AMD's Puma prepares to pounce


The AMD-ATI hybrid bears fruit
— 11:11 PM on June 3, 2008

Most of the news pouring forth from Computex thus far has been focused on smaller devices, but AMD has its sights set on a big cat, Puma, the firm's new platform for mainstream laptop PCs, which it officially announced today. Puma will do battle against Intel's upcoming Centrino 2 platform later this year. For the most part, Puma represents the "mobilization" of AMD's current desktop PC technologies, with a necessarily increased focus on dynamic power and performance scaling. Overall, that's not a bad place to start, and Puma adds some notable innovation on several fronts.

The various components of the Puma platform will be largely familiar to those who know AMD's desktop products, but the big exception here is the new mobile processor design, code-named "Griffin." Griffin is a mix of old and new, combining a pair of K8-style execution cores with Phenom-style glue logic and power-saving measures. The chipset itself is manufactured on AMD's 65nm SOI process, and each core packs 1MB of L2 cache, for a total of 2MB L2 per chip. AMD says this new mobile processor has three independent power planes, one for each CPU core and a third for its integrated north bridge (with a HyperTransport link and memory controller). Griffin can scale voltage up and down as needed, in response to demand, for each of these three power planes. The north bridge supports HyperTransport 3.0, for added bandwidth, and it can drop from 16 lanes to eight, or even disconnect itself temporarily, in order to conserve power.


Source: AMD.

AMD claims Griffin's memory controller is better optimized for mobile use, as well. This controller supports DDR2 memory at up to 800MHz, and its data prefetch mechanism has been massaged to better take advantage of the additional bandwidth.

The first three Turion X2 Ultra models based on Griffin will be the ZM-86 (running at 2.4GHz with 2MB total L2 cache), the ZM-82 (at 2.2GHz with 1MB total L2), and the ZM-80 (at 2.1GHz with 1MB total L2).

As far as we've been able to determine, Griffin will be a mobile-only part with no clear desktop analog. Obviously, in an ideal world, AMD would have been able to include higher-performance, Phenom-style execution cores, but this design does look to improve AMD's standing in the mobile market with higher power efficiency and, thanks to HyperTransport 3.0 and the improved memory controller, to provide a better conduit to memory for a chipset-integrated graphics processor. AMD expects to offer a full lineup of Griffin-based products, with branding ranging from the mobile versions of Sempron and Athlon through the familiar Turion to the new Turion X2 Ultra. As the branding and models numbers increase, so will performance and the presence of various power-saving measures, with the highest end products purportedly bringing the best mix of power-efficiency and performance.

At the other end of the HyperTransport link will sit AMD's new RS780M chipset, the mobile variant of the quite solid 780G chipset, including the SB700 south bridge. This chipset has all of the latest capabilities, including PCIe 2.0, but its biggest claim to fame is its relatively decent Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor. AMD expects Puma's IGP to outperform anything Intel has to offer for Centrino 2 easily, a credible claim given the desktop variant's relatively strong performance. (Sure, it's integrated graphics and may unavoidably be a turkey, but this is the most muscular, well-formed turkey in the pen.) This IGP includes the UVD logic built into all recent Radeons, so it's capable of providing extensive decode offloading for the major high-definition video formats, as well.

The chipset's IGP will be getting assistance from other Radeons in various ways, too. AMD's Hybrid CrossFireX tech will allow a Radeon HD 3450 discrete GPU to team up with the IGP in order to boost 3D graphics performance, much like CrossFireX does on the desktop. AMD claims this combination can achieve up to 70% higher performance than a single GPU alone. This hybrid scheme only scales well when the two GPUs are relatively closely matched, so AMD's faster mobile Radeons need not apply.

However, another hybrid graphics capability, marketed under the name PowerXpress, will allow a Puma-based system to switch between an IGP and a discrete GPU in order to optimize performance or battery life. For instance, the firm claims a laptop with a discrete Radeon HD 3650 can deliver over 2.4 times the throughput of the IGP, while popping into IGP mode and disabling the discrete GPU can prolong battery life by over 90 minutes. Users can switch between the two modes with a keystroke—no need for a reboot—or a system can be configured to switch automatically from discrete to integrated graphics when it's unplugged from a power outlet (and vice-versa). At present, PowerXpress won't change modes dynamically when it detects the launch of a 3D application like Nvidia's Hybrid SLI, but mobile users will probably want more control over these things, anyhow.


The Puma family of components. Source: AMD.

The dynamic range possible with PowerXpress is expanded substantially by another of today's introductions, the mobile version of the Radeon HD 3800 series GPUs. AMD has already introduced mobile variants of the Radeon HD 3400 and 3600 series, so this addition rounds out its lineup. Obviously, this chip will be intended primarily for larger, desktop-replacement-class systems, but it's about as large and power-hungry as one would really want for a mobile GPU, in my book. And it performs pretty well, too, of course.

As ever, AMD hasn't attempted to create its own wireless networking solutions for Puma, instead preferring to rely on partners like Atheros, Broadcom, Marvell, and Ralink for 802.11a/b/g/n and 3G connectivity. Also as ever, AMD claims its partners' solutions perform better than Intel's, anyhow.

Today's announcement is just the Puma platform's formal introduction. Most products based on the platform are likely to be announced in the next six to eight weeks, and AMD expects products to be shipping in time for the back-to-school buying season.

All told, Puma looks like a pretty smart combination of elements, and the two types of hybrid graphics capabilities make the platform proposition actually compelling, unlike most such component bundling attempts. Even the (almost assuredly) lower performance of the Griffin processor compared to Intel's 45nm Core 2 Duo CPUs may not be a major drawback, if AMD can convince consumers that PC balance—which includes GPU performance—is a desirable goal in a laptop. (See our interview with Pat Moorhead for more on this subject.) Personally, I could probably be persuaded to choose a Puma system with a hybrid PowerXpress config over a Centrino 2 system with an Intel IGP. For a great many "mainstream" laptops, AMD may have the best overall solution.

If there is a downside to Puma, it's the fact that Centrino can go places it can't—namely, into ultraportables. Like prior Turion platforms, Puma isn't engineered to fit well into laptops with screens 12" or smaller, weighing four pounds or less. For this reason, you probably won't see a MacBook Air or ThinkPad X300 competitor based on Puma, and that is a crying shame. AMD says it's "looking into" serving this part of the market with future products, which is wise since this is clearly a hot segment, but it has no ETA for such an offering.TR

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