AMD closes in on Intel with move to 32nm chips

With its 'Llano' processors, AMD hopes to gain on rival Intel

Intel may have made it to a 32-nanometer build process first, but rival Advanced Micro Devices has followed suit and is looking to make up some ground.

AMD announced on Monday that the first laptops and desktops with its 32nm A-series chips will be available this quarter. The chips, codenamed Llano, mark the first time AMD has moved from a 45nm to a 32nm manufacturing process for its mainstream PC chips.

It's a major step for a company that has been trailing Intel for several years now.

Intel moved to a 32nm process early in 2010 with its Westmere family of chips, which included the Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 processors.

At the time, AMD was expected to move to a 32nm manufacturing process with its own chips in mid-2010, but that was delayed because of yield problems giving Intel a head start.

However, Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said AMD may be late, but it's not too late.

"AMD didn't get to the 32nm party first, but they've finally made it and are aiming to make the most of it," said Olds. "I'd call them fashionably late and definitely not too late. Intel is obviously way ahead, but this new chip gives AMD something to talk about and perhaps a way to ratchet up their market share."

Going to a smaller manufacturing process generally saves energy and enables manufacturers to pack more cores onto a single chip. The move also is a gauge of how things are progressing in the industry. Moore's Law, the 42-year-old prediction made by Gordon Moore, asserts that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years.

But more than anything, AMD is just trying to keep Intel within its sights so it has a chance of catching up with its main rival.

"AMD is doing well these days. They're delivering on both their high-end server and low-end desktop/laptop processor roadmaps," said Olds. "Getting to 32nm is an important step for AMD and is the ante point now for modern processors. AMD needed to make this step in order to remain competitive. Assuming that they get the yield they need, they're in good shape going forward."

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT, said AMD is offering up something of a mixed bag with Llano, which could keep the company from surging ahead as quickly as it might otherwise have.

"Llano reportedly does deliver better GPU features and performance than its [previous] Brazos chips, but it essentially recycles its Phenom II CPU," he explained. "The result is a product priced and aimed at the low-cost desktop PC market. It may qualify as a 32nm, build but doesn't place AMD in any sort of leadership position outside of the cost-conscious corner of the market."

However, King did add that AMD is doing a good job at enhancing its meat-and-potatoes CPU features with trendy GPU trimmings.

"Consider Llano a Big Mac topped with grated truffle," he said. "Intel, on the other hand, is mixing prime CPU technologies with increasingly robust, integrated graphics features. That makes Sandy Bridge a Kobe beef steak sandwich with lettuce, tomato and a choice of mustards, including French's and Gray Poupon."

A bigger test for AMD will be when it delivers 32nm chips designed for higher-end PCs.

Jim McGregor, an analyst with In-Stat, said AMD has no time to waste because Intel is getting ready to leap-frog it again.

"AMD is a generation behind because Intel is already sampling chips on 22nm," he noted. "It is definitely a critical point for them to release the rest of their initial Fusion processors.... Parts of AMD are doing well, especially graphics and server chips, but AMD continues to struggle in the PC segment."

Agam Shaw, of IDG News, contributed to this article.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.

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