The team at AMD has been actively promoting something they call “Fusion” for several years now. AMD’s Fusion is a solution to a long-standing problem with computers: the communications bottleneck between the central processing unit (CPU) and the graphics processing unit (GPU). In short, if you can combine the serial processing power of a CPU and the parallel processing power of a GPU onto a single processor die then you should get faster performance and less power consumption packed into a fraction of the space needed for a standard CPU and stand-alone GPU.
I recently had the opportunity to spend some hands-on time with AMD’s newest platform, and I was pretty impressed considering that this APU is going to be at the heart of ultraportable notebooks at netbooks priced at less than $500 starting in 2011.
AMD’s APU: Why Bother?
One of the first questions I asked years ago when AMD first announced the “Fusion” of the CPU and GPU was, Why? Isn’t it better to keep these two components separate and just make faster multicore processors and faster graphics processors? Well, there are three problems with continuing down the same old road: power, complexity, and scalability.
AMD admits that there’s still room to grow the performance of single-core and multi-core CPUs, but as long as the CPU and GPU are separate engineers have to waste power in the the increasingly complex communication channel between the CPU and GPU. Combining both these essential components on a single die means reduced complexity for notebook manufacturers (production costs go down) and lower power consumption. Since a single-chip solution takes up less space that means manufacturers can put it inside thinner and lighter form factors that are more attractive to consumers. On the software development side, a single-chip solution also allows programmers to use OpenCL and DirectCompute on both the CPU and GPU without the PCI express bottleneck or needing to write complex code for a multi-chip solution.
Bottom line, AMD’s new line of APUs promise to deliver longer battery life, less heat, discrete-level GPU performance at entry-level prices, and the accelerated internet, video, productivity and gaming performance that consumers don’t currently get from systems priced under $500.
Details … More or Less
I was lucky enough to spend a full day at AMD’s facilities in Austin, Texas and get my hands dirty with an engineering sample of the new AMD E-350 APU (dual-core CPU running at 1.6GHz and Radeon HD 6310 graphics). All of the Brazos APUs have 64KB (32KB instruction, 32KB data) of L1 cache per core and 512KB L2 cache per core and support up to 1066MHz (regular and low-power) DDR3, and come with UVD3 and AMD-VTM technology.
The Brazos platform essentially consists of two categories of APUs: “Ontario” is the codename for the C-series low-voltage APUs running at 9W or less power which are designed to compete with Intel’s Atom processor in netbooks. “Zacate” is the codename for the E-series 18W APUs designed for greater computational and multimedia performance. The Zacate APUs compete against the current price level of Intel Pentium low-voltage processors like the SU4100.
“Zacate” (18W max)
- AMD E-350 with AMD Radeon HD 6310 Graphics (dual-core CPU at 1.6GHz and dual DX-11 SIMDs at 500MHz) (NOTE: SIMD = 80x total Vision Engine nanocores for parallel computer capability and graphics)
- AMD E-240 with AMD Radeon HD 6310 Graphics (single-core CPU at 1.5GHz and dual DX-11 SIMDs at 500MHz)
“Ontario” (9W max)
- AMD C-50 with AMD Radeon HD 6250 Graphics (dual-core CPU at 1.0GHz and dual DX-11 SIMDs at 280MHz)
- AMD C-30 with AMD Radeon HD 6250 Graphics (single-core CPU at 1.2GHz and dual DX-11 SIMDs at 280MHz)
The important thing to keep in mind here is that when I say these APUs compete with certain Intel CPUs I’m talking about price and not performance. Although I’m under a strict NDA that prevents me from disclosing the benchmark results I ran at the AMD facility until November 16, I will tell you that I was very impressed with what I saw. If streaming online videos and playing games are important to you then you’ll have a hard time finding Intel-based notebooks and netbooks with the same level of performance for less than $500.
For the first time since Intel released the Core 2 Duo processors consumers might have a very good reason to buy an AMD-based notebook or netbook in January. MSI is already working on the production of a new “X-Slim” series notebook that will be powered by the Zacate APUs. MSI was kind enough to send AMD an early production sample of the new notebook which I saw in Austin. The exterior of the yet-to-be-named MSI notebok is similar to the original MSI X-slim X-340 as is expected to be available in January of 2011.
Although I have a lot more to share about AMD’s Fusion it will have to wait until next week. Be sure to come back to NotebookReview.com on November 16 to see all of the details on how the AMD E-350 performs compared to other ultraportable notebooks.