instead AMD now plans to release a Vishera CPU with four to eight cores that will use the existing socket and chipset making it an easier upgrade. AMD will stick with Vishera through 2013 as well. The same is true of the server roadmap where Terramar, a 20-core two-chip package, and Sepang, with 10 cores, have been replaced by Abu Dhabi and Seoul (the same basic design as Vishera). In other words, AMD will stick with the same 32nm processor and platform for high-end desktops and servers at least until 2014. By that time, Intel should be shipping its first 14nm Core processors and Airmont Atom SCs.

The message here is that AMD is no longer going to compete head-to-head with Intel to build the fastest x86 core, or even to pack the most CPU cores in a single chip. As CEO Rory Read put it, the lesson of Brazos is that AMD doesn't need to be on the "bleeding edge" in order to succeed; instead it needs to focus on building products its customers and end-users really want.

In the short term, that means delivering chips for mainstream and ultra-thin laptops on time by pushing 28nm out to next year and canceling some products. In the long term, it means developing SoCs around these building blocks tailored to particular applications-most likely mobile, server and embedded niches. AMD maintains a sizable lead over Intel in graphics and it will continue to emphasize the "total compute power" of the CPU+GPU, but it won't be until the arrival of its Heterogeneous System Architecture--a multi-year project involving significant changes to the hardware and software architecture--that we will really see the potential here. In the meantime, AMD will continue to compete primarily on price while Intel will offer the fastest CPUs--often paired with AMD or Nvidia discrete graphics--for high-end systems.

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