AMD Unveils the Next Generation: Bulldozer, Bobcat and Hybrid Chips

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Similar to how Bulldozer is heralded as the next-generation of AMD’s workhorse server and desktop chips, so is Bobcat offered as a solution to Intel’s utter domination of the lower-power x86 market. Intel’s Atom chips can be found everywhere you look, from low-power nettops and notebooks to tablets – Intel even has its eye on sticking the Atom into upcoming phones. AMD has dabbled in the market space in the past, leading to such desktops as Dell Inspiron Zino, but its never seemed to take it seriously.

Even with the launch (and subsequent relaunch) of their new Vision branding strategy, AMD has really only offered older chips for the platforms, underclocking and undervolting them in order to reduce the power consumption. While this has worked to an extent, it means that AMD was falling further and further behind when it comes to true innovation in the low power arena. Bobcat, finally, addresses the issue.

Low power for the low-powered
Bobcat will be the processor used in AMD’s portable strategy – netbooks, notebooks (it’s unknown if Bulldozer will be used in high-end, processor-heavy notebooks, but it’s probable, at least at some point) and even tablets. The x86 core of Bobcat is a more traditional sort of advancement in processor technology when compared to Bulldozer’s hybrid, modular design.

Among the improvements made to the mobile side of the aisle, AMD indicates that the new Bobcat chips are staggeringly efficient. Something like 90% of the performance found in AMD’s current mainstream notebook processors can be acheives with less than half of the physical chip area.

Additionally, Bobcat is capable of running at power draws of less than one watt. Capable of clock and power gating, the chip can disable swaths of the CPU that aren’t actively being used.

The manufacturing process upon which the first Bobcat chips will be built wasn’t mentioned, but given the fact that AMD repeated the ability for the chips’ microarchitecture to be “easily portable across process technologies” might indicate that the first offerings won’t be using the same 32nm process as Bulldozer.

A major differentiator between Bobcat-based processors and Intel’s Atom CPU is the ability for Bobcat to utilize out-of-order execution (OoOE). What this means is that some instructions can be broken apart and processed out of order with respect to how they’re presented; in a nutshell, the OoOE will help maximize the core’s processing efficiency.

Intel created Atom to be in-order to keep power draws down at the cost of a significant performance hit. Atom isn’t currently scheduled to gain out-of-order processing capability until sometime late in the 2012 – 2013 timeframe.

The future is Fusion…finally
The most exciting part about Bobcat from a consumer standpoint, however, is that it’s going to be the first APU Fusion processor offering, code-named “Ontario.” APU, or accelerated processing unit, merges CPU and GPU together into a single piece of silicon. The x86 Bobcat cores supply the traditional processing capability, while ATI GPU technology is used to create the GPU.

This computational partnership makes the GPU a first-class citizen inside the computer. It gets around the bandwidth problems inherent to the PCI-Express interface; in this conglomeration the CPU and GPU and literally mere nanometers apart.

There’s no doubt that the final products will cover a wide swath of price and performance targets, but AMD suggested that some of the Ontario chips will offer graphics performance that exceeds some of the 5000-series discrete GPUs:

“AMD’s APUs are designed to be as fast as some discrete GPUs but not as fast as the higher end discrete GPUs.”

If nothing else, it means that the GPU performance offered by Ontario should far outstrip the level at which Intel’s graphics technologies reside.

AMD is going to market the CPU-GPU hybrid as a complete SoC solution similar to the ARM-powered Tegra line developed by rival NVIDIA. DesktopReview asked AMD about whether Bobcat would ever be sold as a standalone multicore CPU outside of the APU Fusion envelope – while the response followed the lines of, “We have no current plans to…” etc., the chipmaker explicitly stated that the architecture upon which Bobcat is derived poses no hurdle to the creation of such a product, should it be deemed commercially viable.

Bobcat is currently scheduled to hit production in Q4 of this year, with products appearing in the first quarter of 2011. Bulldozer is 2011 across the board, though there’s little doubt AMD will be trotting out both products at CES in January.

AMD Bulldozer – Bobcat Presentation (PDF)

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