Get ready for off-brand Ultrabooks: Can AMD’s new Trinity processor beat Intel on performance and price?

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Struggling chipmaker AMD has formally announced its second-generation A-series APUs for notebook and desktop computers. Codenamed Trinity, these processors look to take on Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors head to head, offering high performance computing, top-flight integrated graphics, and low-power designs that make then suitable for essentially every class of mainstream computer, from ultraportables and notebooks to all-in-ones, small-form-factor PCs, and traditional desktops. And here’s the kicker: AMD is offering these chips at prices substantially lower than Intel’s current offerings, meaning computers packing Trinity chips can, in theory, outperform systems build around Intel processors and come with a lower price tag.

However, the price-to-performance proposition has always been AMD’s defining characteristic — and yet Intel processors are still in 80 percent of the world’s PCs. As consumers increasingly turn to tablets (well, the iPad, anyway) instead of notebooks, will AMD fall victim to declining PC sales? Or can AMD leverage the situation and make Intel the big loser?

So what does Trinity pack?

AMD Trinity APU (die)

Like every other major CPU release, AMD’s Trinity chips aren’t just a single processor: they’re a whole line of processors with different price points and specs, targeting different kinds of computers. AMD is now shipping five flavors of its Trinity chips: the A10-4600M, A8-4500M, and A6-4400M are aimed at traditional notebook computers, while the A10-4655M and A6-4455M target sleek, ultrathin notebooks that can compete with the MacBook Air and Intel-powered Ultrabooks. AMD also plans versions of the Trinity processor for desktop computers, but those haven’t been formally announced yet. For now, Trinity is notebook-only.

Like AMD’s original A-series APUS — and Intel’s Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge chips — the Trinity processors pack both traditional processing cores and graphics processors into a single die. This makes things easier for computer makers because they get both computing and graphics on a single chip, and don’t have to design motherboards and other components to account for separate graphics hardware. (On-chip graphics also have a performance edge, because they have more-direct access to the processors and its data paths.)

One critical difference between Trinity and Intel’s Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors is that AMD also makes Radeon graphics processors, technology it acquired with ATI back in 2006. Although AMD had to repeatedly write down the value of that $5.4 billion deal, it does give AMD in-house graphics expertise that Intel lacks — and AMD has packed the Trinity APUs with Radeon HD 7000-series graphics. AMD claims Trinity’s graphics performance is 56 percent better than its first-generation A-series APUs — and those, in turn, substantially outperformed Intel’s offerings. Although there haven’t yet been third-party benchmarks, industry estimates so far place Trinity’s graphics performance at about 20 percent faster than Intel’s current integrated graphics.

The Trinity APUs also mark the debut of AMD’s new Piledriver processor core. In addition to adding 125 million more transistors, the Piledriver design can transition very quickly from low-power states. AMD says the technology enables AMD-based notebooks to wake from sleep mode in as little as two seconds, and boot to the desktop in as little as ten seconds.

AMD Trinity (battery)

We’re used to chips getting smaller and less power-hungry with each generation, but here’s an interesting note about Trinity: it’s actually bigger than it’s predecessor. AMD’s first-generation “Llano” APUs had a die size of 228mm²; adding those 125 million additional transistors pushed Trinity out to 246mm². That’s because AMD is manufacturing Trinity on the same 32nm process that it used for Llano.

With Ivy Bridge, Intel has shrunk their manufacturing process down to 22 nm — making for smaller chips that consume less power. But AMD has nonetheless wrung power savings in Trinity while sticking with the 32nm process. AMD says Trinity consumes half the power of its Llano predecessor — a claim that’s borne out with the dual-core A6-4455M: it consumes 17 watts, compared to 35 watts of its predecessor. AMD says some Trinity-based notebooks should be able to get up to 12 hours of batter life, and that A6-4455M matches the nominal power consumption figures for the least power-hungry of Intel’s Ivy Bridge line. Furthermore, the Trinity chips released so far top out at 35 watts; Ivy Bridge tops out at much hungrier 55 watts.

Performance — and, yes, gaming

AMD makes some pretty significant performance claims about Trinity, saying it offers up to 29 percent higher processor speeds. The improvements come from the new Piledriver processing core and AMD Turbo Core technology that chips power between processing cores and the graphics processor, depending on what applications need. That 17 watt A6-4455M mentioned above runs at a default 2.1GHz, but can boost to 2.6GHz, while the A10-4655M quad-core processors (which also targets ultrathin notebooks) runs at a default 2.0GHz, but can sprint up to 2.8GHz when pressed. And Trinity supports OpenCL, which lets applications leverage Trinity’s onboard graphics processor for computing tasks. Graphics processors excel at vector mathematics — the sorts of things are are used in 3D software, but also video, audio, and media software.

