AMD Z-60 Chip to Challenge Intel, ARM in Tablets

AMD expects tablets powered by its new “Hondo” chips to begin rolling out soon after Microsoft launches Windows 8 Oct. 26.

Advanced Micro Devices is coming out with its own chip designed specifically for tablets, looking to leverage the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system later this month and challenging Intel’s Clover Trail Atom processor in the booming market.

AMD on Oct. 9 unveiled its low-power Z-60 accelerated processing unit (APU), with officials saying it offers a balance of performance and price that will not only differentiate itself from Intel’s offering, but also from Windows-based tablets that will be powered by systems on a chip (SoCs) designed by ARM Holdings.

With the Z-60 “Hondo” APU, “you don’t have to choose [between performance and price] anymore,” Christopher Suphen, product marketing manager for ultra-low power products at AMD, said during a recent conference call with analyst and journalists.

Both AMD and Intel are looking at the release Oct. 26 of Windows 8—which is optimized for tablets—as a key event in their efforts to gain traction in the tablet space, where the bulk of the devices are powered by ARM-designed processors sold by licensees like Samsung Electronics and Qualcomm. The market itself is dominated by Apple’s iPad.

At an event Sept. 27, Intel executives officially announced its Atom Z2760 Clover Trail SoC, which is aimed specifically at Windows-based tablets. The dual-core Atom Z2760 offers long battery life, runs at a speed of 1.8GHz and offers 1MB of Layer 2 cache. It also was designed to enable OEMs to build very thin—around the 8 to 9mm point—tablets, convertible and hybrid systems that are high-performing and energy-efficient. A host of systems makers, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Lenovo, were at the event showing off their Intel-powered devices, which will start rolling out soon after Windows 8 launches.

AMD officials echo much the same attributes for the dual-core Z-60 APUs. The chips run at 1GHz, offer 80 Radeon graphics cores and 1MB of cache, and can be used by OEMs to create device designs as thin at 10mm, according to Suphen. It will offer 10 hours of battery life—including eight hours of continuous Web browsing and six hours of 720p video playback. It will feature AMD’s new StartNow technology to enable systems to quickly wake from a low-power state, and 25 seconds to boot to Windows.

Suphen said he expects systems makers to begin announcing new Z-60-based tablets and convertibles this month, in anticipation of the Windows 8 launch, with the systems launching throughout the rest of the year and into early 2013.

The release of Windows 8 will be an “inflection point in the tablet market,” he said, with chips like the Z-60 enabling the creation of hybrids and convertible devices. Such a device “gives me all the capabilities I want in PCs, but also all the flexibility to be made into a tablet when I want it to be.”

AMD and Intel are both looking to drive their x86-based chips into a tablet market that is expected to continue growing rapidly. IDC analysts in September said they expect 117.1 million tablets to be shipped this year, and 165.9 million in 2013. By 2016, that number will grow to 142.8 million.

Currently, Intel and AMD are essentially absent from the market. They still dominate the PC space, but sales of PCs continue to stagnate, due in part to the growth of tablets and smartphones, as well as the uncertain global economy. Windows 8 gives them a shot to make some inroads into the tablet market, executives with both companies have said.

As tablets become more commonplace—including in the workplace—users are going to want such capabilities as support for legacy Windows applications. Microsoft also is coming out with a version of Windows 8—dubbed Windows RT—that will run on ARM-powered devices, but AMD officials say the legacy application support on x86-based Windows 8 tablets will be a draw for both consumers and business users.

“Yes, [ARM-based Windows RT tablets] will probably end up being in there among the more affordable options and their power management will be good,” Steve Belt, corporate vice president of ultra-low-power products at AMD, said in an Oct. 8 blog post. “Where they may fall short is on experience and performance. I anticipate that compatibility with the full suite of legacy Windows applications is not going to be in place any time soon. AMD’s support for x86 instructions and Windows application compatibility is an established strength and provides a clear advantage vs. the expected Windows RT offerings.”

Belt also argued that both ARM-based tablets and those running Intel’s Clover Trail SoCs will also lag in performance, while AMD’s Radeon graphics technology can support full high-definition 1080p resolution. Intel’s Atom Z2760 also comes with the company’s integrated graphics. In addition, AMD officials also are making the price/performance argument that is a mantra throughout the company when talking about their products compared with those of Intel.

“The real elephant in the room is the price paid for CPU performance at the high end of the market,” Belt wrote. “In a world of lightweight, ultra-thin notebooks that cost under $800, is there really a market for the thousand-dollar tablets using our competition’s CPU?”

AMD faces an uphill battle in its competition with Intel, whose chips are being widely embraced by OEMs and are viewed by some analysts as a better product. AMD over the past couple of years has stumbled when it comes to tablets. It was the lack of a tablet strategy that helped lead to Dirk Meyer’s departure as CEO earlier last year, and AMD’s first stab at the market—with the Z-01—didn’t bring much business. However, new CEO Rory Read has made tablets a key part of his turnaround plan for the company.