AMD Aims to Reform Boring PCs

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-05-16

AMD Aims to Reform Boring PCs

Advanced Micro Devices is about to roll out a new line of low-power processors in an effort to encourage a move away from the one-size-fits-all desktop PC.

The chip maker on May 16 announced a line of low-power processors for desktop PCs, including 35-watt chips such as a dual-core Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor, as part of a broader initiative its quietly working on with the aim of fostering diversification of PC designs.

The low-power chips are designed to assist manufacturers in creating smaller, thinner desktops for the corporate market as well as for consumers.

But the company also expects that the chips will help popularize alternatives, such as one AMD executives call stateless PCs—desktops that come without hard drives and instead rely on servers to host their applications and data—they have said.

Whereas most of todays desktops attempt to offer one-size-fits-all computing, AMD executives envision a new crop of computers that offer businesses many more options for outfitting different types of employees.

Are thin clients on the comeback trail? Click here to read more.

"I expect us to change the game in 06. We actually think the muscle thats being put behind shifting commercial clients to dual-core [processors] could bet a flawed strategy here," said Marty Seyer, vice president Commercial Business and Performance Computing at AMD, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Instead, Seyer argues that while some users could benefit from beefy, dual-core machines, many others would not need the horsepower and could get by with small desktops or devices like the so-called stateless PC. All told, AMD sees eight or 10 different scenarios for client computing, including mobile, he said.

"There is something called good enough performance in commercial clients. That offers a range of possibilities from thinness to traditional clients—but putting the right amount of compute power [in place] when you need it where you need it," Seyer said, in a recent interview with eWEEK.

Among the scenarios are diskless PCs for security-conscious companies, or PCs that separate their business software from a workers personal applications, using virtualization, Seyer said.

"What were saying is youre going to have a cluster of options that you didnt have before. Dual-core chips will still be there. Our strategy here is to capitalize on that part of the business and then add another set of business models and be the leader."

Next Page: Performance characteristics.

Performance Characteristics

Initially, AMDs low-power line will include 10 different processors, which consume either 35 watts or 65 watts across its Sempron, Athlon 64 and dual-core Athlon 64 x2 lines. AMDs desktop chips normally use about 90 watts.

The chip makers 35-watt line will include several single-core Sempron models, ranging from a model 3000+ to a model 3400+ as well as a single-core Athlon 64 3500+ and the dual-core Athlon 64 X2 3800+.

The chips will range in price from $101 for the Sempron 3000+ to $364 for the X2 3800+ chip, AMD said.

AMD will also offer an all-dual-core line of 65-watt chips. The chips, which parallel its Athlon 64 X2 line, include X2 models that range from the 3800+ to a 4800+ and list for between $323 and $671, the chip maker said.

The low-power chips will be based on AMDs latest chip circuitry, often dubbed ref F, meaning they use its new socket AM2 and have the capability of working with DDR2 (Double Data Rate 2 SDRAM).

Thus the low-power chips wont arrive before AMDs unveiling of its standard-wattage rev F/AM2 desktop chips, which are due in the near future, AMD officials said.

Using the chips, manufacturers "will be able to develop more small form factor [PCs] that give them the opportunity to build system for emerging types of usage models," said David Schwarzbach, division marketing manager for desktop products at AMD in Austin, Texas.

"All of our energy-efficient models will have the same performance characteristics [as standard AMD chips]. Theres no trade-off in performance."

AMD believes the chips will help make it easier for PC makers to create products such as small desktops and blade computers for businesses.

The 35-watt chip line, meanwhile, should allow for more ultra-small form factor desktops—the best example of which is Apple Computers Mac Mini—to be designed with cheaper desktop parts, versus using notebook processors, which tend to cost and dont always deliver as much performance.

But AMD isnt alone in seeing a trend toward differing desktop designs in the figure. Its larger rival Intel has been showing off small form factor desktop designs independent of the launch of its Intel vPro brand for business desktops, recently.

Is smaller better for enterprise PCs? Click here to read more.

The chip makers maneuvers come as desktop minitowers, the form taken by most PCs at the moment, are expected to give way to so-called small form factor desktops—which are roughly half the size of a standard minitower—in as soon as three years in some markets, according to a recent forecast by researcher IDC.

Small form factor machines will gain favor with corporations, and consumers to a lesser extent, IDC predicts, because the more diminutive machines take up less space and generally produce less heat and noise than minitowers, in part by using more power-efficient processors.

As part of the shift, so-called thin clients will also see a jump among corporate customers, IDC has predicted.

Thin clients, once seen strictly as terminals that operate off a central server, are themselves diversifying into diskless desktops, blade desktops and even virtual desktops, which use virtualization to host numerous desktop instances on a back-end server, transmitting them to each workers screen.

AMD will find its rival, Intel, going after many of the same markets.

Intel, whose executives have said it is working a line of thin-client processors, plans to deliver a new line of low-power chips for desktops and notebooks this summer.

Intels Core 2 Duo desktop chip, a dual-core processor for desktops due in July thats otherwise known as Conroe, will use 65 watts of power, Intel has said.

Its Core 2 Duo notebook chip, otherwise known as Merom and due in August, will use about 30 watts, the chip maker has said.

Intel will place Core 2 Duo chips into its vPro platform for corporate desktops.

A vPro Professional version of the platform will include the Core 2 Duo, along with new supporting chips and enhanced security or manageability features for businesses.

Intel is pitching vPro as the base for mainstream business desktops for the next year. Merom chips, meanwhile, could show up in ultra small desktops.

For its part, AMDs client transformation initiative, lead by Seyer, is expected to come to the surface sometime later this year.

"Yes, the thinnest-possible client may be one of the many usage scenarios that we cater to with this—our [transformation] road map. But theres a spectrum between your PDA, the thinnest thing, and a PC blade in a datacenter or even a server that…is in a datacenter," he said.

"You will see us introduce whatever were going to introduce based on this client re-invention. Its not going to be its a dual-core, secure, single vendor. Were going to stand back and look at this overall perspective, this range of clients."

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