AMD's new G-series processors show a renewed focus on the embedded market, and hint at future ARM-architecture system-on-chip designs.
On the ten-year anniversary of its Opteron processor, the first 64-bit x86 chip to hit the mass market, AMD has made an announcement that illustrates better than any other how its focus is shifting: a new family of G-series processor for the embedded markets.
Based on the Jaguar architecture - the same architecture that powers the semi-custom processors at the heart of Sony's upcoming PlayStation 4 console - the latest entries in the G-series are based on a system-on-chip design which pairs up to four Jaguar cores with Radeon HD embedded graphics in thermal design profiles (TDPs) ranging from 25W to just 9W. Designed to replace the existing G-series family, the new chips include power efficiency improvements through clock-gating in the graphics cores, a shared L2 cache - another step on the road to AMD's Heterogeneous Systems Architecture (HSA) vision - and the latest Universal Video Decode 3 (UVD 3) combined with hardware acceleration of video encoding - a first for the platform.
Designed specifically for Windows Embedded 8 and Linux, the new chips include OpenCL support for general-purpose GPU (GPGPU) offload - something that suddenly brings the surprisingly powerful graphics cores into sharp focus. The idea AMD is pushing is to use the G-series as low-power chips that can nevertheless cope with the heavy lifting required to perform, for example, real-time computer vision analysis or high-speed parallel data processing. It's here that the company's chips start to eclipse rivals: compared to Intel's equivalent Atom SoC designs, the new G-series boasts a claimed 125 per cent better performance - delivered largely thanks to the Radeon HD graphics cores.
It's here that AMD's focus on heterogeneous computing becomes clear: no other company is able to combine desktop-class graphics hardware with low-power x86 processors in quite the same way. Intel relies on third-party graphics IP for its Atom processors, while rival Nvidia has no x86 licence and instead uses ARM IP for the CPU portion of its Tegra family of embedded SoC processors.
It's also a clear indication of how AMD's priorities have shifted over the last few years. Finding itself unable to compete with Intel's latest Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge products at the performance end of the market, the company is increasingly looking to HSA - formerly known as Fusion - for its future. While yet to make a massive impact on the desktop, where its Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) are typically only found at the budget end of the market and then in limited numbers, HSA holds great promise for the embedded sector - providing, that is, the company can keep riding the performance curve ahead of Cambridge-based chip design giant ARM's products.
If AMD can capture the embedded markets - the company is suggesting industrial control and automation powered by GPU-accelerated code, digital signage using UVD-accelerated playback, electronic gaming machines and network-attached storage as target markets for the new G-series chips - its future will look considerably more rosy. Whether such a focus will come at the cost of the high-performance 64-bit processors it pioneered a decade ago, however, remains to be seen.
The company has confirmed five models in the new family at launch: the quad-core 2.0GHz GX-420CA with 600MHz Radeon HD 8400E graphics and a 25W TDP; the quad-core 1.5GHz GX-415GA with 500MHz Radeon HD 8330E graphics and a 15W TDP; the dual-core 1.65GHz GX-217GA with 450MHz Radeon HD 8280E graphics and a 15W TDP; the dual-core 1GHz GX-210HA with 300MHz Radeon HD 8210E graphics and a 9W TDP which can be cooled entirely passively; and the quad-core 1.6GHz GX416RA, which has no embedded graphics and run at a 15W TDP. Pricing will range from $49 to $72 depending on model, based on orders in trays of 1,000.
Most interesting of all, however, is a change to the G-series logo: designed to match the company's current design language, the new logo includes the presence of an 'X' in the bottom-right corner - suggesting the company needs a way to highlight which of its embedded processors use the x86 instruction set architecture. The only reason the company would need to do this is if it planned to launch processors that do not use the x86 ISA - meaning embedded cousins to the company's previously-announced ARM-based Opteron chips
are a near-certainty.
In other words: Nvidia's Tegra platform is soon to have some serious competition.