AMD has plans for 2011

AMD is always lurking right around the corner during IDF and was eagerly showing off their Zacate / Ontario APUs. The first of the CPU/GPU hybrids from AMD are proving to be incredibly impressive performers especially with the power consumption taken into consideration. We took some time this week to sit down with them present you with the results!
As is usually the case, AMD has setup shop right around the corner from the Moscone convention halls in downtown San Francisco in order to take advantage of all the media in the same location for IDF and get THEIR company story across. It should come as no surprise that AMD wanted to talk about APUs, specifically the recently announced Ontario and Zacate cores that will target devices from netbooks to low end desktops and notebooks.
AMD Zacate APU Performance Preview - Processors 6

Above you will see a Phenom II CPU without a heat spreader rested next to a pair of Zacate APUs.  Zacate includes a pair of new Bobcat x86 cores as well as an undisclosed of SIMD arrays (basically the shader portions of standard ATI GPUs) that operate in tandem.  We know some about the architecture of Bobcat but there are still lots of details on the first APU from AMD that remain a mystery for now.  How powerful is the GPU, how can standard DIMMs provide enough memory bandwidth for the GPU, how much performance and power balancing is being done across computing segments? 

AMD assured us we would know sooner rather than later, and with expected early 2011 product availability (likely CES in January?) we can assume we will have the info within a couple of months.  But for now, we were able to get some hands on time with a reference platform to see how performance compared in a couple of specific tests going against a currently available Core i5-based notebook.

AMD Zacate APU Performance Preview - Processors 7

You can see that the Zacate platform we were testing on today is not close to a final product but is instead a solution that would be sent to ODM/OEM partners in preparation for designing and specing a system. 

AMD Zacate APU Performance Preview - Processors 8

The Zacate processor itself was being cooled by a very compact heatsink and fan combo that was cool to the touch.  Even this heatsink appeared to be overkill and based on the 18 watt TDP of the Zacate part I am really looking forward to the form factors that AMD is able to put this chip into. 

On display AMD had a few tests to demonstrate the performance of Zacate against the current generation Intel mobile processors.  The first was City of Heroes, an MMO that was running at medium settings.  The Intel platform consisted of a retail notebook with a Core i5-520M processor running at 2.4 GHz.  This CPU/GPU combo has a 35 watt TDP. 

AMD Zacate APU Performance Preview - Processors 9

The number that our AMD friend is pointing at is a FRAPS counter that showed frame rates in the 12-20 range while wandering around in the open world.  The Zacate reference system was easily doubling the performance getting frame rates in the 40s.

AMD Zacate APU Performance Preview - Processors 10

These are impressive results from a processor and platform that is still several months away.  That Zacate running at 18 watts can get noticeably better performance than the Core i5 running at 35 watts shows that this whole APU idea might be the right direction after all. 

We originally had a couple of videos planned for this story that showcased two more web-based performance metrics in which Zacate was handily beating the Core i5 processor.  The Amazon WebShelf test and the Psychedelic Wheel test are used to evaluate performance of GPU-based HTML 5 processing and literally showed orders of magnitude wins for the AMD platform over Intel.  However, Anandtech ran the same tests on a more recently configured Intel Core i5 machine and found performance to be basically identical between Core i5 and Zacate – obviously an issue if AMD is quoting otherwise. 

Also of note is that AMD let Anandtech run another pair of tests on the Zacate platform to get some additional performance numbers to make up for the other questionable results.  This time they showed Batman: Arkham Asylum running at 1024×768, High Quality settings and found Zacate to be about 45% faster than the Core i5.  A DirectCompute benchmark was also shown with a 2.6x better score coming from Zacate.  So even though the two tests we were going to demonstrate to you were shown to be inaccurate, the fact is that Zacate remains an impressive chip.
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Unfortunately for AMD, the current generation Core i5 isn’t going to be the best the competition has to offer in early 2011 – Sandy Bridge will be.  And as we have seen here at IDF over the last couple of days, Sandy Bridge brings another dramatic increase to performance and power efficiency that may make Zacate’s launch less dramatic than it otherwise could be. 

I happened to stop by the AMD suite again and found another interesting demo that they were running on the Zacate APU: a GPU-based physics simulation. 

The demo itself wasn’t particularly exciting but the devil is in the details.  Zacate was running a DX11-only, Shader Model 5.0 cloth simulation that will be part of the upcoming Bullet Physics, the open-source physics engine for gaming and 3D rendering.  The Intel Core i5-520M based notebook on display obviously couldn’t even open the demo and all early indications are that Sandy Bridge will not be a DX11-ready GPU either, giving AMD’s APUs an advantage in a specific area through 2011.
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