AMD is still dragging its feet despite promises

When I saw Rory Read declare that AMD was no longer competing with Intel on the performance front in a statement issued three months ago, I thought he was high. Whatever those guys are smoking, let me have some of it because HOLY GUACAMOLE, that’s probably the worst PR move they’ve made to date. Signalling that you’re letting your biggest and only competitor finally rule the market where you previously forced it to toe the line is a big mistake, one that I doubt Read will ever overcome in his tenure as CEO. I tried to have a positive outlook about everything but now, three months on, there’s nothing being said or done to make the fans and consumers looking at the brand to feel more at ease about their decision.

And all the while, Intel’s lead keeps on growing.

In the months since I initially reported on that announcement, I’ve been watching AMD’s market and product performance, hoping that in some way things would begin to get better. Trinity is still two months off from retail availability, even though it is in the OEM channel already. Read’s speeches and keynotes made recently then have been to promote AMD’s new focus into emerging markets and the cloud, which seems like a popular bandwagon that everyone’s jumping on now.

AMD’s previous CEO, Dirk Meyer, stepped down in 2011 because investors thought he was moving into the mobile space too slowly. When he stepped up to the role in 2008, I predicted that he would be blind to the way the industry was changing in a Yu-Gi-Oh! forum to a bunch of like-minded geeks who stopped talking about Skill Drain+Gadget decks to chat more about computers. I knew the in-roads Intel was making in the ITX and mobile segment and said then that we’d have a shift to smaller systems that consume less power and do away with DVD drives. Right on the money, along came the netbook to challenge its larger cousins. The waning reliance on DVD drives is more noticeable in markets with better and more prevalent broadband internet, since there’s easily a chance that today you only use your DVD drive to install the OS, older software and games that haven’t been part of the digital revolution and aren’t available on Steam, Origin or Ultrabooks later cut out the DVD drive and focused on having a low weight and better battery life, something that I was anticipating as well.

Sure, a lot of modern games can be found on discs in your local stores and its a more convenient way of purchasing games for a lot of people, but sales of digital copies now rival those on physical media. In the same way that porn drove the eventual widespread adoption of VHS casettes and DVD discs, so the games industry pioneered digital media and online sales long before any other company with a web presence. We’re now entering into a full-on Web 2.0 era that will once again be dominated by Windows, with a rapidly advancing Mac OS X taking some of the limelight as well, where everything’s available in the cloud and on some online store. Everything that you used to know about computers has been changing rapidly since 2008 and there’s no stopping that ball from rolling now.

AMD’s cloud push has, to date, been non-existent or at the very least a weak attempt. They’re too busy trying to create good PR for their APUs on the desktop and making Ultrabook alternatives to pay any attention to the fact that they’re lagging behind in performance benchmarks and providing good efficiency numbers with their graphics cards. AMD’s products compared to those of Intel and Nvidia (in Kepler form) are more greedy when it comes to power consumption. The HD7970 still has a TDP of 250W, almost 60W higher than the competing GTX680 which beats it easily. If you take a dual-core Core i3-2120 and compare it to the FX-4100 at the same price, the 100w TDP for the FX chip overshadows the 65W thermal limit of the Intel chip. Clock for clock and in efficiency benchmarks, Intel wins, every time.

But there’s at least three places where the company should be making bigger moves – the ITX space, tablets and in All-in-One desktops.  Thin-and-lights are being taken care of by Trinity and if they play their cards right, the OpenCL-accelerated software market should pick up nicely. Its almost impossible for buyers in S.A., by comparision, to build a ITX system based on AMD’s platform using an off-the-shelf chip of your choice. The only cheap boards currently available are based on the Brazos platform, sporting a low-power, rather anemic dual-core APU. Higher-up, there’s nothing in stock locally, something that Intel’s cheap H61 and H77/Z77 boards in the ITX size take care of very well, with just about all of their desktop chips available for use.

In the same vein, its improbable that you’d ever find an AMD-based All-in-One available locally. This market is cornered solely by Intel on all fronts, with OEMs cramming in anything from an Atom N2500 all the way to a quad-core Xeon in high-end HP Workstations and Apple’s iMac Pro 27″. I read an article by Techreport this morning about their experiences building an All-in-One on their own, using parts supplied by Intel that will be available off the shelf in most stores online. The Loop monitor they reviewed has such potential that there’s nothing stopping a company buying up those instead of getting a few Atom nettops for use behind the screen on VESA mounts, aside from the higher costs.

Hell, they stuffed a quad-core in there with two SSDs and still fell under what most OEMs charge for their offerings with equivalent specs. If AMD had socket FM2 boards ready for the Thin Mini-ITX standard, they’d be golden for inclusion in these products as they become more and more popular. There was talk at one point of Apple looking to use AMD’s APUs in their Macbooks and iMacs but the deal fell through as Intel’s Sandy Bridge-based products provided better efficiency, were more reliable and delivered higher performance.

Finally, I’ve seen and heard nothing from AMD or Read on what their plans for the tablet space are. With Intel pretty much giving the industry its Letexo design as a template (and offering incentives to OEMs creating something similar, just like the Ultrabook fund) there’s just no way AMD can remain relevant in the next year or two without a strong presence in these markets. Without products for them, there’ll be no consumer interest and the company’s brand will fall out of the media’s very narrow attention span. In the same vein, not having a good supply of your products in the “emerging countries” like South Africa leads to a negative reception from the public when there are products available, further compounding the problem that the company just doesn’t advertise its stuff like it should.

They need better tablet products and they need them now in order to compete with the flurry of cheap Tegra 3 devices almost leaking out of Nvidia’s ears. If there’s no plans revealed in the pipeline for the next six months for the company’s re-entry into the tablet, ITX and All-in-One markets, then there’s not much hope for the company to gain popularity once more. If they were really serious about competing, they’d have a few leaked examples of these products to generate some hype already.

Without a strong competitor offering good alternatives. there’s a big gap left open for Intel to dominate once more, unhindered. I once said that not competing with Intel might be a good thing for the company as it evaluated better options and markets – well, maybe I was wrong. I just really hope that, for the sake of the fans, loyalists and people who see the potential for great things in the company that it picks up things where they’re needed.

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