A Sneak Peek at AMD's First Fusion APU

We got our hands on a working Fusion APU at AMD's Austin campus last week. While embargo restricts us from giving you solid benchmark numbers today, we can relate "high level impressions" about the system to you.

Introduction to AMD Vision

Last Sunday we drove down to meet with AMD deep in the heart of Texas. AMD was giving us a very early look at its "Brazos" Architecture. If the rest of you are on codename overload like I am, well, hang on, it gets a bit deeper. The Brazos Architecture incorporates the "Bobcat" core design which has been talked about for literally years now. That base processor core design is further integrated into two processors we will talk about here today called "Ontario" and "Zacate." Both of these processors are very low power units and are targeted for notebooks and desktop systems in the sub-~$500 range.

What is special about these processors is the fact that these are actually the first "Fusion" products we have seen come to market, even though we have seen the "Fusion" branding thrown around for again, literally years now. While I am sure most of our readers know what a Fusion processor is we are going to give you a little refresher course. A Fusion processor is now officially known as an Accelerated Processing Unit, or "APU." An APU consists of a "CPU and a GPU on the same die," to put it into very simple terms.

So now that we have the GPU, CPU, and chipset all married into the AMD hardware, you get the products that AMD is going to be marketing under the "Vision" banner. There will be four different levels of Vision products, from bottom of the stack to the top we have; Vision, Premium Vision, Ultimate Vision, and Black Vision.

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As you can see in the slides above, there are many products that will be members of the new AMD Vision family. The Brazos Architecture systems noted above are the ones that we got hands on with at AMD's Campus last week. We happened to be using the 18w version of the APU called Zacate. The Zacate machines will be a base level Vision product and marketed for basic PC usages such as watching online videos, browsing, IM, Office usages, and email usages.

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The "big" thing about the Zacate APU is the overall reduced system power. We all know that battery life can be had easily, but usually it is at the sacrifice of performance. Zacate is a product built to remedy this issue.

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AMD's first slide above shows some very interesting models that cover the Single-Core Era, the Multi-Core Era, and the Heterogeneous-Core Era. Given the push on GPU computing over the last several years it is hard to argue with the Hetero-Core argument, but you have to think that there will still be environments where the Hetero-Core is not wanted. That said, consumer software is nowhere near keeping up with the discreet GPU power we now have, so it will be interesting to see how much GPU power is actually leveraged on the desktop in the coming years. All the APUs in the world are not worth a damn unless we have software to leverage those, but we of course all know that it will never come to pass unless the hardware is there for software programmers to take advantage of. In that line of thinking though, you would have to assume that we only on the cusp of the Multi-Core Era as well since there is little to leverage all the cores you can get on your desktop today.

The APU slide above is fairly straight forward. One of the problems with leveraging discreet GPUs today is the PCIe bus most of those GPUs sit on. It is a bottleneck. Placing the GPU on the same die with the CPU destroys that bottleneck and allows tremendous amounts of data to be shared between the CPU and GPU....on the APU. Again, we find ourselves looking for software to show this relationship off.

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The Bobcat/Ontarion/Zacate specifications that are being released today are showcased above. The machine we were working on personally at AMD was a Zacate box with two Bobcat cores operating at 1.6GHz and a DX11 5000 class GPU with 80 shaders.

All Brazos series APUs will have 64KB (32KB instruction, 32KB data) of L1 cache-per-core and 512KB L2 cache-per-core and support up to 1066MHz (regular and low-power) DDR3, and come with UVD3 and AMD-VTM technology.

