(Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech)
AMD rejoins ultrathin push, takes issue with Intel for trademarking "Ultrabook"

Intel Corp. (INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) don't exactly see eye to eye on most things, but at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, they seemed to both be in agreement that ultrathin notebook computers were what ready for primetime in 2012.

AMD, however, was less than thrilled with Intel for trademarking the name "Ultrabook". To AMD this was akin to Intel claiming it invented the ultrathin.  In AMD's mind it was the first to push this movement, when it debutted the Athlon Neo three years ago.  A 1.6 GHz 15 watt BGA-mounted chip, the Neo was indeed much like the ultrathin-aimed chips of today.  It was also arguably the precursor to AMD's biggest success story of its CPU business today -- Fusion.

We spoke with AMD's director of global product marketing, John Taylor about ultrabooks and Fusion's road ahead for 2012.  

I. AMD Never Expected to Launch Fusion in Q1 2011 -- It Got Lucky

He began with a little history lesson, to put the current events in perspective.  

Back in January 2011 AMD's first family of Fusion APUs ("accelerated" processing units) -- Brazos -- launched, branded as the C-Series and E-Series.  Packing a GPU somewhere between a Radeon 5000 HD and 6000 HD, and a new core architecture -- Bobcat -- Brazos offered modest CPU performance and strong integrated GPU performance at a budget-friendly price.

But AMD shared a bit of a secret with us -- Brazos wasn't intended originally to launch at CES 2011.  It was expected to be delivered in Q3 2011, alongside Llano -- AMD's more powerful Fusion core.

Brazos was being contracted to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (TPE:2330) (TSMC) for production at the 40 nm node.  Meanwhile Llano was being produced by AMD's chipmaker spinoff GlobalFoundries, Inc. at a smaller 32 nm node.

Unlike BrazosLlano wasn't bring a wholly new core design to the table.  It packed a  variant of the well-tread K10-core, the same core found in AMD's Phenom II and Athlon II processors.  The modified version was known as K10.5 and was codenamed Stars.

But it turns out that the target fab for Brazos -- TSMC's 12-inch fab (Fab 14's phase 4 facilities), located in Tainan Science Park, the high-tech manufacturing center of Tainan City, Taiwan -- was surprisingly productive.  Despite the new core design, it appears that TSMC's mastery of the 40 nm node allowed it to pump out Brazos wafers at such a brisk pace that just weeks before CES 2011, AMD decided to bump the launch up by almost two quarters and begin shipping in January.

Fusion bucked AMD's trend of late launches, arriving early.  The shift was a boon for AMD. 
[Image Source: AMD]

The surprise bump was a boon for AMD, propelling Fusion to 20 million units in sales for 2011.

While Llano didn't leap ahead like Brazos due ostensibly to difficulties surrounding the fresh 32 nm process, GlobalFoundries at least managed to get it out the door in time.  In June, the 32-nm Llano launched, branded as the A-Series.

II. Bulldozer, Radeon 7000 Series Design Elements Creep Into Fusion

Fast forward to present and AMD has big plans for Fusion.  This time out AMD has scrapped its low-end Brazos successors (code-named Krishna and Wichita) in favor of perfecting Trinity, the first of its successor chips to Llano.

While the future of AMD's lighter-weight chips is uncertain, what is clear is that AMD feels that Trinity is the perfect chip to snatch up ultrathin market share.  Trinity will pack a powerful on-die GPU, which falls somewhere between a Radeon 6000 HD and 7000 HD in architecture.  It will also ditch the aging K10 architecture for a leaner, enhanced 32 nm Bulldozer core, code-named Piledriver.

Unlike Brazos and Llano, which came in traditional packaging, Trinity is coming in a new ball-grid array (BGA) package, making it friendly for ultrathins.  

BGA packaging

The chip is still built on the 32 nm process and is expected to come in at 17 watts for lower clocked ultrathin models, and a 35 watt model for traditional laptops.  AMD predicts 25 percent faster CPU performance and 50 percent better GPU performance, versus Llano.

Trinity in the wild
Picture top to bottom: BrazosTrinity (middle),
Tahiti (whom Trinity's on-die GPU is partially derived from)

Mr. Taylor comments, "We'll be on top in battery life.  We expect to be clearly, demonstratively better [results] on the visul performance of the system [versus Intel]."

