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AMD's Puma ready to pounce

The chip company's latest mobile processor design is arriving on schedule and at just the right time to take advantage of a rare Intel slip.

This time around, AMD is ready with a major product launch on schedule, and is enjoying a bit of good fortune as well.

Notebook makers of all stripes are getting ready to launch systems based on AMD's Puma notebook technology, which consists of a new processor, a mobile chipset, and wireless chips from AMD's partners. The official announcement is expected to come later Wednesday at the Computex trade show in Taiwan, and notebooks with the chips will be arriving over the next several weeks from companies like Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba, said Bahr Mahony, director of AMD's mobile business.

Assuming those notebooks ship without incident, Puma arrives in far better shape than Barcelona, the quad-core server processor that was a year late after running into major technical glitches. Puma also arrives at a time when Intel has suffered a rare--at least over the last two years--gaffe inside its notebook group: the company's Montevina notebook platform will be delayed several weeks with chipset problems, which could affect Intel's performance during the important back-to-school shopping season.

AMD's new Turion X2 Ultra processor is the first designed-for-mobile processor that AMD has ever produced; the earlier versions of its Turion processor were essentially the same design as its Opteron design with a more power-friendly implementation. But the PC market is shifting dramatically in favor of the notebook over the desktop as mobility becomes all the rage, and Intel has enjoyed a strong position in this market with its Centrino notebook products and ad campaigns.

This time around, AMD has changed the way it supplies power to the processor, as well as how the processor's memory controller talks to the rest of the system. It's taking advantage of the split power-plane design unveiled with Barcelona that allows the processor cores to run at variable speeds, Mahony said. The memory controller, which handles the vital link between the processor and memory, has also been tweaked for a mobile environment.

But Griffin is not the wholesale redesign of AMD's chip blueprint that Barcelona was, meaning AMD could avoid many of the technical glitches that arose as the company overhauled parts of its Opteron design to produce Barcelona.

Instead, it's the chipset that will likely be the centerpiece of AMD's pitch to notebook makers and their customers. The company is looking to cash in on its purchase of ATI Technologies' graphics business in 2006 by beefing up the performance of the integrated graphics that ship with the Puma platform.

The vast majority of notebooks sold to the general public use integrated graphics, which are graphics transistors that are welded onto the chipset, rather than coming in separate, powerful cards from companies like ATI and Nvidia. To this point, those graphics from both Intel and AMD could be aptly described as "good enough graphics," meaning they can easily handle simple Web surfing tasks but probably feel the strain when it comes to things like high-definition video.

AMD thinks it has dramatically improved the graphics performance of its basic chipsets without killing their power consumption, and that it has an edge over Intel's graphics division, which has struggled in recent years. AMD is also bringing the hybrid graphics technology from its desktop products to the notebook. This allows PC makers to ship notebooks with both the integrated graphics and a discrete graphics card in their systems, giving users the option of tweaking their graphics performance based on their needs.

For example, if you're playing a game at home with the laptop plugged in, go ahead and turn on the discrete graphics card. But if you're on the road in the airport with the same system and just need to check your e-mail with the last remaining bit of your battery, turn the discrete card off to extend battery life.

It's refreshing to see AMD deliver on a product release after the horrible year the company endured in 2007. The delay in Intel's Montevina platform might also give it a chance to squeeze a few more orders out of PC makers looking to get their system configurations locked down for the July, which is quite the reversal of fortune for a company that had no answer when Intel's server division snapped up design wins that were supposed to belong to Barcelona.

AMD is still in a tenuous position, with Barcelona revenue just starting to inflate its coffers. But if Puma can be rolled out without incident to AMD's partners, the company will have gone a long way to refurbishing its image inside the PC industry.