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AMD aims new chip at quad-core laptops

Advanced Micro Devices will move its Fusion technology into higher-performance mainstream systems with a new series of processors.

Advanced Micro Devices will bring quad-core processing and powerful graphics silicon to mainstream laptops, as it seeks to strike the right balance between the two computing paradigms.

Introduced on Tuesday, the HP Pavilion dv4 is one of 11 new laptop models that use the 'Llano' AMD chips.
Introduced on Tuesday, the HP Pavilion dv4 is one of 11 new laptop models that use the 'Llano' AMD chips. Hewlett-Packard

On Tuesday, AMD is announcing the Fusion A-Series chips for mainstream consumer notebooks as well as desktops. AMD's Fusion technology puts all of a PC's computational power on one piece of silicon--what AMD calls an APU or accelerated processing unit. Chips will be offered with both two and four processor cores.

For quad-core systems, the trick is to reduce the power consumption of traditional desktop-class processing to levels that are usable for laptops. "What used to be accomplished in 85 watts or so [of power consumption]. That same class of performance--quad-core combined with discrete-level graphics--will now be accomplished in about half the power that it used to take in a traditional system," said Raymond Dumbeck, a marketing executive handling AMD's mobile computing, in an interview.

Discrete graphics refers to high-performance standalone chips that typically come on a separate card. AMD claims that it can achieve that kind of performance without a separate card.

AMD is putting equal emphasis on graphics and standard "x86" (Intel-compatible) processing, according to Dumbeck. Traditionally, PCs tended to emphasize x86 processing over graphics. "We've allocated about a third [of the chip] to x86 and a third to graphics," he said. AMD, which acquired graphics chip giant ATI in 2006, is doing this to take advantage of programming trends at Apple and Microsoft, who are increasingly writing software to take advantage of the graphics chip. Microsoft calls its tech Direct X, Apple uses OpenCL.

Intel is following a similar path. It is grafting increasingly higher-performance graphics silicon onto its main processors. This trend began in earnest with Intel's Sandy Bridge processors and will continue with its next generation of Ivy Bridge chips.

Dumbeck also described how a quad-core processor can dynamically adjust to different processing scenarios. "Software either takes advantage of frequency (speed) or cores. If the software is frequency dependent, you'll slow down the back two cores and boost the front two cores, increasing frequency. Or if the software is core dependent, you'll normalize across all four cores, having more cores available for core-dependent software," he said.

The problem is that more cores don't always translate to better performance, as review site Anandtech points out in its analysis of the new AMD processors. "Even in heavily-threaded benchmarks where quad-core CPUs can shine, dual-core [Intel] i5 processors are still typically 30% faster than the [AMD] A8-3500M. Instead of selling you more CPU cores for less money, what AMD is now selling is substantially better graphics for less money," Anandtech said.

The AMD A-Series APUs, previously codenamed "Llano," are currently shipping and slated to appear in more than 150 notebooks and desktops from PC makers starting in the second quarter of 2011, including 11 new laptop models introduced by Hewlett-Packard.

Also see "AMD launches A-series processors" here.