AMD Trinity (performance)

AMD has offered some benchmarks for Trinity showing the ship far ahead of Intel competition in raw GFLOPS (a measure of computing capacity), 3D benchmarks, and video encoding. (Trinity was a bit behind the Intel chip in PC Mark 7 benchmarks.) These figures come with some caveats: AMD tested its quad-core A10-4600M mobile chip against an Intel Sandy Bridge Core i5-2520M (that’s not Intel’s latest Core i5 processor), and the figures haven’t yet been confirmed by independent third parties.

AMD Trinity (desktop gaming performance)

AMD also makes broad claims about Trinity’s gaming prowess, claiming it blows away Intel’s Ivy Bridge Core i7-3770K native graphics at near-HD resolution in a variety of mainstream, high-performance games — AMD says Trinity’s performance at StarCraft 2 is about 150 percent better than Intel’s Ivy Bridge. However, these benchmarks haven’t been confirmed, and they represent a desktop version of Trinity — the A10-5800K running at 3.8GHz and apparently consuming about 100 watts. Real-time performance on lower-power systems will, of course, be lower — and that applies to both Intel and AMD.


HP Envy Sleekbook (AMD Trinity)

So, if AMD’s Trinity chips are competitive with Intel’s Ivy Bridge — and seemingly exceeding them at some tasks — how much will they cost? Although AMD doesn’t control what OEMs do with its chips, it looks like ultrathin and lightweight systems that can compete with Intel-based Ultrabooks will have price tags starting at $699 or even lower. Overall, the lower cost of AMD Trinity processors should make systems built around Trinity APUs about $100 cheaper than equivalent systems running Intel processors.

The first out the door will be a Trinity-powered version of the HP Sleekbook — and it makes the price comparison very apparent: It’ll pack 4GB of RAM, a 15.6-inch 1,366 x 768 display, a 320GB hard drive, USB 3.0, SD card reader, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and HP’s Beats audio for a starting price of $599. A loosely-comparable system based on Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor (larger hard drive, smaller screen with the same resolution) will run about $799, although customers will be able to skip back a generation to Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors for $699.

AMD’s Trinity gambit

Intel Ultrabook Hummingbird

AMD’s bet with Trinity is that everyday consumers don’t care so much about processor specs, manufacturing process, gigahertz, or the number of cores inside as how well a computer does what they want. Does it play video smoothly? Does it offer a smooth Internet experience? Does its battery last a long time? Does it have a high-quality display? Is it comfortable to carry around?

AMD doesn’t control many of these things: It can’t dictate what displays computer makers put on their computers, whether their keyboards are comfortable, or whether a computer’s industrial design makes any sense. Instead, AMD’s focus is on “accelerating what consumers care about” — application performance, multi-tasking, power consumption, and (of course) video playback, including a bunch of proprietary technologies designed to improve video look and performance. (AMD is quite proud that a number of major applications have announced support for AMD’s video technologies.)

Intel, of course, will say it cares deeply about the same things. After all, it’s a chipmaker. However, Intel seems bent on distinguishing Intel-based products with high-end premium features and designs. Take Ultrabooks: Intel has invested some $300 million to help computer makers figure out how to make Ultrabooks, and expects they will account for about 40 percent of computer sales by the end of 2012.

There are two fundamental challenges to Intel’s approach with Ultrabooks. The first is that consumers are increasingly opting for tablets (well, so far, the iPad) instead of a traditional notebook. Intel is angling for Ultrabooks that combine elements of tablets and a traditional laptop (including convertible designs and touchscreens), but these devices are going to carry premium price tags — don’t be surprised to see them start at $999 and higher.

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The second challenge to Ultrabooks is that Apple pretty much owns the market for computers (desktop and notebook) priced at $1,000 or more — and has for years. Some market watchers have consistently claimed Apple will have to introduce lower-cost versions of its MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines to compete with Ultrabooks. Of course, predicting Apple is a notoriously difficult business, but those arguments seem to forget Apple is already undercutting the price of Ultrabooks — with the iPad. While traditional PC makers are seeing sales slump as low-end notebooks were cannibalized by tablets (remember the netbook craze? Is anyone still making netbooks?), Apple has actually seen its Mac sales increase. Apple is happy with Macintosh sales.

AMD’s gamble with Trinity is that there is sweet spot in the PC notebook market between tablets like the Kindle Fire and the Apple iPad and Intel’s preferred premium-featured Ultrabook platform. Given Apple’s dominance of the high-end computer market, AMD may be right — but the company may have a tough job convincing OEMs to put Trinity processors in well-designed systems, rather than afterthought notebooks solely targeting the low end of the market. Otherwise, Trinity notebooks could just wind up being the next netbooks.

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