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AMD, Intel elevate rivalry to laptop arena

Posted: 02 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:AMD-Intel rivalry? notebook market? microcontrollers?

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) and Intel Corp. are pulling neck-and-neck in the race to define the core high-end silicon for notebook computers. Competition among chip- and system makers is keen, because notebooks are edging out desktops as the dominant platform in client computing.

The CPU efforts come as notebook designers strive to differentiate their systems by packing new features into ever thinner, lighter models. Over the next year, system makers are looking to UWB technology as a way of making their portables stand out.

AMD in May announced the Griffin CPU, the first processor it has designed from the ground up for notebooks, along with a companion chipset. All the parts are geared to ship early next year.

The CPU-chipset combo, collectively known as Puma, helps AMD pull even with Intel or possibly, in some areas, gain a slight technical edge. That positions AMD to compete for the first time in high-end notebook designs with top-tier suppliers, shifting the business dynamics in this sector.

Griffin is roughly on a par with Intel's current notebook CPU in power-managed performance, thanks in part to a broad range of CPU features, including AMD's decision to put its two cores on separate power planes so they can be independently managed. But the accompanying chipset offers certain features as much as six months ahead of Intel, and that is where AMD gains its edge. The chipset supports the latest Microsoft Corp. DX10 graphics API. It packs hardware support for H.264 for high-definition DVD decode, along with 5GHz PCIe ports and both the HDMI and emerging DisplayPort interfaces.

AMD's processor for notebooks, Griffin, offers new prefetch capability.

Intel's current Santa Rosa chipset supports none of those features. Intel will catch up with some but not all of them with a chipset dubbed Montevina, due for release in the second half of 2008.

Montevina will support DX10 graphics and H.264 acceleration for playback of one high-definition movie. Intel does not expect to support 5GHz PCIe until 2010, however, in part because keeping power low is more important than ratcheting up the existing 2.5GHz PCIe interface. Similarly, Intel will not expose its emerging Common Systems Interface on notebook CPUs until sometime after 2009.

Intel's edge
That being said, Intel has two great advantages over AMD with its current chipset. Santa Rosa supports so-called Intel Turbo Memory, which caches data and applications in 1-2Gbytes of flash on a miniPCI card. That can speed up the process of booting the OS and loading applications.

AMD supports Microsoft's approach to the concept, which puts flash in a so-called hybrid hard drive. However, the drives so far include only 256Mbytes of flash, and Microsoft's algorithms, ironically, are said to be less effective than Intel's in delivering performance boosts. Drive makers such as Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd are showing prototypes with 512Mbytes of flash, but have not announced when they will ship.

Separately, Intel has created applications under the Centrino Pro brand that let IT managers remotely control and boot a notebook, even over a wireless Internet link. Intel runs those apps on a "distributed microcontroller that uses gates in the Intel chipset, Wi-Fi and Ethernet chips," said Tom Shewchuk, Santa Rosa platform manager at Intel. Thus, OEMs that opt to use AMD chips don't get the Intel management applications.

The current battle of the notebooks, heated as it is, is just a warm-up for 2009, when AMD introduces its Fusion processors integrating CPU and graphics cores for notebooks. Intel has suggested that it will take a roughly similar path.

AMD's strategy
The Fusion plan is driving new design methods and tools at AMD. "For the most part, we use an in-house proprietary CAD flow, but we have had to migrate it to support multiple IP blocks and IP design teams working on individual processors," said Maurice Steinman, an AMD fellow.

Intel's Eden: Centrino yields performance at low power without putting cores on separate power planes, as AMD's Griffin does.

AMD's biggest worry is how far ahead Intel may be in manufacturing might. By year's end, Intel will follow up its current 2.4GHz, 35W CPU with 17W and 10W versions running as low as 1GHz. By the time AMD's 65nm Griffin CPU ships, Intel may be ready to roll its next-generation 45nm notebook CPU.

Mooly Eden, general manager of Intel's notebook group, finds the competition stimulating. "I will compete with them on performance, and I definitely have the technology on my side for that," said Eden. "I will also compete with them in power consumption and form factor. Beyond that, I will add new features for manageability and security to the platform."

Jim McGregor, principal analyst at In-Stat, takes a dim view of AMD's position. "Their only level of innovation is in the graphics chipset. They are focusing their message too much on the core and are not talking enough about the whole platform," he said.

The rivalry puts OEMs on the spot. They need to maintain good relations with both suppliers while they strive to differentiate their products in an age of chip "platforms" that define increasingly broad parts of their final systems.

Market decides
"My view is that there are no fundamental flaws in either players' products, nor is there anything that is such a tremendous differentiator that gives either player a significantly better position," said Mark Cohen, notebook business manager for Lenovo. "So it's about market acceptance and pricing."

The remarks may hint at hopes for a price war as the CPU suppliers vie for sockets in Lenovo's coveted ThinkPad. Other OEMs said AMD must sharpen its image to carve out a space in high-end notebooks against Intel's well-established Centrino brand. "To take AMD into high-priced corporate brands is difficult. It's a tough sell," said Paul Moore, senior director of mobile-product marketing at Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp.

Notebook makers are banking on UWB technologyin the form of wireless USB, which runs on top of UWBas one way to differentiate their systems. However, they are taking a go-slow approach because the technology, while promising, is still unproven.

"How popular UWB becomes depends on the costs of implementation and the pervasiveness of devices," said Cohen. Today, a miniPCI card for wireless USB costs $25 to $40. "I'd like to see sub-$10 modules," he said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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