AMD's Z-60 APU offers impressive graphics capabilities, but that may not be enough for the chipmaker to compete with Intel and ARM, let alone Apple, in the tablet market.
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With Tuesday's announcement of the Z-60 accelerated processing unit (APU), AMD has finally showed the hand it will play to keep pace in the soon-to-be crowded Windows 8 tablet market. Impressive in several regards, particularly graphics firepower, the new chips, codenamed "Hondo," nonetheless amount to more of a tease than a roadmap.
Unlike x86 rival Intel, which showed off a slew of partner devices when it officially unveiled its Clover Trail system-on-a-chip (SoC) in September, AMD did not reveal which OEMs, if any, have declared their intent to use its new processor. The omission, to say nothing of several specs that compare unfavorably to Intel's offering, makes this a somewhat murky debut.
In a statement announcing the new chips, AMD claimed that Hondo is its most power-conscious APU to date, with battery life advertised at up to eight hours for Web surfing and up to six hours for HD video playback. Such performance would be respectable, if less enticing than Intel's boast of 10 hours, but until real-world testing confirms or refutes either manufacturer's claims, it's hard to know if AMD's ostensible disadvantage will matter.
The APU includes an integrated 80-core Radeon HD 6250 GPU that outpaces Clover Trail's graphics power; in addition to enabling 1920 x 180 HD playback, it also offers OpenGL 4.1 and OpenCL 1.1 support, as well as acceleration for a variety of codecs. Hondo's two CPU cores, meanwhile, offer a 1-GHz clock speed, and the chip can support not only USB 3.0 but also HDMI output to external monitors. Additional perks include AMD Start Now tech, which allows fast boot and resume times, and Windows 7 compatibility.
Steve Belt, AMD's VP for ultra low power products, touted the Z-60's graphics edge in a blog post, writing that Intel's chips will "struggle to perform" comparably. This might be true--but Hondo's evident disadvantages aren't limited to battery life, so it remains to be seen whether graphics prowess will translate to differentiation in an increasingly competitive market. Form factors are one consideration that might sway buyers; AMD says its chips will fit inside devices as thin as 10 mm, but Clover Trail can go even thinner, supporting designs of only 8.5 mm.
Support for Android or other Linux-based operating systems is another point of possible differentiation. Clover Trail won't initially offer such support, but Intel, after some back-and-forth, clarified that a Linux-friendly version is coming. Hondo is evidently exclusive to Windows 8, but it nonetheless offers a workaround through AMD AppZone, which promises users access to half a million Android apps. Early reviews have given AppZone mixed marks relative to native apps, however, so it's not clear how persuasive the feature will be.
AMD says Hondo-based tablets will launch globally later this year, in conjunction with Windows 8. Without any additional details, however, it's difficult--especially given how unevenly the APU stacks up to Clover Trail--to know what the devices might look like.
In an interview, Gartner analyst Sergis Mushell said that uncertainty is a problem AMD needs to address.
"AMD has achieved entering into the market but has not achieved being able to define a portion of the market for itself--that's the biggest challenge," he stated.
He stated that only Samsung and Apple have been successful selling tablets around the $500 price point, and that if AMD's OEM partners cannot match these high-profile successes on user experience, Hondo-powered devices will "realistically need to come in at a lower price." Even if that point is acknowledged, he said, problems remain because "sub-$500" is too vague a category, with significant product differentiation between those that have tried to slightly undercut this target, and those who have aimed much lower, in the $200 range.
"It's a very tough market," he remarked, nothing that many big name contenders--including Motorola, RIM, and HP--"have joined the party but failed." Even Intel, he said, hasn't fully mastered mobility, as its Ultrabooks "haven't been significantly successful and impactful yet."
AMD-fueled tablets, he went on, need to win on both performance and price--a challenge that makes its unknown collaborators something of a quandary.
"GPU is important," he explained, referencing AMD's biggest ostensible advantage, "but if you throw a lousy LCD in," the device will fail to gain traction. He stated that Z-60 devices "need to be able to get quality components" at the right price because the APU's "performance is not going to be the winner by itself."
AMD's ability to make waves among consumers--let alone in the enterprise, where it seems BYOD would be Hondo's most likely path to entry--involves "feeding their eyes," with sleek designs and attractive user interfaces, he said.
Mushell stated that because Windows 8 has not yet launched, AMD's ambiguous market positioning is not an impossible obstacle--but he asserted that "they need to be more clear with a strategy" by the time the new OS launches.
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