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AMD, Laptops Galore, and the Phenom II X4 960T (RIP)

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Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: AMD
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Falling and Rising...

    Since Intel released the Core 2 series of parts way back in 2006, AMD has been on the ropes non-stop.  AMD certainly was living high on the Athlon 64 and then the Athlon X2 series, but that came to a screeching halt when Intel finally got back into gear and released products that were not nuclear reactors and had excellent performance.  AMD has survived by continually releasing updated products that addressed the value market.  In 2009 AMD got another nice boost by moving to the 45 nm process and the Phenom II and Athlon II processors have allowed them to stay relevant, even in the face of the mighty Nehalem architecture.

    While the 45 nm boost was a nice surprise, AMD still had a big uphill battle with getting their CPUs widely accepted.  Intel was able to match AMD in terms of die size (Nehalem and the Phenom II X4 are very similar in die size and transistor count), and the i7 series pretty much overshadowed AMD in terms of efficiency and performance.  Luckily for AMD, Intel has provided a very large price/performance gap with their latest series of i3/i5/i7 processors, which has allowed AMD to carve out a fairly profitable niche for themselves.

    I was never very fond of Hector Ruiz.  At first I thought he might be able to carry on the legacy of Jerry Sanders III, but he made some very questionable decisions as soon as he took the helm.  He was an executive who had once helped drive Motorola into the ground, and I was fearful he would do the same for AMD.  Now, it is easy to blame one person for the problems that a company has had, though it might not actually be true.  But from the outside it appears as though Hector tried to drive AMD into more of a marketing driven company instead of its past track record of being a product driven company (or, perhaps more accurate, an engineering driven company).  Under his watch AMD lost the performance crown, did not innovate on the processor side, and squandered away what started off as a strong series of notebook products based on the Athlon 64.

    This is not to say that Hector did not make some good decisions in hindsight.  The acquisition of ATI, while looking quite foolish at first, has finally come to fruition.  The lawsuit against Intel has also come to be Hector’s finest victory.  AMD is $1.25 billion dollars richer, has a very nice 5 year cross licensing deal, and has opened the doors to greater competition.  His final good decision was that of spinning off the manufacturing arm of AMD into its own entity, though AMD still holds a stake in that company.  This move not only has paid off significant dividends in the past two quarters, but with the new cross licensing deal with Intel, AMD is able to fully divest itself of GLOBALFOUNDRIES.

Dirk Meyer is an engineer first, and an executive second.  Hopefully he will keep AMD more engineering and product oriented than marketing driven.

    Dirk Meyer is now the President and CEO of AMD, and he has a long history of solid management and engineering experience.  Originally a DEC employee that was the co-architect of the Alpha processor architecture, Dirk was picked up by AMD in 1995 and started work on the original Athlon architecture.  Under Dirk’s leadership, AMD’s cultural climate started to shift away from where Hector had aimed it, and we started to see the lean and hungry AMD that we saw in the late 90s and the first half of this past decade.  Hector did a masterful job of finding investors for GLOBALFOUNDRIES and AMD (the product company), and the split has proven to be a boon for both AMD and the semi-conductor industry in general.

    Needless to say, the past year at AMD has been a lot more pleasant than many were expecting.  45 nm Phenom IIs were rolling off the line and selling for decent margins.  The Athlon II series of chips have redefined the budget CPU market, with fast dual core processors running at 65 watts being available for under $80, and quad core processors hitting the $100 mark for the first time (and offering good thermals and excellent overall performance) at 95 watts.  The Athlon II X2 core is around 117 mm squared, while the Athlon X3 and X4 dies are around 169 mm squared.  Both of these are far easier to manufacture in good quantities than the much larger Phenom II (258 mm squared).

