AMD Announces Two-Year Roadmap To Enter Tablet Space

At its annual Financial Analyst Day last week, chip maker AMD set its product development course for the next two years and revealed its plans for low-power servers, new system-on-a-chip products, and a hope of moving all desktop and notebook processors to 28-nm architectures.

But lurking somewhat in the background was AMD's two-year plan for its long-awaited entry into the tablet market, which has been a point of concern for the struggling chip maker.

Former CEO Dirk Meyer unexpectedly resigned in early 2011 amid pressure from the company's board of directors, which felt the chip maker wasn't competitive enough in key market segments. One of those segments was, of course, tablet devices. (Meyer was eventually replaced last summer by former Lenovo President Rory Read.)

AMD said it plans to make its debut in the tablet PC space this year with the launch of an ultra-low power APU (accelerated processing unit) dubbed Hondo and, as previously announced, will also introduce its new Trinity APUs designed for ultra-thin laptops. But despite having a detailed, mobility-focused APU roadmap, not all system builders are convinced of AMD’s ability to compete in a space already claimed by Intel and ARM.

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Marc Fertik, director at ACE Computers, a system builder based in Arlington Heights, Ill., does believe AMD can succeed in the ultra-thin laptop space with its new Trintiy APUs for one simple reason: price. Even though major OEMs including Dell and HP have already thrown their support behind Intel and its new line of ultrabooks, AMD devices are traditionally sold at lower price points, and sometimes this is enough to win (or at least stay relevant).

"When you look at the way people buy mobile devices – whether they are smartphones, whether they’re tablets, whether they’re notebooks – what you’re seeing is price is king and AMD historically is lower cost than Intel in the low-end CPUs, especially in the mobile segment," Fertik said.

In the tablet space, however, AMD might not be able to play that same card. The chipmaker has potential to compete in the ultra-thin laptop (or Intel's Ultrabook) space if its price is right, but with Intel gearing up to launch its new Atom "Medfield" mobile processors in the first half of the year, and low-power chip licensor ARM already dominating much of the consumer market, AMD may simply be too late to develop a low-power tablet chip of its own, Fertik said.

"They don’t have that product line yet," he told CRN. "In other words, they are going to have to come out and get directly against ARM and Via (Technology) and the low-power chips that are powering these tablets, and the really, really low-power Atoms. It’s all about battery life; it’s all about heat. I would think they [AMD] would actually buy somebody before they start from scratch. I don’t think they have it."

According to John Taylor, director of Global Product Marketing at AMD, Fertik is right about the chip maker not having a line of tablet-ready products just yet – or at least not for all form factors. Taylor explained to CRN that Hondo, the company’s first-generation ultra-low power APU slated for release this year, won’t have a power consumption design suitable to run a tablet as thin as an iPad, which is about two watts. Instead, Hondo will most likely run in convertible tablets or tablets with thicker form factors.

"Think of a somewhat thicker tablet form factor or a convertible form factor that's sometimes just a tablet and sometimes has some kind of a keyboard attached," Taylor told CRN. "It'll be sealed or passively cooled."

Temash, the next ultra low-power APU on AMD’s roadmap set to launch in 2013, will still run at about three or four watts, Taylor said. This means it will still be limited to the same thicker or convertible tablet form factors as its predecessor Hondo. It also means the market will not see an AMD APU running at two watts or less until 2014.

In other words, the chip maker’s presence in true tablets as thin as an iPad, which is approximately .35 inches thick, won’t become a reality for another two years.

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Steep competition and lengthy R&D timelines aside, Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of AMD's global business units, is confident that AMD can hit that two-watt mark over the next two years.

"From a growth standpoint, it's clear that ultra-thins and tablets will be two of the biggest growth vectors in the mobile space, and we're going to go after that with a vengeance,” Su said at the financial analyst event. "What we see there is taking all of the low-power techniques that we know about, we can absolutely get x86 to less than 2 watts."

Introducing a two watt APU in 2014 will put AMD nearly two years behind Intel’s Atom "Medfield" mobile processor and even further behind ARM’s low-power architectures found in iPad’s today. But Sergis Mushell, principal analyst for market researcher Gartner, told CRN that AMD still stands a fighting chance in the tablet market, and not necessarily because of its CPU technology.

Even if AMD chips don't reach that two watt target until 2014, Mushell said, the company’s long-standing GPU product line may ultimately give it a leg up against Intel. As more and more tablet computing happens at the cloud level, rather than the device level, graphics and presentation – rather than computational performance – will become a larger focus for tablet manufacturers.

Mushell noted that AMD could potentially follow the same model leveraged by Nvidia, another chip maker with a strong GPU heritage. Nvidia relies on ARM architectures to hit the computing and low-power benchmarks of its mobile Tegra chips, but what has really fueled the chips’ success is Nvidia’s graphics. AMD could take this same approach.

"It’s almost the same strategy, if you think about it, that Nvidia took," Mushell said. "Nvidia had the GPU heritage and then they licensed ARM and went into mobile devices, so it’s not a far stretch."

AMD openings its doors to third-party IP partners like ARM will most likely be a must for the company, Mushell told CRN. AMD also needs to drive its chip geometry down which may or may not be capable with its current foundry business GlobalFoundries. "This [low-power initiative] will drive AMD toward partnerships beyond what they have today," he said.