"Zacate" (18W max)

آ• AMD E-350 with AMD Radeonآ™ HD 6310 Graphics (dual-core CPU @ 1.6GHz & dual DX-11 SIMDs @ 500MHz) (NOTE: SIMD = 80x total Vision Engine nano-cores for parallel computer capability and graphics)

آ• AMD E-240 with AMD Radeonآ™ HD 6310 Graphics (single-core CPU @ 1.5GHz & dual DX-11 SIMDs @ 500MHz)

"Ontario" (9W max)

آ• AMD C-50 with AMD Radeonآ™ HD 6250 Graphics (dual-core CPU @ 1.0GHz & dual DX-11 SIMDs @ 280MHz)

آ• AMD C-30 with AMD Radeonآ™ HD 6250 Graphics (single-core CPU @ 1.2GHz & dual DX-11 SIMDs @ 280MHz)

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Hands on with Zacate

First and foremost let's talk about power. We had a Kill-a-watt wattage meter hooked up to our test box we were working on at AMD. I never saw the reading ever peak above 20 watts. While this may or may not seem like an astonishing figure, that wattage is not truly showcased till we start talking about performance.

After seeing what little power the system can use, you can obviously see what kind of long usages you could get from the Brazos platform inside a notebook or mini-notebook that we see eating up the netbook market.

As per the AMD information embargo we are allowed to give you a "high level overview" of our experiences with the Brazos system. Considering the sub-$500 market this product is aimed at I have to say my experience was extremely positive.

I am paraphrasing here, but this is what AMD said about the Brazos platform.

Performance and Power - Brazos is a new way of looking at the world. Instead of staying on the treadmill and keeping up with Intel, rather we rely on the research that shows us that CPU is not important anymore to the consumer, let's focus on what the consumer wants. Significantly boosting GPU performance.

Now obviously there are desktop users that want CPU performance, but I would have to agree that at the sub-$500 level the consumer already has more than enough CPU power. What does that consumer truly want to do with his desktop machine? He wants to watch videos, use IM, play casual games, run a few Office applications, and surf the World Wide Web without any problems. I am confident that the Brazos platform I used with the Zacate processor was more than enough technology to supply those core needs at a very low price point.

I ran the machine through more than a few usage scenarios with great results. Even while running an older Real Time HD Lighting demo that twirls perfectly rendered reflective 3D spheres on the screen, the Zacate remained responsive to my commands with Windows 7 running and never gave me a "mushy" feeling. I also ran all sorts of HD 720P video on it, some of it at rather high bit rates and got overall good results.

I did have issues with VLC player and streaming Viddler though, not sure what was going on there, but every other HD service I ran on the Zacate box worked perfectly. HD Vimeo videos, Netflix, and Hulu worked as those should and gave great results while allowing me to do other things with the machine while the videos were playing.

So how about gaming? Well we all know that this is not a gaming box but seeing that that there is a DX11 "5000 series" GPU on die, we certainly would be missing something if we did not try to break the thing. Figuring I would offer up a challenge, I installed Crysis on the machine. While I was not expecting much, you could actually play the game with low settings at somewhere around a 720P resolution. No, it was not awesome gaming, but I was gaming and could actually enjoy it. I loaded up several other older games that played well also. I am not suggesting you buy a sub-$500 Zacate box as a gaming platform, unless you could do something cool like "CrossFire" it with a discreet graphics card and utilize its local VRAM. (Hey, we can wish can't we! wink ) For more mainstream casual games the Zacate APU certainly has more than enough "umph" to get you where you need to be....and watch all your favorite videos at the same time.

Chicken or the Egg

The one "problem" we experienced with Zacate was the fact that we truly did not have any software to show off its GPU besides our little gaming runs, and we know that is not what the Zacate customer is going to be wanting. I can however see the Zacate customer very much wanting to encode movies and music to his portable devices, such as his phone or media player. Now that the hardware is getting into the market with things like OpenCL and DirectCompute support, we will hopefully be seeing encoding software to make getting that media where we want it a breeze. Will someone please give me Handbrake that I throw on all my GPU cores? Or APU cores in this case.

The Bottom Line

I am not going to profess to be the sub-$500 desktop and notebook guru, in fact I usually don't pay much attention to these markets, but this new technology makes it very interesting. Surely AMD has challenges coming from Intel, let's not be naive. But what AMD is doing with its Brazos platforms is very interesting. The last big question is, "Can AMD get the design wins it needs to make Brazos a successful product?" AMD showed us one design win from MSI, and while one win is not going to make Brazos successful, surely it is a start. It is exciting to see AMD finally moving forward again.

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