Trinity in the wild

I asked if AMD was worried about Ivy Bridge, Intel's upcoming desktop and notebook chip, which will offer power-sipping performance thanks to the new leakage-resistant 22-nm 3D FinFET transistor design.  Mr. Taylor hinted that he thinks Intel may struggle with bringing their DirectX 11 solution -- Ivy Bridge -- to market, commenting, "I understand they had a little trouble showing that at their event earlier this week."

The comment alludes to Intel's Ultrabook press conference earlier in the week where Mooly Eden was caught showing using video to fake a demo an Ivy Bridge chip playing the DirectX 11 game "Formula 1 2011".  It is unclear why Intel faked the demo -- but it certainly gave competitors like AMD fodder for speculation that Intel's ambitious process plans may be hitting some speed-bumps.

Intel faking us out
Intel got caught faking a DirectX 11 Ivy Bridge demo, much to AMD's amusement.

III. Trinity Ultrathins Look to Outprice Intel Models by Hundreds of Dollars

AMD hints that we will see at least 18 to 22 ultrathin designs powered by Trinity in 2012, compared to Intel's plans for up to 70 designs.  

However, AMD may find its ultrathins to be more popular due to its aggressive pricing.  While Intel's designs will mostly fall in the $700-$1,000 USD range, AMD is planning Trinity based designs which will be priced at $500 USD or below.  

AMD was showing off one such notebook by Taiwanese manufacturer ASUSTek Computer Inc. (TPE:2357).  It was playing the DirectX 11 game Dirt and unlike Intel's demo there was no fakery -- we were actually able to physically verify the that the notebook was actually running the game.  AMD humorously had placed the ultrabook inside a desktop PC case, removing the side panel to reveal the glorious truth.

Laptop surprise

Much is still unknown about Trinity, including clock designs and the finer details of the GPU core.  Another big unanswered question is what the fate of AMD's TSMC-based lower end cores is, with the cancellation of Hondo, et al.  But AMD seems very confident that we will be pleased when it reveals more details in a few weeks at its February financial analysts' meeting.

Ultimately the success or failure of Trinity will likely boil down to one factor -- availability. But given AMD isn't moving to a new process node (32 nm was used for both Llano and the Fall 2011 Bulldozer launch) it seems like availability will likely be decently high.

AMD's comments lead us to believe that Trinity will land at roughly the same time as Llano did -- a June (H1/Q2 2012) launch.

In 2011 Fusion gained ground on Intel due to one factor -- price.  Llano trailed Sandy Bridge substantially in CPU performance, but given that it delivered better integrated GPU performance at a lower price, it still proved very popular.  With Trinity landing at around the same time as Ivy Bridge, both companies appear to be sticking to their approach from the last generation.

Intel will be launching a more powerful chip, but will only be featured in pricier notebooks.  AMD, meanwhile, won't be aiming at the CPU performance crown, but does look to deliver the best graphics and battery life performance in an ultrathin.  And it looks to undercut Intel-based models by as much as $200 USD.

Expect big things from Trinity in 2012.  After all, if consumers are presented the choice between a $500 USD ultrabook and a $700 USD ultrabook, both of which can play most of the latest games and handle everyday productivity software (e.g. Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Office and Adobe Systems Inc.'s (ADBE) CS5/Photoshop), which do you think consumers will pick?

IV. AMD Not Worried About ARM

Unlike ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM) and Intel, who are waging a highly public war of words regarding x86 (CISC) versus ARM (RISC), AMD is taking a softer approach, despite its support of x86.

Mr. Taylor tells us, "There's room for everyone."

The implied message is of course that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."  Analyst opinions vary pretty wildly on the topic of ARM.  One of my fellow analysts went as far as to suggest that Intel buy ARM Holdings, a rather ludicrous proposition from an antitrust perspective, alone, in my estimation.  But I felt one of the bettery opinions I heard was from another analyst who stated, "2012 will be a challenging year for Intel -- you have ARM atttacking from one end and AMD from another."

This quote indeed summarizes the situation well.  Intel is finding that it may be king of pure computing power per CPU core, but power, graphics, and price are proving key obstacles to its goal of global CPU hegemony.

All images © of Jason Mick and DailyTech LLC, except for APU banner graphic, which is property of AMD.

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