Of benchmarks and bikinisAs we were one of the first to report, the marriage between AMD and ATi is now official. The minister has completed the vows, the rings have been exchanged, and the confetti is raging as the two companies head off into the sunset for a honeymoon in Sunnyvale. This is such a big deal, the UK was blessed with not one but two CTOs for the official announcement event – one from each company.
As we sat listening to Phil Hester from AMD and Bob Drebin from ATi in London, we were in turns excited by the future prospects of Fusion, where CPU and GPU will come together on one die, and worried that nothing was being said about AMD’s plans for right now. That feeling continued as we headed off for our private audience with the CTO duopoly.
Fusion certainly looks like the way forward. With Vista’s heavy emphasis on 3D hardware requirements, the days when feeble integrated graphics are fine if you don’t play games will soon to be over. Clearly, once Vista becomes the norm, having really decent acceleration on the CPU itself will be a necessity for the likes of notebooks and corporate desktops without discrete graphics to enjoy the full Aero Glass experience.
What we couldn’t believe was how little AMD-ATi wanted to offer a counter-argument to Intel’s rejuvenation thanks to the Core Microarchitecture. Apparently, benchmarks are like bikinis – they show you everything except what you actually want to see. Whilst we know what AMD means, we couldn’t help feeling this was putting an unrealistically brave face on matters. Benchmarks may not be everything, but they are important, particularly to the enthusiast such as you, dear reader.
As well as claiming a competitive price and power advantage, AMD is also suggesting its roadmap looks better than Intel’s. But with ‘native quad-core’ still officially set for the middle of 2007 and Intel’s not-so-native version arriving in just a few days now, for desktop, workstation and server, we did have to wonder which roadmap they were referring to. We couldn’t get any confirmation of the rumours that AMD’s quad-core CPU would be arriving earlier than this. There wasn’t even much reaction when we tried to lure AMD into enthusiasm that its 65nm process was now pumping out processors, potentially bringing with it the much-rumoured Rev G core.
AMD-ATi also seems a little complacent about the competition it faces with Fusion. We’d have to agree that the modular approach of the Direct Connect architecture is very elegant. This allows AMD to mix and match around 10 CPU components to make various different configurations, or 11 now that the GPU has been added to the mix. So, for example, it could have a single-core CPU with built-in GPU and memory controller, plus a couple of HyperTransport links and two cache levels. That would suit the low-end market. Alternatively, two cores, two GPUs and three levels of cache could be combined with the usual memory controller and HyperTransport for a more power-oriented user.
But AMD isn’t the only company looking to integrate GPU functions onto the CPU. It may now have world-class ATi graphics technology to call upon for its GPU component, but Intel is still the market leader in graphics worldwide, thanks to its integrated chipset business. It will need to inject some new technology to make its integrated graphics capable of doing Windows Vista justice, but it’s an underestimation to think that Intel isn’t capable of this. Even Nvidia is rumoured to be considering its own CPU, presumably so it can join the on-die graphics party as well.
Still, AMD’s Fusion looks very promising, and the company does seem to have the technological pieces of the jigsaw to make the full picture. However, whilst AMD’s long-term strategy appears very sound indeed, the not-so-distant future remains murky. Perhaps the company does have a trick up its sleeve, but if this is the case it’s the best kept secret in the IT industry at the moment. It looks like AMD-ATi is betting the farm on Fusion. We just hope the animals don’t get too restless waiting for Fusion to actually arrive.