Will AMD Ever Catch Up?

About a year ago, an executive at one of the top notebook makers gave me an extremely candid assessment of why it continued to use AMD processors: “We need them to keep Intel honest.” That’s pretty faint praise. In other words, “We know that Intel’s chips are better, but we need AMD to keep Intel’s pricing from spiraling out of control.”

Fast forward to the present, and AMD still doesn’t have an answer for Intel’s Core i3/i5/i7 CPUs on the high end, its Atom platform in netbooks, or its Ultra-Low Voltage processors for lightweight notebooks, especially when it comes to battery life. And now ULV versions of Intel’s newer and faster 2010 Core processors are coming out of the woodwork. Being flush with $1.25 billion in antitrust settlement cash from Intel certainly helps, but the question remains: does AMD have what it takes to be more than an also-ran?

This week I reviewed the first ThinkPad ever sold exclusively with an AMD processor (a single-core Turion), which is a pretty big design win. It’s an 11.6-inch ultraportable that costs hundreds less than Lenovo’s 12-inch, Intel-powered equivalent. The X100e is not only affordable, it’s highly capable, offering much snappier performance and graphics muscle than your typical Atom netbook.

The problem is that the extended battery lasted under 5 hours on a charge, well below the 8 to 10 hours some Atom netbooks and ULV notebooks have turned in.
In fact, with the exception of the Toshiba Satellite T135D (which lasted a decent 5:06), every other AMD-powered ultraportable we’ve tested during the last year turned in lackluster endurance. Even the T135D had two less hours of runtime than its Intel counterpart.

AMD has continually argued that the industry needs better real-world battery life measurements that take into account different usage scenarios. However, our real-world test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi, shows that AMD is not yet in the same league as Intel.

Another complaint we’ve had about AMD-powered ultraportables is heat. A scorching hot system is not only unpleasant to use, but also poses a potential health threat. The ThinkPad X100e ran very warm during our tests, getting as high as 129 degrees Fahrenheit on the bottom. Other AMD ultraportables have also soared past the 100 degree mark on the underside, including the Acer Ferrari One and Toshiba Satellite T135D. Lighter Intel machines tend to run cooler, mostly in the 95- to 100-degree range.

AMD claims to have an answer for Atom (and we’re presuming ULV), but it won’t arrive until next year. The underdog’s long-awaited Fusion technology, which combines a CPU with ATI graphics, promises a boost in performance and efficiency. AMD claims that its Bobcat chip, based on Fusion, will provide 90 percent of today’s mainstream performance in less than half the silicon area. Plus, it’s a very low-power design, with some saying it will scale between 1 and 10 watts.

That’s good, but Intel has already integrated the CPU and graphics on Pine Trail netbooks, and Nvidia’s Optimus platform now offers automatic switchable graphics on both Intel netbooks and lightweight notebooks (albeit at a premium) to boost battery life. Perhaps AMD can compensate for being late to the game once more with aggressive pricing, but it will need to demonstrate true all-day endurance and lower temperatures to remain competitive.

Intel isn’t the only competitor AMD has to worry about. ARM-based processors from Qualcomm, Nvidia, and others are invading smartbooks, which will presumably be as cheap or cheaper than anything AMD’s partners currently sell. And ARM expects more than 50 ARM-powered tablets to arrive in 2010 alone, a category for which I have not seen a single AMD prototype. Even Apple is going the ARM route with its new A4 chip for the iPad.

At some point, “keeping them honest” will no longer cut it, and that time might be arriving sooner than AMD wants to believe.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.