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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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Totally agree with the pricing. The highest performance A8 laptops are going to need to be $700 with fGPU only, and maybe $800 with dGPU, because that's where dual-core i5 + Optimus laptops are currently sitting.

    Of course, I'd still pay more for good build quality and a nice LCD and keyboard.

    Oh, and the people saying CPU is the be-all, end-all... well, even though I have a couple Core i7 Bloomfield systems in my house (and many Core i5/i7 laptops), my primary work machine is running... Core 2 QX6700 (@3.2GHz) with an HD 5670 GPU and 4GB RAM. The area I want to upgrade the most is storage (currently using RAID0 Raptor 150GB), but I have no desire to reformat and start transferring apps to another PC, so I continue to plug along on the Raptors. This CPU is now over four years old, and yet the only thing I really don't like is the HDD thrashing and slow POST times.
    Reply
  • ionave - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    None of those GPU's match the power of the 6620, which you can find in even the A6 series, so your point is invalid. Reply
  • Dribble - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    Actually you can normally tell quite easily which laptop has the slower cpu. It's the one with the fan whining away. With laptops having a more powerful processor that isn't having to work so hard is important just to keep the thing quiet.

    As for cpu power - well windows and it's software just isn't that efficient. Even a fairly complex word 2010 doc (few pictures/charts/etc) can start to feel slow on a 2.5Ghz C2D (I should know my laptop has a 2.4Ghz C2D). The flash games my kids seem to be forever finding are also cpu only and will run it flat out and the game won't seem as smooth as it would on a faster machine.

    Sure you can get by with a slower machine, but it doesn't make for such a pleasant experience.

    It has been the case since PC's arrived that over time software needs more and more power. e.g. I could run word 6 on a 486, I now really need a dual core 2Ghz machine to even run word 2010. I don't see that changing hence the faster your cpu the longer your pc will remain usable.
    Reply
  • lukarak - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    I've been using a 2007 tech MacBook white up until a few months ago with a 2.0 GHz C2D. Over time i upgraded it to include 6 GB of memory, a 64 GB SSD + 500 GB HDD, and then i transitioned to a 2011 MPB 13 with a SNB CPU and 4 GB of memory. Aside from a better screen, once i put in the SSD, i couldn't see the diference in speed. I usually use a lot of VM, use Eclipse and XCode, and most of the time watch 720p and the more than 3 years newer CPU isn't all that revolutionary. Sure, it may not use 30ish % of the CPU to play movies, but only 20ish, but until that's 50ish% when the fan gets louder it doesn't really matter for me. Reply
  • ionave - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    The CPU looks relatively slow to the i5/i7, but its really not that slow. Seriously. Compare it to an atom and see that its not that bad. Reply
  • ionave - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    The CPU isn't even bad. I don't know what you guys are all on but A8 cores are improved phenom II x4 cores... I would say its about the same performance as the i5 series. All the benchmarks online are measured on the WORST A8 chip, which has the worst CPU performance. All of the reviews are on A8-3500M. Just wait until the A8-3850 gets benchmarked.

    All I'm saying is that its not fair to compare the worst A8 to the best i5 or best i7, plain and simple.
    Reply
  • sundancerx - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    for most of the charts, yellow bar is assigned to INTEL asus k53e(i5-2520m+hd3000), but on asymetrical crossfire, this is assigned to AMD llano (18-3500m+crossfire). kind of confusing if you dont pay attention or am i the one confused? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Dark yellow = K53E, bright yellow = CrossFire. If you have a different color you think would work, I'll be happy to change it. Purple? Brown? Orange? Reply
  • adrien - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I agree Brazos looks less interesting now but it still has one huge advantage: price. If Llano notebooks are going to sell for $600 (or $500), Brazos are 40% less expensive. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Brazos E-350 (which is already 60% faster than C-50) start at around $425. They come with 2GB RAM and a 250GB HDD. AMD is saying $500 as the target price for A4, $600 for A6, and $700 for A8, but I suspect we'll see lower than that by at least $50. So if your choice is Brazos E-350 for $425 or Llano A4 for $450, and the Llano packs 4GB RAM and a 500GB HDD, there's no competition--though size will of course be another factor. I figure Llano will bottom out at 13.3-inch screens where Brazos is in 11.6" and 12.1". Personally, I'd never buy a 10" netbook; I just can use them comfortably. I'm happiest with 13.3" or 14" laptops. Reply

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