AMD and its partners had some impressive things to say about the next generation of AMD APUs based on Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) at the AMD Developer Summit.
Lisa Su, Senior VP & GM of Global Business Units at AMD, delivered the opening keynote and the message was clear: AMD is positioning its Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) — which combine traditional multi-core CPUs and a discrete multi-core graphics processing unit on a single chip — to dominate the market from smartphones to servers.
AMD enjoyed some impressive success in 2013 with AMD graphics at the heart of both the Sony Playstation 4 and the Xbox One next-gen consoles. Combine that with an increasing number of tablets, PCs, and servers shipping with AMD APUs inside and there’s plenty to get excited about.
A large part of that strategy for market dominance depends on software developers embracing HSA. Developers have to code future apps to take advantage of the parallel processing power of the APU to dramatically speed up the things we do every day. The reality is that the hardware needed for parallel processing has been around for years, but developers have struggled with the complex code needed to take advantage of the speed benefits offered by APUs.
This changes in 2014 with AMD’s launch of the next generation APUs code-named Kaveri.
It is no secret that Kaveri has been in the pipeline for some time. AMD has been gradually leaking details about this processor for about a year, but Lisu Su unveiled even more onstage at the Developer Summit.
The version of Kaveri that was pictured on stage will have four “Steamroller” CPU cores, which are enhanced versions of the previous Bulldozer/Trinity families. What makes Kaveri special is that it basically has dual decode, more cache, larger buffers between the processor cores and the cache, and a variety of features that result in both enhanced single thread performance and superior multi-threaded performance.
More importantly, Kaveri uses heterogeneous Uniform Memory Access (hUMA) to make it much, much easier for developers to code apps that take advantage of parallel processing. Finally, developers can deliver apps that run dramatically faster without needing to learn complex coding language to do it.
Showcasing Kaveri plays nicely with the message that AMD was trying to deliver: HSA solutions (and specifically APUs) deliver easily scalable hardware that make life easy for developers. One of the biggest problems that developers face today is that even if you want to accomplish one task — like compressing video — a developer has to code multiple applications for smartphones and tablets and another application for PCs and servers due to the major differences in how the processors for these various devices function.
AMD and its partners want to deliver a scalable processing solution so that developers basically only need to write one app that will work on all APU-powered solutions.
That’s the idea … but we’ll have to wait and see if it turns into reality.
Will Steamroller Get Pigeonholed?
While the market for smart devices and PCs is changing in favor of System On a Chip (SOC) solutions like the AMD APU, the current reality of the consumer market isn’t so favorable for AMD.
Sure, the previous generations of AMD APUs have been good and Kaveri looks even better, but AMD has been “pigeonholed” as a low-cost alternative in much of the consumer market. Right now, several of AMD’s partners (HP, Samsung, Dell, ASUS, etc.) offer a variety of PCs that are virtually identical with one major difference: An expensive version with an Intel processor and a less expensive one with an AMD APU.
Unfortunately, the reason the AMD solution is usually cheaper is because the PC manufacturer is using one of AMD’s lower-end APUs inside … which deliver lower performance. It’s not that AMD doesn’t have APUs that can rival (or even surpass) the performance of Intel processors, but consumers usually don’t see products with those high-end APUs as often since the manufacturers are using AMD almost exclusively as a low-cost alternative.
This tradition of manufacturers only using AMD for budget offerings is something that has to change if AMD wants to see that dream of a developer-friendly, scalable market ranging from smart devices to servers based on the APU turn into reality.
Ironically, it may be smartphones and tablets that help build a future for AMD’s higher-end APUs in PCs and servers. Most smartphones and tablets use ARM processors (another HSA partner) and consumers don’t really care. In fact, most people never ask about the processor inside a smartphone or tablet; they just want to know if it works and runs the apps they want. This kind of processor-agnostic marketplace means AMD might be able to convince major PC builders to start using high-end APUs inside premium notebooks and desktops instead of just using the cheapest APUs available for budget PCs.
Bottom line, AMD has the hardware and now the developers have the tools they need to create supercharged apps that will run much faster on APUs than CPUs. Now we just have to see if AMD’s partners deliver more impressive products that use APUs in 2014.