What Took So Long?

AMD announced the acquisition of ATI in 2006. By 2007 AMD had a plan for CPU/GPU integration and it looked like this. The red blocks in the diagram below were GPUs, the green blocks were CPUs. Stage 1 was supposed to be dumb integration of the two (putting a CPU and GPU on the same die). The original plan called for AMD to release the first Fusion APU to come out sometime in 2008—2009. Of course that didn't happen.

Brazos, AMD's very first Fusion platform, came out in Q4 of last year. At best AMD was two years behind schedule, at worst three. So what happened?

AMD and ATI both knew that designing CPUs and GPUs were incredibly different. CPUs, at least for AMD back then, were built on a five year architecture cadence. Designers used tons of custom logic and hand layout in order to optimize for clock speed. In a general purpose microprocessor instruction latency is everything, so optimizing to lower latency wherever possible was top priority.

GPUs on the other hand come from a very different world. Drastically new architectures ship every two years, with major introductions made yearly. Very little custom logic is employed in GPU design by comparison; the architectures are highly synthesizable. Clock speed is important but it's not the end all be all. GPUs get their performance from being massively parallel, and you can always hide latency with a wide enough machine (and a parallel workload to take advantage of it).

The manufacturing strategy is also very different. Remember that at the time of the ATI acquisition, only ATI was a fabless semiconductor—AMD still owned its own fabs. ATI was used to building chips at TSMC, while AMD was fabbing everything in Dresden at what would eventually become GlobalFoundries. While the folks at GlobalFoundries have done their best to make their libraries portable for existing TSMC customers, it's not as simple as showing up with a chip design and having it work on the first go.

As much sense as AMD made when it talked about the acquisition, the two companies that came together in 2006 couldn't have been more different. The past five years have really been spent trying to make the two work together both as organizations as well as architectures.

The result really holds a lot of potential and hope for the new, unified AMD. The CPU folks learn from the GPU folks and vice versa. Let's start with APU refresh cycles. AMD CPU architectures were updated once every four or five years (K7 1999, K8 2003, K10 2007) while ATI GPUs received substantial updates yearly. The GPU folks won this battle as all AMD APUs are now built on a yearly cadence.

Chip design is also now more GPU inspired. With a yearly design cadence there's a greater focus on building easily synthesizable chips. Time to design and manufacture goes down, but so do maximum clock speeds. Given how important clock speed can be to the x86 side of the business, AMD is going to be taking more of a hybrid approach where some elements of APU designs are built the old GPU way while others use custom logic and more CPU-like layout flows.

The past few years have been very difficult for AMD but we're at the beginning of what may be a brand new company. Without the burden of expensive fabs and with the combined knowledge of two great chip companies, the new AMD has a chance but it also has a very long road ahead. Brazos was the first hint of success along that road and today we have the second. Her name is Llano.

The Llano A-Series APU
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  • jollyjugg - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    Anand,

    you are making such a big deal of performance between Intel and AMD machines. Most of the folks who buy laptops are not looking to a super computer level performance which matters a lot in the server world or may be even desktop world. They are looking to buy a laptop which has good performace, good battery life and are more affordable. For the kind of applications most of the people use (internet surfing, listening to musing, watching youtube, watching movies, playing solitaire etc etc), thre will hardly be any difference between the offerings from both manufacturers. The fact that you are comparing performance and battery life and rather sneeringly say that if you want a machine which is 100-200 bucks lower then you should go for Llano machine at the cost of less performance makes me see black here. Why is cost not a big deal for you. How can you absolutely say that intel performance/$ and Battery life/$ is better than AMD's metrics. If not for AMD intel will be selling these machines not for 700 but for 1000. So in reality customers see reduced cost from Intel and a further 200 discount on AMD machines. You have to be a bit impartial in your reviews and not make only big deal of performance in portable machines where battery life and cost is also equally important and compare them as such. The fact that Intel's peformance is important win for them over AMD performance is a important one for geeks and enthusiasts like you, but not for comman man in the street. For him bang for the buck is the most important metric in most of the cases. But since your website is a reputed one, whatever you say might influence the opinion of man in the street. Please dont let your or any of your staff's personal opinion cloud their ability to see the bigger picture and tell it as such to PC buyers. Be impartial in your reviews.

