With Fusion, AMD plans to stop being the underdog in chips

Making good on plans it laid in 2006, Advanced Micro Devices is finally announcing that its Fusion family of computer chips, which combine graphics functions with general computing power, are ready for prime time. Namely, they’re starring in a host of PC models set to be unveiled this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The Fusion chips represent AMD’s attempt to escape its underdog status in the multibillion-dollar microprocessor market, where Intel has roughly 80 percent of the market share. The company started working on Fusion in 2006 after it bought graphics chip maker ATI Technologies. The company made the announcement this week at CES, the tech extravaganza which traditionally sets the agenda for hot gadgets for the year.

It’s the culmination of the biggest bet that AMD has made in computer and chip design, said Rick Bergman, general manager of the AMD products group which designed the Fusion family of chips.

“As far back as 2005, we saw that the integration of the CPU (central processing unit) and the GPU (graphics processing unit) was inevitable,” Bergman (pictured right) said in an interview.

AMD took a while to get its chips out. Its first attempt to build a Fusion chip using 45-nanometer manufacturing technology turned out to be a false start. The team realized it would have to wait for 32-nanometer manufacturing (which is akin to making a drawing with a finer pencil) to cram all of the circuitry needed into a combo chip.

Now the need for the better 3D performance is pronounced. Desktops and laptops are being used for graphics-rich applications like never before, with features such as stereoscopic 3D, Blu-ray movies, rich 3D games, and 3D features in operating system user interfaces.

Many of the new computers will be available for sale this week, since AMD has been shipping its new Fusion microprocessors for weeks now. The chips are part of AMD’s code-named Brazos platform, which contains all of the chips needed to make the processing part of a computer. Brazos can use either the code-named Zacate or Ontario Accelerated Processing Units (APUs), which are the combo chips. Each Zacate or Ontario chip uses a brand new microprocessor core, code-named Bobcat.

The new chips range in performance, depending on whether they use one or two Bobcat cores, and they generate 9 watts to 18 watts, which is low enough to be used in most laptops. Laptops with the chips will cost $300 to $400 and desktops will likely cost around $700. The machines will have battery life of around 10 to 12 hours.

While Intel’s combo chips have moderate microprocessor performance coupled with weak graphics, AMD’s combo chips have strong graphics performance. AMD’s Fusion chips are thus being used in models that feature strong graphics performance. The APUs are made with a 40-nanometer manufacturing process by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

The Zacate and Ontario chips — aimed at mobile users — are just the first of AMD’s Fusion family of combo chips. More chips based on the Llano code name will be out later in the first half of the year; those chips will target mainstream laptop and desktop users. AMD claims that its best Brazos platform will be able to run graphics 11 times faster than the Intel Atom 550, which was one of Intel’s mainstay low-cost mobile processors in 2010. The more important comparison will concern how much faster AMD’s Fusion chips are than Intel’s combo chip, code-named Sandy Bridge, which is also debuting at CES.

Over time, AMD will make Fusion chips that can be part of any computer, from netbooks and tablets to high-end desktops and laptops.

AMD is also announcing today its newest stand-alone mobile graphics chips, dubbed the AMD Radeon HD 6000M series of graphics chips for notebook computers. AMD has grabbed the No. 1 market share in notebook computers and it expects that to continue, as it has hundreds of design wins for its 6000M graphics chip, which can power multiple screens.

The 6000M is AMD’s second-generation DX11 mobile chip (referring to Microsoft’s most-advanced graphics standard) and it has already shipped more than 25 million DX11 chips to 10 major computer makers. The new version can handle 3D Blu-ray movies and other features. The fastest new mobile chip, the 6900M, is 37 percent faster than its predecessor. The chip has 40 percent faster tessellation, a graphics smoothing feature that Nvidia has proven it can do better in its chips. And the new chips use AMD’s EyeSpeed technology, which uses the graphics chip for non-graphics applications.

Most of the laptops with the new mobile graphics chip are shipping in the first quarter.

Was Fusion the right move for AMD?

“We can compare notes in a year,” Bergman said. “We expect it to grab market share. But to be No. 1 would be a heck of a goal.”

AMD created a promo video for Fusion below. The tough dude at the end is none other than Dirk Meyer, chief executive of AMD.