AMD’s “Puma” Mauls Intel

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by Dustin Sklavos

AMD’s mobile presence over the past couple years has been decidedly lackluster. Their processors have often been marred by poor battery life, mediocre performance, paper launches, or some combination of the three, and their saving grace has been a healthy presence in the budget laptop market.

Their buyout of ATI didn’t do them any favors in the short term, either, with ATI’s Radeon HD 2000 series being lackluster at best and disastrous at worst, leading to an eighteen month stagnation of the video card market resulting from an overconfident NVIDIA. And worse, an inability to capitalize on the mobile graphics market that started with the Radeon X1000 series only grew worse with the HD 2000 line.

I’m not here to suggest a sea change in brewing, but I’ll happily point out that the release of the Radeon HD 3000 series on the desktop went a long way toward renewing faith in ATI, and the newly debuted Radeon HD 4000 series has suddenly made NVIDIA’s entire lineup look quaint at best, and overpriced at worst. So while AMD still hasn’t recovered from the buyout, ATI is back, and this year, we’re finally seeing the merger bear fruit.

While the 690G integrated graphics processor (IGP) was fairly impressive, it still never quite got past the simple fact that it’s still an IGP. But the 780G chipset – basically an entire Radeon HD 2400 core crammed into an integrated graphics part – has successfully managed to bring low-end dedicated performance to the integrated graphics set while actually reducing power consumption compared to its predecessor in the process! And this part, coupled with some smart engineering from AMD’s processor division, forms the foundation of the exciting new platform they dub "Puma" – a platform that validates AMD’s purchase of ATI.

The Platform

So what is Puma? Puma is the codename for AMD’s new platform, a budget analog to Intel’s Centrino Duo platform. But don’t mistake "budget" for "inferior" — it’s a target market, but AMD has some tricks up their sleeve that make Puma a very compelling choice.

In stores, Puma will be identifiable by the name "Turion Ultra," thereby smartly avoiding the problem that has plagued Intel’s Centrino platform since its inception: Turion Ultra can refer to the platform or the processor.

Puma is comprised of the same three types of parts as Centrino: processor, chipset, and wireless. Puma’s processor is the Turion Ultra. The chipset is the mobile variant of AMD’s 780G desktop chipset. The wireless is …

Well, AMD diverges from Intel here. AMD allows the notebook manufacturer to use whatever wireless chipset they choose, while Intel only allows their own wireless to be used. AMD does cite this as a benefit, but I’m not sure I concur: my experience with Broadcom, Atheros, and Intel wireless parts has left me generally preferring the performance and stability of Intel’s hardware. Your mileage may vary.

Turion Ultra Processor

First things first: AMD’s Turion Ultra processor. The Turion Ultra is the first processor AMD has designed specifically for the mobile market; former Turions were basically Athlon 64s and Athlon 64 X2s with thermal characteristics good enough to make it in laptops. Yet the Turion Ultra, while its cores are basically unchanged from desktop Athlon 64 X2s, has inherited some architectural refinements from AMD’s Phenom processors, including HyperTransport 3.0.

Additionally, the Turion Ultra offers more fine-grained clock speed control as well as allowing it to clock the cores independently of one another. It’s also able to dynamically scale the HyperTransport as needed, resulting in a processor that can respond precisely as needed to workloads.

More improvements include an increase of processor cache from 1MB of L2 cache to 2MB (L2 cache is basically RAM built onto a processor) and support for up to DDR2-800. By themselves, these may not add up to much, but while memory speed has historically been for the most part unimportant to Intel’s Core processors, it has had a more measurable impact on AMD’s dual cores.

Unfortunately, the TDP (Thermal Design Power) hasn’t changed from existing Turions: the Turion Ultra’s lineup tops out at 35W, exactly the same wattage as its predecessors and exactly the same wattage as its Intel competition, though it bears mentioning Intel and AMD measure TDP differently. Given the improved power-saving characteristics, the Turion Ultra should offer at least marginally superior battery life to existing Turion X2s, but it may not be able to compete with Intel’s Core 2 Duos in performance or battery life. Still, it’s an improvement in an era where CPU power is already at a gross surplus.

The Turion Ultras available on initial release are the following:

Model Speed TDP
ZM-80 2.1GHz 32W
ZM-82 2.2GHz 35W
ZM-86 2.4GHz 35W

 

Radeon HD 3200 Graphics

The Radeon HD 3200 Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) at the center of Puma is perhaps the most exciting part of the platform, and rightfully so. It offers several features that Intel’s IGPs simply can’t touch and NVIDIA is struggling to keep up with.