    A Humble AMD Fan
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    We do our best to remain impartial; if we were partial, we would strongly advocate for or against AMD. When someone calling themselves a "humble AMD fan" talks about being impartial, you've pretty much already shot yourself in the foot. I'm not an Intel fan, despite what many would like to say. Right now, Intel simply has the better processor. AMD now has the better all-in-one design if you value graphics performance, but in order to give AMD the win you have to declare GPUs as being more vital than CPUs. Right now, outside of gaming, we're missing the killer apps to make that true.

    What we said here is that AMD is competitive with Llano, and they are, but the pricing is really the big question. We *guess* that you might get AMD laptops for $100 to $200 less than Intel, but that's being generous. AMD says the laptop used in this review should have a target price of around $800 (because it has the 6630M in addition to Llano). At that price, this is not a clear win for AMD--not even close. Yes, Intel would be priced differently if AMD didn't exist, but you can't judge the quality of a product by what would happen if it disappeared. "Duke Nukem Forever would be an amazing game if no other FPS titles had come out in the past 15 years!"

    For $800, ASUS already has the U41JF with similar graphics performance and better battery life (mostly because of the larger battery, but that's still important). Besides the MSI CX640 (i3-2310M with GT 520M for $650), there are five other laptops at Newegg that have Optimus graphics and Arrandale CPUs for under $750 (and in terms of performance, Llano is still slower than Arrandale on the CPU side). For $900, you can get a Samsung laptop with i7-2630QM and Optimus GT 540M. Dell's XPS 15 can be had with an i5-2410M and Optimus GT 525M for $800. That's what AMD has to compete with, and right now every one of those is significantly faster than Llano, offers better graphics performance than the Llano IGP, and battery life is similar or slightly worse.

    Last year when I ripped on AMD's laptops for having okay performance with horrible battery life, AMD fans tried to tell me battery life didn't matter. We were looking at 2.5 hours with Athlon II/Phenom II compared to 5+ hours for Arrandale, and it "didn't matter" because people just wanted what was cheaper. Now we're looking at 6-7 hours battery life for Intel compared to 7-8 hours for Llano, at a similar price (at least going by AMD's suggestion), and battery life has suddenly become a lot more important. I recognize hypocrisy when I see it....

    In summary, once more: Llano is a good step forward, but it will really depend on pricing. It cannot compete at $800. Period. Core i5-2410M is already 30-50% faster on the CPU side, offers similar battery life, and can be had with an Optimus GPU for $800. If AMD can't beat the performance or battery life, the only thing they can do is reduce pricing, so A8-3500M will need to start closer to $600, not $700. The A8-3530XM is the fastest mobile Llano chip, and it's only clocked 27% higher than the A8-3500M, likely with a $50 price premium (at least), so we can't really take that as a potential win either. 3530MX for $700 on it's own (no dGPU) would be reasonable, though, which is why I say that 3500M needs to be at the $650 (or lower) price range.

    There's still the matter of getting a good quality laptop, regardless of whether it's AMD or Intel based, and that has been a seriously weak area for inexpensive laptops. Personally, if I were going out and spending my own money on a laptop right now, I'd lean heavily towards business offerings (Dell Latitude, Lenovo ThinkPad, or HP ProBook/EliteBook), just because their keyboards and build quality are so much better. That means I would be paying $1000+ for even a moderate laptop, and at that price it's no surprise that all the business offerings use Intel's CPUs. You can go the other route and buy an okay $600 laptop today, and in 18 months you replace it with another $600 laptop; the only problem is you're stuck with the crappy keyboards if you do that.

