AMD: MacBook issues giving graphics bad rap

Chipmaker is concerned that lingering issues--both real and speculative--with Apple MacBooks are casting all laptop-class graphics processors in a bad light.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Advanced Micro Devices worries that lingering issues--both real and speculative--with Apple MacBooks are giving laptop graphics a black eye.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Stan Ossias, director of marketing, mobile graphics, at AMD, began by asserting that my March 11 post "overstated" the case about heat and the instability of graphics processors in laptops and that some readers may interpret heat issues too broadly.

"In the case of Apple's product, I don't know what happened with Nvidia's GPU but we'd like to avoid having the negative aspects taint the entire industry," he said. (GPU stands for graphics processing unit.)

Most recently, there have been reports of performance issues with Apple's new 17-inch MacBook Pro, which has the Nvidia GeForce 9600M chip. But it's unclear whether Nvidia's chips are really the problem and it's not known how widespread the issues are.

Ossias started off the discussion by spelling out how AMD mobile graphics processors can adjust performance and power consumption to different conditions. (The technology, it should be noted, is applied in various ways by many graphics chips.)

"When the system is calling upon the GPU to do more work, we either increase the voltage or increase the clock speed or increase the operating attributes of the system in order to maximize the performance, and when those things are not in demand we can scale them back so they're not constantly being run at their maximum. This is the way we go about trying to avoid overheating," he said. Strict implementation of these design parameters is particularly critical in systems where there is the greatest potential for overheating: thin notebooks and high-end gaming notebooks, according to Ossias.

AMD provides tools to PC makers, he said, who make the final design decisions on how the GPU will perform in different power-usage scenarios. But sometimes the laptop maker won't make the best choice.

"Somebody may choose a GPU that doesn't necessarily have the best operating characteristics or doesn't deliver the optimal power consumption in all operating ranges. That's a constant development challenge" for laptop makers, he said, then added: "A very, very large proportion of our customers do a very good job of this."

"I don't think Apple does a bad job of this in general. They are extremely meticulous generally," he said. However, in some cases "a product decision is made (where) maybe there is more emphasis put on performance characteristics than on another characteristic. Again, that's another choice that can be made," Ossias said.

Ossias gave an example of the type of graphics chip that would not go into the new MacBook Pro, which is about an inch thick. At the high end of its mobile graphics chip lineup, the ATI Mobility Radeon 4870 can draw as much as 45 watts--a big power draw for a mobile chip. Due to these power characteristics, this would not go into a thin form-factor notebook like the new MacBook Pro, he said.

AMD announced new mobile GPUs last week based on a cutting-edge 40-nanometer process
AMD announced new mobile GPUs last week based on a cutting-edge 40-nanometer process AMD-ATI

Last week, AMD announced groundbreaking mobile GPUs, the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4830 and 4860, based on a cutting-edge 40-nanometer process. Both chips compete in the same general performance category as the 4870 but start at a much lower power-consumption level (the low 20-watt range) and "therefore you can actually get the 4830 into a thin and elegant notebook design," according to Ossias. AMD's current 4650 and 4670 can fit into thin form factors also, he said. These latter two chips would be in the same class as the Apple MacBook Pro's Nvidia GeForce 9600M, he claimed. The 9600M is the chip alleged to have heat and performance issues.

"I know that when Nvidia announced (in October of last year) publicly that it was recalling or having to rework some of its products and they took a big write-down, we had to address concerns from our customers that we were not also experiencing packaging failures because of the overheating and design flaws that they were experiencing in their product line," he said. "So, we basically had to go and calm down a lot of our customers and say, look, this is not something that's inherent to our technology, it's not something that you have to expect from any GPU."