AMD has plenty to cheer about of late. Almost out of the red in its latest fiscal report, the company has surged ahead to become the top seller of discrete GPUs (as of July). The company also is sitting on a pile of cash -- $1.25B USD -- from a settlement with Intel over Intel's alleged attempts to pay cash payouts to OEMs to not use AMD CPUs (and several other alleged anticompetitive actions). With the U.S. Federal Trade Commission promising to keep a watchful eye on Intel, the ball is now in AMD's court to deliver a competitive CPU product.
Today at the Hot Chips conference held at Stanford University, the company discussed some new details on its trio of upcoming architectures (Bobcat, Llano, Bulldozer) that AMD hopes will revitalize its CPU unit and offer a turnaround akin to what it pulled off in the GPU sector.
First up is Bobcat. Discussed as far back as Computex 2007, this architecture covers lightweight 1-10 watt TDP processors for mobile computers such as netbooks. In that respect it's AMD's first true challenger to Intel's wildly successful Atom.
AMD has had CPUs billed as netbook processors, but they were too power hungry to be true competitors. For example, last year's single core AMD Athlon 64 L110 CPU, which debuted in Acer subsidiary Gateway's LT3103u netbook, clocked in at 1.2 GHz and consumed 13 watts of power. Compare that to Intel's Atom N270, which launched nearly a year earlier and offered 1.6 GHz speed and a tiny 2.5 W power envelope.
To put things in context AMD is targeting under 1 watt per core with Bobcat, a dramatic improvement over the L110 and other currently-offered low-power processors from AMD.
While both Atom and Bobcat are similar in number of pipe stages for the CPU (16 stages for the former, 15 for the latter), the Bobcat is an out-of-order CPU which should give it a performance edge over Intel's otherwise similar design. The design features 64 KB of L1 cache, and 512 KB of L2 cache.
Bobcat notably will likely never be sold as a stand-alone CPU (or at least AMD has announced no plans to do so). It will first pop up early next year as an AMD's first Fusion CPU dubbed Ontario. Ontario will feature 2 Bobcat cores paired with an AMD GPU. The combined system-on-a-chip (SoC) will be produced at the 40 nm node at TSMC's chip fabs.
AMD even has a catchy name for the package -- it's not a CPU, it's an APU (Accelerated Processor Unit).
Turning to Bulldozer, the new CPUs target the performance desktop and notebook sector and offer a significant redesign, shifting the architecture in an interesting direction.
Following Intel's Nehalem (i7), Bulldozer is a more modular design. AMD is opting for a bit different design on the modular level, though. It's opting for a two-integer core design capable of servicing two threads, with a common floating point unit (FPU) between the cores. While obvious lacking the performance of 2 full cores with a FPU each, the dual-core module design is only 12-percent larger than a single core design at the node size. And AMD promises the performance boost on average will be significantly more than 12-percent, so this seems a smart tradeoff.
Other changes include a deeper pipeline and more aggressive prefetching. Idle cores can be fully turned off for power savings.
Bulldozer CPUs will primarily retail in the desktop sector in 1 to 4 module packages (for a total of 2 to 8 threads/integer cores) on the AM3 socket. A 16-core G34 socket variant dubbed Interlagos and a C32 socket 8-core model dubbed Valencia will launch for servers. The CPUs will be produced on a 32 nm process, by Global Foundries. Intel was the first to hit this node with its Nehalem die-shrink Clarkdale, which launched in January of this year.
Each integer core has a tiny 16 KB cache. That's disappointingly, low, but AMD says the performance impact will be masked by plentiful L2 cache.
Bulldozer should arrive first in Q2/Q3 2011 in server packages (though no precise 2011 date has been specified yet) and later in the year for desktop packages. This places it roughly two to three quarters behind Intel's first redesigned 32 nm architecture, Sandy Bridge which is slated for a Q4 2010 launch. Believe it or not, that means AMD is catching up -- if it can meet its schedule that is.
Last but not least is Llano. Unlike the redesigned Bulldozer and Bobcat, Llano is a system on a chip featuring a refined K10-based core design -- basically a tweaked Phenom II. AMD's slides have shown that it will use a new socket called "AM3r2". The package will pack four of those K10-based cores, a 5000-series-derived GPU, and DD3 memory.
Llano's release date was bumped from Q4 2010 to Jan. 2011, based on yield issues (and "reaction to Ontario’s market opportunities", according to AMD PR-speak).
If AMD can push ahead and keep its launch dates on target it looks to be quite competitive with Intel CPU-wise on a number of fronts in 2011 -- netbooks/tablets (Bobcat), mid-range laptops (Llano), and high-end notebooks/desktops (Bulldozer). Of course the most telling details will be the actual benchmarks of the chips versus Intel's competitive designs. AMD currently has these CPUs in its lab and is doing internal testing -- but don't expect third-party benchmarks until close to launch-time.