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Intel, AMD vie to rewire PC's brain

The two longstanding chip rivals seem to agree on the PC processor's future. But they tap into different strengths to get there.

Intel and AMD are off to the races again. This time it's about making PCs not just faster, but more versatile.

The two longstanding PC chip rivals seem to agree, roughly, on one thing: the need to meld the two key PC chips, the central and graphics processing units, into one processor. But they both bring different strengths to achieve that end.

Why combine chips? Put simply, it takes less energy to move electrons across a chip than to move those same electrons between two chips, so this saves energy, resulting in better battery life for laptops. A point made by Insight 64 principal analyst Nathan Brookwood in a white paper written for AMD, but which, in some fundamental respects, applies equally to Intel.

Heterogeneous computing combines functions typically found on a graphics processor with the main CPU chip.
Heterogeneous computing combines functions typically found on a graphics processor with the main CPU chip. AMD

And CPUs and GPUs are suited to different kinds of computing. CPUs can handle a broad array of tasks, while GPUs are more specialized but much faster at certain types of operations. Future heterogeneous chips could find photos and videos in your library that contain particular faces or places. Or recognize your face when you log in. In short, putting both capabilities on one piece of silicon creates a brainier chip with more processing brawn.

The question, of course, is which company will deliver the goods and drive cutting-edge PC--particularly laptop--designs in 2011? AMD claims that because it is also a supplier of GPUs, via its ATI graphics chip unit, its products are more forward-looking because of the increased emphasis on graphics that tap into key multimedia technologies like Microsoft's DirectX and Apple's OpenCL.

"Intel is understandably more CPU centric. That's Intel's view," said John Taylor, director of marketing for Fusion at AMD. "We're a provider (via ATI) of graphics chips. We're incorporating world-class GPU intellectual property into a new type of design. We look at the GPU in a consumer notebook as a very efficient compute engine as well as all of the wonderful 2D and 3D graphics capabilities," Taylor said, adding that Intel is just "sprinkling" low-level graphics on its CPUs.

Not surprisingly, Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, believes it has the upper hand because its cutting-edge manufacturing technology allows it to integrate more on a piece of silicon, sooner. Intel's Atom chip, for example, already melds two processing cores and the graphics function on a single piece of silicon.

And Intel was the first--early this year--to move to 32-nanometer technology, which allows the chipmaker to cram more functions onto the chip. (Globalfoundries, AMD's manufacturing partner, won't make that move until 2011.) The upcoming 32-nanometer Sandy Bridge architecture from Intel will represent the fruition of this effort. "Sandy Bridge combines multiple cores together with the graphics circuitry on the same chip," said Mark Bohr, Intel senior fellow. "The fact that we're an aggregate device manufacturer allows us to do internal optimization of all of these pieces and bring out a leading-edge product sooner than other companies."

So, here's a brief overview of laptop-centric technologies that AMD and Intel are planning to roll out over the next 6 to 12 months or so. Consumers, of course, will ultimately decide who prevails.

AMD's Ontario (2010):

  • From-the-ground-up redesign; very-low-power x86 core
  • Single piece of silicon
  • Up to two CPU cores with a DirectX 11 ATI 5000 series GPU technology and new video decoder
  • Targeted at Netbook, ultrathin laptops, and all-in-one PCs
  • 40-nanometer "bulk" process; manufactured by TSMC*
  • Due to ship in Q4 2010 with laptops due early 2011
*Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company

AMD's Llano (2011):

  • Up to four CPU cores with DirectX 11 GPU, upgraded ATI 5000 series GPU technology and video decoder
  • Single piece of silicon
  • Targeted at mainstream and ultrathin laptops and certain desktop market segments
  • 32-nanometer High K metal gate process; manufactured by Globalfoundries
  • Due to ship in first half of 2011

Intel's Sandy Bridge:

  • Single piece of silicon, combining CPU and GPU
  • Faster on-chip communication: different parts talk via "improved inter-buses."
  • Improvements to the way instructions are executed
  • New instructions to accelerate multimedia: Intel Advanced Vector Extension (AVX) instructions.
  • Improved Turbo Boost: slowing down, speeding up individual cores as needed.
  • Special circuits for handling transcoding (conversion of video/audio from one format to another)
  • 32-nanometer High K metal gate process
  • Due to ship in Q4 (more details to be revealed at the Intel Developer Forum in September).

Intel's newest Atom for Netbooks:

  • Up to 2 cores, 4 threads
  • CPU integrates GPU on the same die (single piece of silicon)
  • Low-power: dual-core version has maximum thermal envelope of 8.5 watts
  • Shipment date: now

A few additional items worth noting:

High K metal: Intel has been building chips--since 2007-- with this transistor technology, which, generally yields chips that are faster and run cooler. AMD won't move to this technology until 2011.

32-nanometer: Intel has also been supplying 32-nanometer chips since early this year; AMD won't get there until 2011 but it is moving to an intermediate 40-nanometer process later this year.

AMD's "Bulldozer" core: This is a new 32-nanometer chip architecture due in the first half of 2011. Targeted initially at high-end desktop and servers, it will offer multi-threading, which increases the number of tasks a processing core can handle (Intel has been offering this for a long time). Bulldozer will yield high core counts (such as 8-core desktop chips) and support new x86 instructions, including SSE4.2 and AVX.