AMD sets its sights on laptops

The Puma platform can help Vista notebooks compete with Apple's offerings. Now OEMs have to do their part

At the logic level, MacBook, the benchmark for success in mainstream notebooks, is unremarkable -- indistinguishable from every PC notebook built on Intel Core 2 and its chipset-integrated graphics. Why, then, can't anyone with the same parts list emulate Apple's growth in an otherwise stagnant notebook market? Because Apple painstakingly hand-optimized its OS for a tiny variety of hardware architectures, presently Intel Core 2, while Microsoft wrote Vista to run on absolutely everything. No PC notebook maker can take the proprietary route that Apple plays to such advantage.

Microsoft can't crank out proprietary cuts of Vista for each notebook vendor's choice of suppliers. The best hope is a hardware architecture that's optimized for Vista. Not only that, but optimized for 64-bit Vista running on a battery. That radical objective drove AMD's design for the total notebook platform nicknamed Puma, and now dubbed, temporarily I hope, AMD's Next Generation Notebook Platform. This platform's Turion X2 Ultra 64 CPU is not cut from the common cloth of adapted desktop platforms like Core 2 that rely on machinations of the OS to balance performance with battery life. The combination of Turion X2 Ultra 64, AMD/ATI scalable graphics technology, AMD's M780G bus interface, and SB700 South Bridge, all connected via AMD's Hypertransport 3 bus, are core to AMD's recipe for consumer, business, and high-end notebooks. OEMs have just one number to call for platform parts. AMD doesn't make Wi-Fi, so it set up close partnerships with Broadcom and others to add 802.11n wireless to an integrated supply chain.

To a notebook OEM, a standardized bill of materials that covers a whole product line is a dream come true. That explains why global and US first-tier notebook vendors including Acer, Fujitsu, NEC, and Toshiba put Turion X2 Ultra 64 models on the street on AMD's June 4th launch day. There are other notable names on AMD's list of notebook wins, but for reasons that one needn't strain to understand, they're not rocking the boat with a big fuss on AMD Notebook Platform Day.

Deadlines demand that I give the specifics of AMD's new notebook platform shorter shrift than I'd like. Apart from the freshly baked, notebook-specific CPU, the platform's defining aspect is graphics. ATI's continuum of graphics solutions for this platform provides OEMs with the ability to build systems with integrated, hybrid (integrated plus discrete), and discrete GPUs without major redesign. I am no fan of integrated graphics, but AMD is mighty proud of its integrated performance relative to Intel's. I have no trouble imagining that, since a box of crayons and a pane of glass can outperform Intel integrated graphics. Maybe that's how Apple does it ...

AMD's Hybrid Graphics design allows system designers to add a discrete ATI GPU to the motherboard, with the advantage that the integrated and discrete GPUs will work together in one notebook to balance performance with battery life. Notebooks with discrete-only GPU designs will run graphics solely from dedicated video RAM, leaving main memory alone and boosting total system performance substantially.

AMD made it so easy for OEMs to choose from among these options that notebook buyers will see models with performance/weight/battery life balances that weren't possible before. For the past two years, a desire for that range of choice in one vendor's notebook product line has sent buyers to Apple. If a vendor standardizes on AMD's Next Generation Notebook Platform, AMD's technology raises performance levels at all price points beyond what Intel can deliver. The time I've spent with Puma's engineers leaves me comfortable with that assertion.

How far AMD carries notebook technology past Intel's unimpressive status quo is a question that needs answering. As soon as I land a notebook for review, I'll quantify the platform's advantages for you, and dig into that tough metric that I consider so vital: battery life with a discrete GPU. I'm desperate to be impressed by a notebook that doesn't bear an Apple logo. I have a strong feeling that when that glorious day comes, AMD will have made it happen.

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