Throughout AMD’s time as a maker of processors, and now graphics and APUs, the company has always had some kind of presence in the OEM and professional markets, making products suitable for use in workstations, or mission-critical environments. Their latest batch of chips on the block, based on the Carrizo family, is only found in notebooks and all-in-one systems thus far, while Kaveri-based products continue to be sold to consumers on socketed motherboards. Starting in October 2015 the company will begin selling and shipping out products for notebooks aimed at professional users with Carrizo-based APUs belonging to the “Pro” family, and this latest launch is rather interesting for several reasons. Lets dive in.
“Some kind of presence” is probably a better descriptor than I’d planned to use, because that’s currently how things are for AMD in the notebook market now – they’re somewhat in there, but not really doing much with their current potential. Part of that is down to how AMD chooses to market these options to consumers and their OEM/ODM partners, and the other part is down to how AMD’s OEM/ODM partners themselves build a product out of an AMD APU. Far too often, I’ve seen AMD’s hardware saddled with tragically bad displays, poor battery life, bulky chassis and the lack of any solid state storage at all (same goes for Intel, really, but to a lesser degree). Given the company’s superior graphics performance, their partners should be putting their products into machines which make better use of their capabilities, and that’s what today’s announcement is all about.
Today AMD is launching a new family of APUs in their Pro line codenamed Carrizo. These are based on the Excavator architecture and utilise GCN 1.3 graphics (functionally similar to what you’ll find in Tonga-based desktop graphics). Clock speeds are unknown at this point, and it is difficult to predict where this chip will fall in in terms of pricing and what kind of systems you’ll find it in, because AMD allows system integrators to configure it as a 15W or a 35W APU. Carrizo is better in terms of performance-per-watt ratios compared to older APUs based on Kaveri, with AMD claiming a 5% performance increase over Kaveri, but coupled with a decrease in power consumption of as much as 40%.
Along with those improvements, all APUs belonging to the Carrizo family support H.265 hardware acceleration and decoding, which makes it ideal for use in workloads that deal with 4K video content using the H.265 container. Products based on these chips will still only feature HDMI 1.4a ports, although Displayport 1.2a should be included on many different devices.
The new chip on the block, the Pro A12-8800B, will come with four cores based on the low-power 28nm process from Global Foundries, and will include two more GPU compute units compared to last year’s A10 Pro-7350B. My expectation is that the A12-8800B will be a well-binned version of the FX A10-8800P, which has identical specifications and a clock speed ranging from 2.1GHz base and 3.5GHz boost. The A12-8800B will feature 512 stream processors, 32 texture units, and 8 raster operators (ROPs), which should be enough for some light gaming at 1080p if you’re taking a break off from work.
One of the big changes is that the Carrizo memory controller now supports DDR3-2133 modules across the board, resulting in about 34GB/s of memory bandwidth. It’s not high by any means, though it is an overall improvement over the previous generation of Kaveri products, which had support ranging from 1600MHz to 2133MHz depending on the processor inside your chosen system. Given the current trend for notebook vendors to save money in any way they can, however, I don’t expect many of them to ship with 2133MHz modules running at 1.35v.
And that exact point was noted by AMD in their briefing. Their products are cheaper, overall, than Intel’s, yet they offer more graphics performance. But at the same price point as an equivalent solution with, say, an Intel Broadwell processor, it would be possible to use the money saved on the budget with an APU to improve performance in other areas. Things like improving the display quality, or including a SSD as standard, could be improvements that give consumers cause to consider an AMD version of any business laptop model.
AMD said earlier this year that they don’t want to be considered the “budget” brand, but they do seem to want to play the budget card as much as possible to improve the overall package compared to an Intel-based system.
What do you get out of an AMD Pro-packing laptop? Better driver support, for the most part. AMD’s Pro series makes use of the FirePro drivers, which are slanted towards better stability, rather than for churning out frame rates at high levels for 3D games. That’s what the “image stability” part is for – AMD will endeavor, for up to 18 months from the launch of a product, to make drivers for it that will always be optimised for the hardware and professional software packages that is expected to be used.
Unlike the world of consumer graphics, GPU vendors like Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD typically don’t support professional products for anything longer than two years, while consumer products typically see support even three years after launch (case in point, the Radeon HD7970 will get an upgrade to DirectX 12 supporting drivers). This leads to businesses often tying in their upgrade cycles to match driver support terms – buying systems at the beginning of their support cycle is a smarter move than buying it towards the end of active driver support, where they might be cheaper overall.
That’s not all that driver support nets you. This release of AMD Pro APUs also includes AMD’s much-vaunted Secure Processor, a dual-core ARM processor designed specifically to assist with tasks like preventing rootkits being installed into the BIOS, or attacking the random number generator inside the processor to crack open new methods of encryption, or having your OS hijacked by a virus.
Similar to Data Execution Prevention, AMD’s TrustZone technology isolates the processes for things like your antivirus, accessing your digital wallet or internet banking, or logging in with biometric information. Instead of saddling the processor with these things, the ARM processor does all the heavy lifting, even handling the decryption of information for small enough workloads.
All of this saves power, and makes the platform more secure, and it applies across Windows, Linux, and other Linux-based derivatives like Android OS. AMD is the first company to integrate TrustZone into their product, although if you currently own a PS4 or Xbox One that technology is already deployed in there as an anti-hacking measure.
AMD’s sixth-generation APUs in the Carrizo family also have an integrated Qualcomm X5 LTE modem, something that’s also not been done before for traditional x86-based computers. AMD integrates a LTE chip in to the package on the APU, eliminating the need for a notebook vendor to have to source a modem from elsewhere, or otherwise enable adding one into the system through a mini PCI Express slot. This is a rather interesting move because the only Intel chip/SoC that has a 3G or LTE modem embedded is from the Rockchip partnership, where Intel-designed x86 processors based on the Bay Trail family incorporate Rockchip’s embedded LTE modems and Mali graphics for use in tablets and kiosk computers.
As for where we’re going to see the first AMD Pro products based on Carrizo, the chip-maker has joined up with HP to put these products into the upcoming Probook 455, the Elitebook 755, and the Elitedesk 705 family of mini computers. These will all go on sale starting in October 2015, first to business clients, and it’s expected that these products will end up in the retail channel not too long after. Other vendors supposedly have designs in the early stages of release, but HP will get everything out first.
Will we see these products locally? I’m not sure. Looking around on Laptopdirect, HPShop, or even Firstshop, the AMD-powered notebooks that I know exist aren’t for sale (with the exception of one model from Lenovo). That’s not to say that they couldn’t be sourced by a local distributor catering to businesses like Drive Control Corporation, but given that it’s difficult enough finding the older models with AMD’s Pro APUs inside, this might not change things locally, if at all.