Late Tuesday night, AMD announced the arrival of a mobile variant of its budget-friendly Kaveri APU processor. Like the rest of Kaveri lineup -- available in desktops since January -- these new APUs are aimed at offering modest gaming and improved entertainment in slim, inexpensive packages. With Kaveri, you'll find support for 4K resolutions (on Ultra HD laptop displays, or streamed over to a television set), improved video streaming and surround sound audio technology, and ramped up gaming care of AMD's Mantle API.
AMD is also releasing it's first gamer-friendly APU based on its FX line of CPUs, and a new AMD Pro line for business users. We're being promised quite a bit: performance that's comparable to similarly priced processors from Intel, alongside new and revamped experiences that only AMD can provide. I'll withhold any sort of judgement until I can actually get my hands on machines toting AMD's latest and greatest, but the company has painted itself into an interesting corner.
Like Intel, on a budget
On paper, Kaveri for notebooks looks great when pitted against Intel's midrange notebook offerings. Staking the best you have to offer against the middle of Intel's lineup doesn't sound very ambitious, but this of course is where that "budget" notion comes in. The AMD we've seen of late has taken a step back from competing against Intel in a pure performance race, opting to instead offer stronger features, at a competitive price.
These new APUs will bring AMD Quick Stream and Steady Video technologies to notebooks, offering optimized video playback in a form that'll be all but invisible to someone watching. Kaveri will also lend webcam-equipped notebooks with gesture control and face login support -- akin to Intel's Real Sense perceptual computing efforts, albeit on a budget.
Built for fun
And then there's AMD TrueAudio, audio processing technology that aims to lift some of audio crunching tasks off of the CPU. This one's a nod to gamers. Imagine playing a first-person shooter with headphones on, and hearing the clatter of a grenade just over to the right, on the telltale footfalls of the opponent that's about to stab you in the back. That sort of multi-channel positional audio was once the domain of sound cards, and today is usually handled by software. In titles optimized for TrueAudio, AMD's tech will do the heavy lifting, so you'll hear a greater range of voices and sounds from multiple directions, without relying on software implementations that could bog down performance.
It seems like a chicken-and-egg scenario: developers would need to design with TrueAudio in mind. But, as AMD consistently reminds us, they are the de facto winners of the next-generation console war. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are packing AMD APUs -- PlayStation 4 supports TrueAudio explicitly -- so AMD arguably has the ear of game developers, who will at the very least be coding with AMD's technology in mind.
And then there are the subtle things. On AMD's benchmarks, common tasks like decoding JPEG images are up to 80 percent faster than using Windows' built in software; load up a folder full of pictures and you'll see your shots that much faster. If you're touching up photos in Adobe Photoshop CC, AMD claims you'll get just shy of four times faster performance from their Kaveri APUs than an Intel Core i5 CPU. And you'll get all this without necessarily sacrificing battery life -- up to 9.2 hours of Web browsing, as claimed in one case.
Getting past the jargon
There are all kinds of nitty gritty details I've glossed over. Things like Kaveri's heterogeneous system architecture, which lets the APU's CPU and GPU share access to system memory, ostensibly improving performance. True to AMD form there's a bit of new terminology: four CPU cores and eight GPU cores equals "12 Compute cores," making Kaveri "the most advanced APU ever." Exciting technology, to be sure, but ultimately of little use if AMD fails to beat Intel where it matters more: user experience.
History has not been kind to the APU effort. While AMD has kept on message about the superiority of the APU concept, Intel has all but dominated with a combined CPU and GPU assault of its own: Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, and most recently, Haswell. While AMD has arguably held its own on price, Intel has controlled the conversation by being faster, and in the case of Haswell, being faster at a competitive price point.
I'd like to be cautiously optimistic about AMD's chances, but we've already seen how Kaveri handles on the desktop: great performance (as compared to the previous generation), but still lagging behind similarly priced offerings from Intel. But maybe things are different with the move to notebooks -- and that means waiting for the system manufacturers like Acer, Samsung and Toshiba to show us what they can do with AMD's wares.