Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Future of Netbooks: Upcoming Chips from Intel and AMD

It's been said in many places that the netbook is dead. That may be true, but future processors from AMD and Intel could make the netbook drought a temporary hibernation. Intel finally seems to be focusing on jacking up the performance of its Atom processors (as opposed to further reducing power consumption), which will give AMD a run for its money and netbooks a desparately needed shot in the arm.

Intel: Bay Trail Promises Quad Core and 3x Better Graphics

Hot Hardware posted some leaked Intel slides on the 3rd of this month on their upcoming Bay Trail platform. To date, Intel has put the highest priority on shrinking the Atom's energy footprint, going from 8.5 W in the original Diamondville + 945GSE chipset combination to 5.6 W with Cedar Trail and the NM10 chipset (both worst-case scenarios), while making only small performance increases. Now, Intel is finally trying to clear the stigma of poor performance from its Atom line with performance-focused upgrades.
 The new Atoms, scheduled for release sometime in 2014, feature an architecture redesigned from the ground up. First, Intel is moving to a 22 nm process technology, which means the processor's transistors are smaller and packed together more densely. Secondly, the Bay Trail Atoms will be SoC's (system-on-a-chip). This means that the chipset, graphics, and CPU are all on the same die, which reduces power consumption and makes for a more efficient manufacturing process. The CPU itself will be a out-of-order quad-core solution, with burst speeds of up to 2.7 GHz. For an Atom, that's super fast, although I suspect the mobile parts (the ones netbook enthusiasts care about) won't be boosted that high. Current Atoms use in-order execution, which means the CPU runs all commands in the order they are presented, which reduces performance. Out-of-order execution allows Bay Trail to select the most efficient order to process data. The Bay Trail platform will support up to 8 GB of memory, the same as AMD's Brazos line. Memory speeds for Bay Trail-M remain at a maximum of 1066 MHz, just like Cedar Trail. It's unclear whether dual-channel memory will be supported. 

Perhaps the most exciting upgrade is to the graphics. Intel is leaving PowerVR graphics behind, and instead using their own HD Graphics processor. That means all of the graphics driver issues that haunt Cedar Trail are no more, and Intel netbooks will finally get the DirectX 11 and OpenGL 3.3 support they need. The clock rate for the new GPU has not been disclosed yet, but I suspect it won't matter, because Intel's HD Graphics on the market now are lightyears beyond any netbook GMA GPU. Also included is hardware-accelerated H.264, MPEG-2, and WMV encoding, as well as accelerated decoding/playback for more video formats than Cedar Trail supported.

Because the chipset will be fused with the processor, Bay Trail enjoys some small reductions in power consumption over previous generations of Atoms. Power consumption for Bay Trail-M is estimated to be between 4 and 6.5 W for low-end parts and 10 W for the high-end. Cedar Trail currently takes about 5 to 8 W.

AMD: Temash & Kabini Deliver Much Improved Performance

AMD demoed its upcoming Temash and Kabini APU's at CES 2013. According to Trusted Reviews, both designs are SoC's, just like Intel's Bay Trail.  Temash is intended to be used in tablets and hybrid tablets/laptops. It will replace the current-gen Hondo chips. (In case you're wondering why I've never mentioned Hondo before, it's because Hondo is nearly identical to the Brazos C-series chips.) AMD expects    Temash to have double the graphical power of Hondo, as well as dual-core and quad-core configurations. 

Kabini is set to replace today's Brazos 2.0 as the platform of choice for power-hungry netbook users (power-hungry is a relative term). Like Temash, it will have 2-core and 4-core options. Power consumption is expected to drop by 17% compared to Brazos 2.0, while delivering 50% more performance. Both Temash and Kabini are moving to 28nm processes, essential for competing with the threats of Intel and ARM. Also, AMD's APU's are reaching the market this year, far before Intel.

In-depth data on AMD's future platforms is not available at the moment, but I expect a major battle from ARM, AMD, and Intel. This competition will drive up performance and drive down prices, and that's a big win for consumers. The question is, can netbooks be revived by newer hardware?

We'll just have to wait and see.

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