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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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  • sinigami - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    these prices, are definitively NOT in the netbook range:

    $500 - thinkpad x120e
    $550 - HP Pavilion dm1
    $600 - sony vaio YB

    who the hell would pay that much dough for Atom level performance?
    Reply
  • sinigami - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    even AMD's slower 1.0GHz C-50, costs more than the Atom in the SAME MODEL netbook (while benchmarking slower than the atom!):

    $250 - Acer Aspire One 255 with the FASTER Intel Atom
    $330 - Acer Aspire One 522 with the SLOWER AMD C-50
    Reply
  • ET - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    First of all, the (lowest) prices I found at Amazon.com were $250 for the 255 and $310 for the 522, which is a smaller margin.

    Acer 522 has a 720p display vs. the 255's 1024x600. That alone is worth a significant price difference. It also has a HDMI port and a CPU (APU) that can play 1080p HD videos (or 720p on the internal display). The 255 is worth crap for video playback, a very common laptop use these days.

    The C-50 can also play some games. Sure, older ones and at low settings, but it's something the 255 simply can't do.

    In terms of general performance, the C-50 should be competitive with the Atom when it comes to web browsing and word processing.

    In short, the 522 is so much better than the 255 that a $60 premium is really not a lot.
    Reply
  • sinigami - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    "But, but, the 522 has an HDMI port on it!".

    Personally, i wouldn't pay $80 more for a netbook that is even SLOWER than an atom, no matter how much lipstick they put on that pig -- i mean, no matter how many hdmi ports they stick on that snail.

    And they could stick whatever size screen they want on it, and i'm sure they would charge a whole lot more if they put a 55" on it, but i'd surely NOT buy it with a C-50 in it....

    more bluntly: Acer could put a 1080p display on it, add USB 3.0, give it an amazing sound system, etc, and then charge $1000, but who wants a Ferrari with a Yugo engine?
    Reply
  • ET - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    Forget the C-50 vs. Atom. Would you pay more for an Atom netbook if it had a higher resolution screen? If not, then fine, but I'm sure many people would. 1024x600 is too low for comfort.

    From your post it looks like you're just trolling, since you stick to "$80 more" even though it's $60 in reality, ignore any comfort from higher resolution and continue to insist that the C-50 is "SLOWER" in caps even though it would beat the Atom in the 255 on SunSpider and probably other benchmarks of real world usability. So I think the prudent thing to do would be to refrain from replying to you, and I will try to do that in the future.
    Reply
  • sinigami - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    Sorry mate, i'm just slow, not a troll... though it's easy to confuse dain bramage with trolling.

    When i looked at amazon i saw their black one was "Currently unavailable", and the colored ones were $330. I didn't spot the black BZ465 that IS available for $310, so i cede to you that it is only a $60 difference.

    My apologies.

    "Forget the C-50 vs. Atom. Would you pay more for an Atom netbook if it had a higher resolution screen? If not, then fine, but I'm sure many people would."

    That is a reasonable point. $60 is worth it to many people for a better netbooking experience. There is a LOT of value in a highly portable 10" netbook, with hours and hours of battery life, that you can toss anywhere (even a purse), and it does it's intended job of surfing and playing video (not 1080p, of course, but why would it, it has a freaking tiny screen), with a real keyboard and trackpad (and USB ports - take that, ipad). And with a dirt-cheap price, it's all smiles for "many people".

    BTW, i did pay more, lol, except i had to go for an 11.6" screen (@1366x768), even though it isn't as tossable.... i also sprang more for an ultra-low-voltage, dual-core, U/SU chip, so i can have a little more fun, wasting hours on boxcar2d!
    Reply
  • ET - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    Where did you get these prices? The HP is $450 (3GB RAM, 320GB disk). The Lenovo is normally $440 for the E-350 version (though currently backordered). It's not rare to be able to get them for less.

    This is still more than netbooks, but it's for a better spec and better performance.
    Reply
  • sinigami - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    (sorry, i admit my prices were not current, the price has gone down and i haven't kept track)

    still, that is getting very close to the price range where you can get a much better spec, and way, WAY better performance.

    the performance that becomes available, for a few dollars more, first jumps to twice that of an Atom or Zacate, and then you get to the budget i3's, which are, at the least, FOUR times as powerful as an atom or E-350.
    Reply
  • sinigami - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    i fully appreciate netbooks for what they are, and i know better than to do anything more demanding than play my 720p MKV anime on a netbook (yes, even the latest Atom machines can do this).

    I'm just pointing out that, currently, with the Brazos and Zacate Fusion APUs, AMD is NOT hitting the price/performance spot that i expected them to.

    the Zacate 1.6GHz E-350, should be priced the same as the Atom machines, up to the price of the Atom/Ion machines.

    i was hoping for AMD's tradition of price/performance to continue, and that would have meant beating or at least NOT being more expensive than Intel!

    and the C-50 is even worse!
    Reply
  • iwod - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I was wondering if they used the latest drivers from Intel, which offer some performance increase. And on the notes of Drivers, GPU drivers these days matter a lot more then Hardware. And ATI has had YEARS of Hard Work on their drivers. While Intel is working hard now, although in terms of catch up they are rather slow.

    Which brings the questions, If Intel really did improve their drivers and bring extra 10 - 20% increase. The Liano doesn't look that attractive at all.
    Reply

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