Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was a bit of a slowpoke when it came to embracing the tablet market, but the company has done an about-face and is poised to make a dent, if it can execute (a classic question mark for AMD).
The company had taken a pass on the whole netbook market while Intel was pursuing it full tilt with the Atom processor. Then along came the tablets, and ARM Holdings, already dominant in the smartphone market, extended its dominance to the newly-validated tablet market.
It wound up costing CEO Dirk Meyer his job, as he had been unwilling to pursue netbooks and tablets. After a lengthy search, former Lenovo executive Rory Read took the helm of the company in August of last year.
Six months later, at the AMD analyst day, AMD announced its tablet plans in the form of a new processor called Hondo. “Between when Dirk left and when Rory arrived, there was a focus on low power, and since Rory has gotten here there has been a larger investment on that focus,” said Chris Sutphen, product marketing manager for tablets at AMD.
AMD actually had a netbook processor on the market in 2011, the Z01, codenamed Desna. The dual-core, 1GHz processor scored a few design wins but didn’t set the world on fire. Hondo will build on Desna, improving the power efficiency and maintaining performance.
Intel has been pushing the Atom platform since 2008, putting AMD three years behind. Well, not exactly. Hondo is a derivative of Brazos, AMD’s Fusion processor (which it calls an APU instead of a CPU) for low-power notebooks, and Fusion has been under development for years. Fusion is built on AMD’s x86-64 CPU architecture and ATI graphics technology, the latter of which is more than competitive with Intel’s GPU and certainly better than anything ARM has.
“Brazos left the Atom-based solutions for netbooks in the dust. It ruled the roost on netbooks and inexpensive notebooks using 18 watt parts and netbook offerings that were using 8 watt parts,” said Nathan Brookwood, research fellow with Insight64.
“I suspect Hondo will be reasonably competitive with Intel’s Clover Trail for tablet systems in the second half of the year. Whether Intel will be able to get Clover Trail’s GPU performance to match AMD is still to be seen, but on the graphics side I suspect AMD will continue to have advantage,” Brookwood added.
AMD is looking to keep performance of the processor the same while reducing power drain, and believes it can compete with both ARM and Intel. “The value proposition of the APU is the ability to combine a discrete GPU and CPU in one die. When we think of the tablet market, where it’s mostly focused on media consumption, playback and light gaming, we feel like we give our competition a strong run for their money,” said Sutphen.
Getting into the tablet business is not the only about-face at AMD. The company dropped hints of a potential ARM flirtation at the analyst day meeting as well, making a number of references to ARM during presentations.
For all its strengths, ARM has a few weaknesses. For starters, it’s a 32-bit CPU and won’t hit 64-bits until 2013-14. That means the old 4GB memory limit comes back into play, since some Atom processors and Hondo are 64-bits. Also, ARM-based Windows 8 tablets will not run legacy x86 code, which will limit the platform to just new Metro apps.
For his part, Sutphen said “we are looking at multiple ways to be competitive within a market and I believe Rory and the executive team will lead us down the right path for long-term success.”
Brookwood said an ARM license would make AMD unique among its competitors. “They kept hinting at this thing they called agility. I think it means they’re not locked into x86 as the only instruction set. They are saying if a customer said they needed a hybrid chip of ARM and x86 then they would listen, and they are the only guys in the world who could do it. Intel obviously won’t do it, and none of the ARM licensees have access to x86 technology. Nobody else could match them,” he said.
For now, AMD is aiming for the Windows 8 launch, which is expected late this year. “We are currently working on design wins for Hondo, slated for 2012 calendar year and aligned to take advantage of Windows 8 for its launch. We expect to have customers enabled to bring product to market by then,” said Sutphen.