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

    Civ5 and TWS2 are both tested with the latest drivers. The K53E was also tested with drivers that are at most a couple months old. Intel current lists the latest laptop drivers as from 4/13/2011, which is what I'm running on the Intel units right now. If there are some newer drivers that I'm missing out on, let me know and I'll go try them. Reply
  • duploxxx - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Nice review, it seems like there is a lot of work on CF.

    Actually I reviewed the Liano already months ago, I mentioned in the last mobile reviews that it will be better performing then the Toshiba with the P920 with really good battery performance. So it is a win -win for the budget line anyhow. Top line remains intel for the CPU power.

    Regarding the quote:
    Now if you want to have your cake and eat it too, the APU to wait for would be Trinity. Due out somewhere in the 2012 - 2013 timeframe, combine a Bulldozer derived architecture with AMD's next-generation GPU architecture and you've got Trinity.

    Trinity will not only be an improved GPU it also has the BD core inthere which will offer much more punch. THe reason LIano is late is because of the 32NM process. It could have been released much sooner. Sure they took an outdated K10 and that is the main issue together with the not enough aggressive Turbo for single thread, they should have adapted this more aka BD.

    But assumin Trinity is a rather late 2012 project (by stating 2012-2013) you are way way off...
  • ET - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Quote probably reflects an increase in pessimism due to recent events. Bulldozer is still not out, and AMD is said to have had a hard time getting clocks up. So sure, we're all hoping to see Trinity early in 2012, but anyone setting their expectations a little farther are less likely to be disappointed. Reply
  • duploxxx - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    didn't i mentioned it would be launch faster then expected?


    the delay of Zambezi BD has nothing to do with real architecture issues.....
  • ET - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    That's not the sites which posted on it, including Anandtech, said based on what AMD said (that is, that Bulldozer was not up to speed). Reply
  • Jamahl - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Was that really needed? I mean...really? Who the hell would do that and for what reason? Reply
  • ET - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I already got my E-350 laptop, but as Jarred says, Brazos just became less interesting. I'll be waiting to see what price point and performance the dual core Llano will have. What impressed me most was battery life, which is competitive with the E-350 laptop, and it'd be interesting to see how small and light Llano laptops will get.

    The other takeaway I have from this is that as usual I'm impressed at how far Intel has gone with its integrated graphics. Sure Llano gives it a good beating, but that's at the expense of a lot more die space. I imagine that Intel will continue to tweak its 3D cores and I can't wait to see how this race will develop.
  • Anosh - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    What happened to power consumption?!
    Some of us get laptops due to the optimization in the power department over similar desktop parts!
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Power = [Battery Capacity] / .98 [efficiency] / ([Battery life in minutes] / 60)

    So if you take the battery life charts, you can determine roughly what the total system power draw is using the above. Or you can look at the "Relative Battery Life" charts and get the same information as Minutes/Wh instead of converting into Watts.
  • jabber - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    In my work I get a lot of laptops to fix. If there is one game or genre that appears on 80% or more of them its......

    The Sims.

    I also get asked a lot "if I buy this laptop will it play The Sims?"

    Never ever been asked if a laptop will play Crysis or any of the games you use.

    Just saying.

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