AMD's Carrizo chip promises aggressive power savings, but not fanless PCs


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AMD executives said Wednesday that their upcoming “Carrizo” mobile processors will significantly increase battery life in the PCs that use them. Even better, the new chips won’t require transitioning to a new process technology in order to reach lofty new power-efficiency goals.

Typically, the easiest way to reduce power consumption without losing performance is by “shrinking” the CPU die to a new manufacturing process. This is what Intel did with its shift to the “Broadwell” generation of fifth-generation Core chips. But David McAfee, director of software and platform solutions at AMD, said that his company will be able to keep pace in the power-efficiency game without the expensive transition to a new manufacturing process.

“We have focused an enormous amount of effort on battery life,” McAfee said. “That’s kind of the point. It’s not a problem that can be measured by synthetic benchmarks, but by actual user scenarios.”

This year’s Carrizo chip, McAfee said, “will offer one of the largest generation-to-generation battery-life improvements from AMD in the past few years.” Carrizo is expected to ship during the first half of 2015.

Why this matters: It’s no secret that Intel has a dominant position in the PC market (though AMD’s X86 chips do ship in all three of the major game consoles). Intel’s Broadwell chip is manufactured on a 14-nm process, while AMD’s Carrizo is a generation behind, at 28-nm. So AMD has been forced to become clever—a tactic that has, at times, brought the company success.

As cheaper, low-end PCs come to dominate a declining PC market, AMD stands to benefit, especially as consumers put higher premiums on battery life. That said, if Intel discounts its Core chips, AMD could get pinched.

amd lisa su crop AMD

AMD’s new chief executive, Lisa Su, has continued the strategy established by former CEO Rory Read: Focus on just a few profitable niches.

All Carrizo, all the time

AMD first revealed Carrizo last November, announcing the chip would be the foundation of AMD-powered notebooks in 2015. There will be two members of the family—Carrizo and the less powerful Carrizo-L—and system makers will be able to use a common design platform, potentially saving development costs. Carrizo also integrates a separate I/O chip that AMD’s previous “Kaveri” chips did not, further saving cost and space. 

The Carrizo processor will integrate a new x86 CPU core codenamed “Excavator” with next-generation AMD Radeon graphics, while the Carrizo-L derivative will use the Puma+ core and AMD Radeon R-Series GCN GPUs for mainstream configurations, AMD said. 

At the Consumer Electronics Show, AMD showed off Carrizo chips and systems, proving that the company had workable silicon. McAfee said that Carrizo chips will be designed at the 35-watt range for standard notebooks, while thin-and-light machines will target 10 to 15 watts. The chips will also appear in small formfactor desktops and all-in-ones, much like Intel’s Broadwell chips.

However, fanless designs like those enabled by the Intel Core M “are out of the question,” McAfee said. Instead, other products in the company’s portfolio will be used for entirely fanless machines.

Getting smart to stay competitive

AMD taps into a number of strategies to reduce power consumption, McAfee said, including adaptive power management, as well as syncing the refresh rate of the graphics portion of the chip to the LCD panel it’s being displayed upon. This FreeSync technology helps smooth images displayed on the screen, and also reduces the power consumed by the system. A secondary benefit, says Robert Hallock, the head of AMD’s global technical marketing, is that games will look smoother, improving the user experience without the need for higher frame rates.

lg freesync monitor

AMD’s FreeSync technology solves image tearing problems on compatible monitors, like this one from LG. But it can also save power too, AMD execs say.

AMD executives are on record saying that Carrizo will bring “incremental experiences to our prior offerings,” implying that the performance of the chips may be marginally better than the Kaveri chips.

Although Intel has revealed only dual-core Broadwell chips for the time being, AMD’s Kaveri chips predominantly used four processor cores, in part, some have thought, to provide comparable performance to Intel’s Core chips. McAfee said we should expect a similar number of cores for Carrizo.

“The dirty little secret is that... the vast majority of the [notebook] market is dual-core,” said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. A small niche of gaming notebooks take advantage of quad-core designs, if only because dual-core chips don’t cut it for hardcore gaming, he said.

battlefield 4 mantle results

AMD’s Mantle technology can eke out impressive performance gains—if developers use it.

Carrizo will also be the first chip to be fully HSA 1.0 compliant, meaning that it will deliver on the Heterogenous Systems Architecture that AMD has talked about for some time. With HSA, the GPU inside the Carrizo chip can also be tapped to perform compute functions—which AMD says will deliver far more performance than any clock-speed increases made possible by processing technology advancements.

AMD has also introduced Mantle, an API optimized for AMD’s own graphics chips. Game developers can write Mantle-optimized code, increasing performance on AMD chips. Intel has also inquired about supporting Mantle.

The next venue for more Carrizo details will be the ISSCC chip conference that begins on Feb. 22. AMD is scheduled to present two papers, a spokesman said. 

AMD has struggled to overcome a market perception that its chips are best suited for low-end machines—the doorbuster laptops that lure in shoppers on price alone. But AMD’s HSA and Mantle technologies could give them a boost in certain applications. And considering AMD’s recent executive shakeup, the company needs something concrete to resuscitate its image.

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