    The graphics portion of AMD was also hitting its stride.  The HD 5000 series were the first DX11 parts on the market, and AMD had it covered from top to bottom (excluding integrated graphics) by January of this year.  A full three months before NVIDIA had a single DX11 part on the market.  On the chipset side we see AMD continuing to lead in terms of features and performance with the 785G IGP and its offshoots, the 880G and 890GX.  This Direct X 10.1 based part offers excellent HD video acceleration, and moderate 3D graphics performance.  While Intel has closed the gap in overall graphics performance with their latest IGP fused to the i3 and i5 series of CPUs, AMD still holds a performance and feature lead.

    This past month also saw the release of AMD’s first 6 core desktop family of products.  The Phenom II X6 has allowed AMD to finally get back up in terms of selling price, with the 1090T retailing for $299.  Praise for this part has been fairly universal.  While it cannot compete with the Intel i7-980X in terms of overall raw performance, it is 1/3 the cost.  It also is able to run at 3.2 GHz with a TDP of 125 watts, something many were not expecting at all.

While AMD calls the mobile platform Danube, the quad core CPU used is essentially a mobile optimized Propus quad core die.  These processors are manufactured so that there is less leakage, and slower transistor switching speeds.  This in turn makes the chip run cooler and pull less power.

    Today AMD has further expanded their reach with two new notebook platforms.  Danube (standard notebook) and Nile (ultra-portable) are the two product lines which will help to flesh out AMD’s Vision branding scheme.  Both of these product lines greatly increase efficiency and battery life, all the while improving overall performance and graphics ability.  Single, dual, triple, and quad core processors combined with a “new” mobility enhanced 880G integrated graphics part and the SB8x0 southbridge will allow ultra-portables using this family to run up to 8 hours on a single charge, and full sized laptops to run 5 to 7 hours on a single charge.  Full sized notebooks can expect increased graphics performance, as well as increased productivity due to faster clock speeds and up to four cores.  These new CPUs are based on power efficient Athlon II designs, which in full quad core action at 2.3 GHz runs a max of 45 watts TDP.  The next step down are two quad core parts that run at 35 watts (2.0 GHz) and 25 watts (1.6 GHz).  Below that are triple and dual cores running at speeds up to 2.8 GHz and consuming 35 watts at the top end, and down to 25 watts at lower clock speeds.

    On the ultra-portable side, AMD is offering single and dual core products ranging in power from 9 watts up to 15 watts TDP.  While these new Turion II products will have a max speed of 1.7 GHz, it should provide enough performance and battery life to make them desirable products for many individuals and companies.

    The big news here with these new families of products is that AMD is announcing 135 design wins from major manufacturers.  HP itself announced 14 new designs using AMD parts, and others such as Lenovo, Acer, Asus, MSI, and Dell are joining that particular fray today.  This is a huge improvement from last year, and it is hitting right in time to get products out for the “back to school” buying season, as well as the later Holiday season.

     

These four logos will soon be festooned all over notebooks and desktops featuring AMD processors, chipsets, and graphics cards.

    AMD is also hoping that the Vision branding makes shopping for laptops a whole lot easier for consumers.  Those looking for a basic, productivity type model will be going for the Vision Basic, while those wanting to actually game on the computer as well as be able to rip HD content at acceptable speeds will go for Vision Black.

    The final piece of news today, and one that is not exactly welcome, is the cancellation of the Phenom II X4 960T.  This was supposed to be a quad core variant of the X6 processors, but with two cores disabled.  A lot of budget enthusiasts were looking forward to this chip, as the ability to unlock those two disabled cores was a tempting proposition.  The chip was rumored to be offered around the $140 to $150 mark.  Unfortunately, this chip will not see a retail release, but it might show up in some select OEM systems.

    Overall AMD is in a pretty decent situation, especially considering the past few years of losses in both revenue and marketshare.  AMD essentially owns the sub-$150 processor market, and have a full spectrum of DX11 parts that are still in high demand (the price on the HD 5870 has not dropped significantly since its release, and in fact is still $20 more expensive than the initial MSRP).  The addition of a strong notebook lineup will also enhance AMD’s bottom line.  Right now AMD is sitting pretty, and in the next year will release two new processor architectures, as well as the Fusion products.  Things honestly haven’t looked this strong for AMD since the initial release of the Athlon 64.

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