Intel's Atom processor has long enjoyed a reign as undisputed king of entry-level netbooks and ultraportables. AMD is at last prepared to challenge that position with its long-awaited "Fusion" processor.
The chips are done and in 2011 AMD plans on launching 4 processors:
The E-xxx processors are parts in the Zacate series, while the C-xxx parts belong to the Ontario series, which is more heavily aimed at ultraportables. Together these parts collectively belong to the Brazos family.
So is Brazos a leap forward for netbook computing or a step backward from the modest performance of Atom? The answer is a bit of both.
Finally, a Solid IGP
The clear upside here is the integrated GPU. In its high-end Ontario/Zacate models, AMD has packed two Bobcat cores. Both the single-core and dual-core chips also feature an on-chip DirectX 11 GPU with 80 ALUs -- twice the number in Nile, AMD's previous integrated graphics solution.
The fact that AMD incorporated its integrated GPU directly on the same die as its CPU cores isn't exactly revolutionary, in so much as Intel already did this with its Pineview (Atom) chips launched earlier this year. It is revolutionary in that it is the first on-chip GPU whose performance isn't horrendous and that it is the first on-die IGP to have a high-bandwidth link to the CPU (Pineview oddly opted for a slower FSB-like link on-die between the GPU core and CPU core[s]).
Intel's Pineview uses the Intel GMA 3150, which lacks dedicated vertex shader hardware. As a result 3D performance is a miserable experience. The GPU's overall weakness makes even playing trying to play back high definition video a painful prospect.
By contrast Brazos's Radeon GPUs should offer decent entry level gaming performance and should play HD video (including Blu-Ray) with ease.
Memory and I/O
Pineview only supports a single 800 MHz DDR3 DIMM, Brazos offers the support for two 800-1066MHz DDR3 DIMMs.
While specifics on the smaller uni-core Ontario chips aren't available, AMD has revealed that its Zacate consists of a 19 x 19-mm, 413-ball BGA package with a 75 mm² die "advanced processing unit" (APU) (GPU+CPU) inside. That's ever-so-slightly smaller than Intel Atom's single core entry that features a 22 mm x 22 m package and a 87 mm² die.
The APU is hooked up to AMD's chipset unit, which is named Hudson. The Hudson chip handles part of the I/O duties, offering a wealth connections including four PCIe Gen1 lanes, four PCIe Gen2 lanes, six 6 Gbps Serial ATA connections, 14 USB 2.0 connections, and built-in fan control logic.
Together the APU core and Hudson chipset form the Brazos platform.
The 6 Gbps SATA connections should allow for ultra fast SSD access, though it seems a bit strange to be considering pricey hard drive options with a budget-minded netbook chip. The four PCIe Gen1 lanes can be used with the ethernet and wireless (802.11n) connections, freeing up the Brazos core's PCIe gen2 lanes for use with a discrete GPU.
Thus netbooks or mobile internet devices sporting the Brazos APU could in theory also offer a discrete GPU. It's unclear at this point whether you could switch to the integrated GPU to decrease power consumption and extend battery life.
Speaking of battery life, the one area that Pineview appears to have AMD's Brazos beat is in battery life. Its dual core Atom N550 is clocked similar to the E-350, but has about half the power consumption. Of course the lean power footprint is due to the garbage graphical performance. We're not sure if that's something to brag about -- even in the mobile space.
Overall, though, when you consider chipset power (Pineview is paired with the NM10 chipset) the result is that an Atom-based netbook's internals will consume about 16 W, while AMD expects a platform TDP of 21 W for Brazos (possibly less for Zacate models).
At the end of the day AMD is claiming the E-350-equipped Zacate platform will last for about 8.5 to 9 hours on a fully charged 55Wh laptop battery, while an Ontario may get 10.5 hours. An Atom platform netbook will last slightly longer.
At this point it's hard to draw definitive conclusions as a) Intel may have new Atom designs up its sleeve for 2011 and b) AMD hasn't delivered on Brazos chips yet.
That said Intel definitely has cause for concern here. AMD's chips still are more power hungry than their Intel siblings (+5 watts for the entire platform), but the roughly 33 percent power increase reportedly allows a > 50 percent performance bump in GPU-intensive applications. With even everyday programs like Firefox and Flash using GPU acceleration these days, this could offer faster performance even for non-gamers.
And Brazos is only the budget-minded beginning of AMD's APU invasion. It will be followed by the Llano platform (dubbed Lynx on desktops, Sabine on notebooks), which will feature a beefier GPU and a more powerful modified K10.5 core design (not quite a Bulldozer, as some pointed out).
At this point Intel's most compelling alternative to Brazos is to pair itself with NVIDIA's ION chip. But that approach would likely negate much of Intel's power advantage, and further it cuts into Intel's bottom line, as it would have to either cut the cost of its chips for OEMs or end up double-charging customers for their graphics.
Atom has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the netbook world, but in 2011 it will likely meet its x86 match in Brazos. And if that wasn't enough to keep the Santa Clara chipmaker's executives up at night, ARM processors, fresh off their tablet takeover, will likely continue to trickle into the netbook space. And those ARM processors have the potential to blow both Atom and Brazos awy in terms of processing power-per-watt.