PHOENIX The war in low-power is heating up. Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) will make an aggressive move toward new process technologies such as silicon on insulator (SOI) and packaging options over the course of this year as it seeks to pierce the thin and light segment of the notebook market and break its GHz barrier.
As thermal issues become an increasingly important focus of notebook OEMs, and with Intel's mobile Pentium III and Celeron poised to gain even more market share, AMD executives said that SOI technology, thinner packaging designs and the company's PowerNow! technology will usher the high-end Athlon processor into previously untapped segments of the notebook market.
"We expect to break the GHz barrier on mobile parts this year," said Martin Booth, a product marketing manager for AMD (Sunnyvale, Calif.), at the Mobile Insights conference held here this week. "There's a certain thermal limit on designs, and as we move to a different process technology, notebook OEMs are asking us for higher frequencies within that thermal limit. This is an area where we're really driving the process technology," he added.
In addition to a 0.13-micron transition later in the year, it has been rumored that AMD will work with IBM to develop SOI technology to help achieve lower average power states for AMD's next-generation Thoroughbred family, based on the Athlon.
"We also have an SOI version of the 0.13-micron part", Booth said in reference to the Thoroughbred. "It's certainly in our technology planning, but we haven't put it on the public roadmap. SOI allows you to drive to higher frequencies and potentially lower power consumption due to reduced parasitic capacitance on the substrates." Booth added that the 0.13-micron Thoroughbred will most likely be a first-half 2002 family introduction. The company said it was partnering to develop the technology but would not say with whom.
A mobile Athlon processor, the first based on the Palomino core, is imminent at the end of this quarter, he said. "We had to do a relatively major redesign of the core to get the power down to the envelope of interest for notebook designers." Palomino, with an eye on the GHz barrier, will migrate to 0.13-micron in the first half of next year, driving frequencies higher and handing the performance baton to the SOI-based Thoroughbred. The chip will feature 256k of on-chip L2 cache and a 200-MHz system bus interface.
While AMD's mobile Duron, announced in January, reached speeds of 700 MHz for the full-size notebook segment, that part was still a desktop chip mired in packaging issues. The Duron is currently housed in a pin grid array, flip chip package, but for the Palomino line to pierce the untapped thin and light segment, AMD will work on shrinking it down into a ball grid array footprint. The initial Palomino offerings will be available only in a 462-pin, flip-chip PGA package, but that looks to change in the near future, the company said.
"We're bringing out a new package variant of Athlon as we get into the second half of the year," Booth said. "Right now, these things have to be socketed, but once you go down to a surface-mounted package, in a smaller form factor package, the thin and light segment becomes no problem."
Though Intel has been officially skeptical as to the long-term benefits of SOI technology, namely that the power advantages achieved through SOI may drop off as process geometries shrink, AMD and IBM have touted the technology as an important next step. Analysts believe that AMD's use of SOI may give it a leg up against Intel.
"Using SOI for the mobile space would be an interesting change from what AMD's been doing," said market-watcher Nathan Brookwood, president of research firm Insight64 (Saratoga, Calif.). "Since Intel and AMD each have staked out different positions on that technology, it will be interesting to see what kind of performance AMD will get, how buyers will react to that performance and extended battery life, and basically, which one is eventually proven correct."
Packaging will be an extremely important issue for AMD going forward as well, Brookwood said. "AMD has just kind of cherry-picked the mobile market using minor variations of their desktop processors, to the extent that it only offers pin grid-type packaging. In order to be a serious player in the mobile space, AMD needs to get its seventh-generation products in BGA form factors."
Intel's mobile offerings have been aggressive on the packaging front, featuring a micro PGA which fits into a BGA footprint, and the breadth of Intel's mobile offerings remain great, spanning from the full size to the ultralight market, Brookwood noted.
The next Duron-based mobile processor, dubbed Morgan, is being prepped for a second-half introduction and will feature AMD's PowerNow! Technology, as will the high-end Palomino when it is introduced later in the first half. PowerNow!, which in many ways resembles Intel's SpeedStep technology, basically allows the system to access as much power as is required for a given application in real time, preserving battery life.
Unlike Intel, which only offers SpeedStep in high-end mobile offerings and not its value Celeron line, AMD will make the technology available across all of its offerings. "One of the things to watch for is if Intel continues to keep the SpeedStep technology confined to the Pentium III line, when AMD comes out with the Duron and Athlon with PowerNow!," Brookwood said. "I think it will give AMD some competitive advantage."
Done in a combination of hardware and software drivers, PowerNow! has three operating modes: an automatic mode, where the processor frequency and voltage are determined by the application CPU utilization; a high-performance mode in which the processor runs at maximum performance; and a battery-saver mode, in which the processor runs at the lowest possible power state.
While an industry-wide PC slump has firmly entrenched itself with a chorus of recent layoffs and revenue warnings, the notebook market looks to remain relatively healthy. According to data from both IDC and Dataquest, the notebook market looks to outpace the desktop market with a 14 percent CAGR, moving from around 23 million units shipped in 2000 to roughly 40 million units shipped in 2004. The "sweet spot" of the market looks to be the thin and light segment, which will grow to represent over 60 percent of the notebook market by 2004.