    If there's any bias in my above statements, please let me know where. About the strongest bias I express is for good build quality and keyboards -- chiclet need not apply. AMD or Intel really doesn't matter to me; the question is who can offer the more compelling package overall, and determining a winner there requires listing out all the various aspects and then making a personal decision. I won't say that a faster CPU is always superior, just as a faster APU/GPU isn't always superior. They're different is all, but looking at the entire market right now the CPU will win out for the majority of users. Remove all the teenagers and 20-somethings from the population, and I'd say gamers (like myself) are less than 10% of the notebook buying population. Even with the younger generation included, I'd still say only 20% of laptops purchased will ever run anything more complex than Facebook games.
    Reply
  • mga318 - Sunday, June 26, 2011 - link

    Well, we can look at prices now.

    HP is currently selling their 15 inch dv6z laptop with the same processor as this one for $659 without the additional graphics card. Which means that your statement of these laptops needing to be priced closer to $600 is right on the money for what we're getting. Likewise, HP's upgrade to AMD's fastest APU is precisely what you guessed $50. So that places the A8-3530XM right at $709 without an additional graphics card. HP doesn't say exactly what card they're offering for their $50 and $100 dollar upgrades, but they're both listed as having GDDR5 instead of your DDR graphics card here:

    512MB GDDR5 Radeon(TM) HD Dual Graphics [HDMI,VGA]
    +$50.00
    1GB GDDR5 Radeon(TM) HD Dual Graphics [HDMI, VGA]
    +$100.00

    So now you're getting the premium processor and graphics card for $809 (assuming you stay with the other standard components, with are 6GB RAM (speed not listed) and a cheapo 500GB 5400 RPM hard drive.

    What do you think, Jared, are those competitive enough prices?
    Reply
  • mga318 - Sunday, June 26, 2011 - link

    *which are (not "with are"). Reply
  • choikwa - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    512MB GDDR5 Radeon(TM) HD Dual Graphics [HDMI,VGA]
    +$50.00
    [6400m]

    1GB GDDR5 Radeon(TM) HD Dual Graphics [HDMI, VGA]
    +$100.00
    [6700m]

    You can verify these as
  • if you click "help" on upper right corner.
  • Reply
  • choikwa - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    6400m has 160 stream procs
    6700m has 480 stream procs
    Reply
  • rick1725 - Thursday, June 30, 2011 - link

    Is this place full of Intel fanboys or what? The e-350 is far superior to any Atom configuration available. This has been proved over and over again. Stop flamming and get you head out of Intels overpriced a** Reply
  • strawhat pirates - Wednesday, July 13, 2011 - link

    baka...baka...bakaaaa!!! <--- japan language... mention it to you, rick1725!!
    intel only win on advertising alone ...
    the rest? thumbs down for InteLosers!! #boooo ...
    and intel is only a theory core ...*core fuck!! there is no definite proof .. :@
    FORZA AMD!! AMD till die!!
    Reply
  • tuRnitUpsuM - Monday, July 04, 2011 - link

    Im typing this on a Samsung nf210 (Atom n550) and external monitor. 4 threads Gig ram ... fold it up throw it in a rugsack. Life is good. Only two things could possibly make it better.

    1) the above machine (in the header)
    2) same form factor but Cortex A-15 chip running off ARMv7-R instructions.

    first one to market gets the CASH!!!

    technology is a beautiful thing.
    Reply
  • SMSAssembly - Tuesday, July 12, 2011 - link

    We have the Llano processors for sale,

    AM3400DDX43GX 4-Core 1.4GHz
    AM3500DDX43GX 4-Core 1.5GHz
    AM3530HLX43GX 4-Core 1.9GHz
    EM3000DDX22GX 2-Core 1.8GHz

    Contact Jeff at SMS Assembly for inquiries
    Jeff@smsassembly.com
    Reply

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