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Review: AMD's never had a better chance to ruffle Intel's notebook feathers

by Tarinder Sandhu on 20 September 2010, 10:17


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Time to tune into the $500 notebook market

The following editorial is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect HEXUS' position.

Sitting on a plane heading back home after IDF 2010 and ruminating on the machinations of the two major companies that control the supply of chips, motherboards and graphics in the consumer notebook market, I'm going right out and say it: AMD is more important than Intel. This ostensibly contentious statement is based on the knowledge that without AMD continually nipping at Intel's heels and keeping the chip giant honest, we're all in for a tough time.

AMD's been through considerable pain in the last few years. The $5.4bn ATI acquisition has been painful on many fronts, most notably financial, and bringing the two companies genuinely together has taken longer than AMD would have liked. But there now exist reasons why the x86 minnow can expect a bullish year in 2011, especially with respect to the fast-growing notebooks market, so let me make a case for Advanced Micro Devices.

Assault on the notebook market - AMD has a viable strategy; honest

There has rarely been a better time to be in the notebook business. Research is near-unanimous in indicating that the market will grow at 15 per cent per annum, perhaps more, over the next few years. I liken the market to an airport escalator, where simply standing still - being a part of it - amounts to moving forwards.

AMD appreciates that Intel will have the lion's share of the market for a long while yet, which currently resides at some 85 per cent, and such hegemony inextricably leads to a marketing fund that makes AMD's look impotent in comparison. AMD has to be nimbler and smarter in where it spends money, rather than adopt the carpet-bombing marketing employed by Intel, so it has tried hard in 2010 to turn its hodge-podge notebook proposition into a coherent, sensible strategy under its VISION initiative.

The x86 minnow has been quick to realise that PC-buying folk generally care little for the speeds and feeds of notebook. The focus is on what it can do, rather than the technical mumbo-jumbo that explains how it does it. Drawing another tenuous analogy, I don't care how my microwave works, I just care that it does what I need.

AMD's approach has been enlivened through its VISION program, where each AMD-powered laptop is given a user-understandable rating that defines what it is able to do - good, better, best kind of thing. Yup, this is the only real way of thinking if you want to appeal to the millions, nay billions, of people who haven't an inkling of what an out-of-order execution architecture or quad-threading really is.

Intel is not standing still, though

But clever marketing cannot paper over the cracks that are all too apparent if you're trying to conceal technical inferiority. This, I believe, is what AMD has been doing much through 2010 - attempting to go up against Intel with products that are, well, just not as good. A case in point has been illustrated by the Lenovo Edge laptop head-to-head we ran a couple of weeks' ago, where a largely equivalent Intel laptop was just plain better than the price-comparable AMD option. So why the bullish opinion, especially in the face of Intel releasing a new architecture, Sandy Bridge, which promises to improve the chip giant's mobile offering by another couple of notches?

AMD has some genuine notebook mojo of its own coming early next year. It goes by the name of the Fusion APU and promises to bring together the very best of AMD's CPU know-how and the now-defunct ATI's expertise in graphics. Fusion APUs harness the CPU(s) and GPU on to one piece of silicon, much like Intel's Sandy Bridge. AMD, though, is first targeting the $500 notebook market that is currently populated by Intel Pentium- and Celeron-based laptops, and it's laying the cards on the table by going for a GPU-heavy architecture with the APU chips.