First and foremost, the HD 3200 is one of the most – if not THE most – power-efficient IGPs available today. At the same time, it’s easily the fastest, being basically an entire Radeon HD 2400 with virtually no changes made to it. As a result, it shares the benefits of that lineage, including two key features: 5.1 sound over HDMI and UVD (Unified Video Decoder). While sound over HDMI isn’t a huge development, it’s supported natively in the Radeon HD 3200, making design simpler for OEMs. It also allows easy connection to high-definition televisions, and personally I think laptops serving double duty as media center computers may wind up becoming a growing niche because of this.

UVD …

The second, the Unified Video Decoder (UVD), is a big deal. UVD allows the computer to offload video decoding from the central processor to the graphics processor. While this isn’t a big deal for watching DVDs or most any standard definition fare, watching high-definition content can cause processor usage to shoot straight up or even max out completely, leaving you with stuttering video. The inclusion of UVD allows for Blu-ray to continue trickling down the market as well as improving battery life by reducing processor strain in decoding high-definition video.

Gaming Performance …

This isn’t all. The Radeon HD 3200 is, in itself, a capable graphics processor that puts up numbers that nip at the heels of low-end dedicated graphics parts. It raises the bar and allows even budget buyers to play more modern games. Maybe not at the highest settings, but definitely playable. This is a far cry from Intel’s competing parts: the existing X3100 is a punchline with profoundly hit-and-miss performance and support, and the even if the incoming X4500 winds up being three times faster than the X3100 as Intel claims, three times profoundly unplayable is generally still unplayable.

CrossFire …

The HD 3200 also adds support for two different CrossFire schemes, dubbed Hybrid CrossFire and PowerXpress.

PowerXpress may be the more important of the two. One of the major drawbacks of dedicated graphics in notebooks is increased power draw, but PowerXpress doesn’t just mitigate this problem, it basically solves it. When a Puma notebook is paired with a Radeon HD 3000 series dedicated GPU, the notebook can actually seamlessly switch between using the integrated HD 3200 and the dedicated graphics. This means that when you’re plugged in, the notebook can run full bore with dedicated graphics, while when unplugged, the dedicated graphics can be shut down entirely and draw no power.

Hybrid CrossFire is the other big sell here. Basically, if the notebook is equipped with a dedicated Mobility Radeon HD 3400 series GPU, the HD 3400 can actually be run in tandem with the integrated HD 3200, generally resulting in about a 50% performance increase. This is a bigger deal than it appears because the 3400 is a pretty small, inexpensive, low-powered GPU to begin with. Try to imagine putting NVIDIA’s low end GeForce 8400M GS in a laptop and the motherboard being able to boost the graphics performance by as much as 50%, and you start to see the value of this technology.

Everything Else

As mentioned before, the third component for a Puma notebook is wireless networking, and in its own way it seems kind of silly that this would even be part of it at all. When you look at the Turion Ultra processor and especially the Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics part – along with the technology it leverages – any mention of "it should include a wireless card" just seems silly. You can’t even buy a new notebook without a wireless card anymore.

Now one crucial point worth making is that Puma isn’t designed for ultraportables; it’s just a little too big and throws off just a little too much heat for that market, which has so far been dominated by Intel’s low voltage and ultra low voltage processors. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me to see it get down to the 12" neighborhood like the Turion X2 has.

Conclusion

AMD is wholeheartedly embracing the budget market sector right now, but the interesting thing is how compelling and how balanced a platform Puma is compared to Intel’s Centrino and upcoming Centrino 2 platforms. The reality is that the importance of the GPU is growing. High-definition content is becoming more and more common, and there’s growing interest in employing the GPU for purposes outside of gaming. Adobe, for example, has demonstrated its next edition of Photoshop being substantially accelerated by employing graphics hardware.

Suddenly the surplus of CPU power Intel’s Centrino platform offers doesn’t seem as compelling when you look at the GPU performance you often have to sacrifice. Dedicated graphics are easy to find on the Internet and in custom builds, but go into your local Best Buy or other retailer and the dedicated graphics parts suddenly become a bit of a rarity.

Puma’s Radeon HD 3200 IGP ups the ante, and the Turion Ultra processor can help AMD stay competitive in the low end market until they can produce a faster architecture.

In the end, though, AMD’s marketing is going to have to get the word out that they have the better platform. But if you’re in the market for a budget laptop, Puma’s the way to go.

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