AMD lets cat out of bag with Puma launch

Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) has uncaged its Puma laptop chip platform, the first new laptop platform the microprocessor manufacturer has developed since it acquired graphics chip specialist ATI — and perhaps the last such platform in which central processor and graphics processor will be separate components.

“The next generation is all about graphics and throughput,” said Leslie Sobon, AMD’s worldwide director of product marketing. “Nobody needs to open Word and Excel documents faster,” she said, so instead AMD is focusing on speeding up video and video games performance for home users.

There’s no “Puma inside” logo to promote it, though: Customers looking for the latest chips will need to check that they’re getting a laptop with an AMD Turion X2 Ultra processor (the “Ultra” is new), the 780 chipset and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3000 Series graphics chip — or maybe two, if they want to profit from one of the platform’s power-saving, performance-enhancing features: hybrid graphics.

Some of the graphics chips that work with the Turion X2 Ultra are already on the market, but AMD is adding a discrete graphics chip at the high end of the range, the 3870.

Of the 100 or so notebook designs being readied using the new platform, around one-third will use discrete graphics chips, said Sobon. Those models may appeal more to Europeans: Around half of laptops sold in Europe include discrete graphics chips, which use their own memory rather than sharing system resources. In the U.S. about one-fifth of laptops ship with these chips.

“Europe understands the value of discrete graphics, the U.S. not so much,” she said. “If you have [US]$50 to $100 more to spend on a laptop, those dollars are better spent on discrete graphics than on faster clock speed.”

Companies building laptops with Puma components include Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu-Siemens, HP, NEC and Toshiba, she said. But there’ll be no Puma notebook platform from Lenovo or Apple: “Of course” we tried to sell the processors to Apple, said Sobon, noting that the company does buy ATI graphics chips from AMD.

One-third of those laptop designs have 15-inch screens, but there are also models with screens as large as 18 inches or as small as 12 inches. “There are no ultraportables,” said Sobon.

The first crop of Puma-based laptops will be missing one of the more interesting features of the platform: PowerXpress. This can toggle between using an integrated graphics chip to save power and a discrete chip for better performance, all without rebooting the machine. The first machines to feature it will appear late in the third quarter, said Sobon.

The Turion X2 Ultra processor has other power-saving capabilities: Power to either of its dual cores, or the integrated memory controller, can be reduced or cut entirely, depending on its level of activity. It can also offload the video encoding and decoding activities involved in playing DVDs or editing videos to the graphics chip, reducing power consumption.

“We don’t want to be paying for performance when we don’t need it. If we only have work for one core we want to only have one core on,” said David Rooney, senior product marketing manager with the AMD notebook division. “We’re getting very sophisticated in our power management techniques.”

Rooney adds AMD’s channel partners are onboard and will be able to realize strong benefits from the new platform.

“We have a strong, strategic channel business,” said Rooney. “We’ll probably have more specific channel-related announcements to come. Channel offerings will be there for this product.”

Analyst expectations for Puma are high.

“Puma is what is going to allow AMD to improve its competitive position against Intel,” said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Intel is leaving AMD little room to maneuver, though: “It’s keeping a pretty strong pace on platform rollouts,” said McCarron.

And although problems with some chipset components of Intel’s upcoming Centrino 2 mobile platform, code-named Montevina, have delayed its launch a little, “There really isn’t a big gap between the platforms,” he said.

With the Centrino brand, Intel made a big deal of its own wireless capabilities, but AMD thinks it can do better by allowing laptop designers to choose their favorite third-party wireless products. “We are open in our wireless solutions,” said Sobon. As a result, AMD products have “2.5 times the throughput and range that they do,” he said.

AMD stands to gain little from moving into the wireless chip market, according to McCarron: Design costs are high, because the chips are complex and yet relatively inexpensive. “There’s not a lot of profit for AMD to be chasing there,” he said.

McCarron doesn’t expect the launch of Puma to have much effect on notebook pricing. “As technology gets improved, components get replaced at the same price point.”

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