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AMD Q+A: Yukon to Outperform Atom, Not Destined for Netbook

Talk about taking your lumps. At a time when traditional notebook sales were relatively flat, AMD sat and watched as Intel’s Atom processor ran away with the red-hot netbook (or mini-notebook) market, which grew a whopping 160 percent in Q3 2008. Let Intel have netbooks, says AMD. Instead, the company has been planning its attack that will focus the bulk of its energy on slightly larger but still affordable ultraportables with its new platform for ultrathin notebooks (think affordable systems like the Dell Inspiron Mini 12 which happens to sport Intel's Atom). The first of its kind is the HP dv2, which AMD and HP launched today. The ultra thin and stylish dv2 sports a 12-inch screen and a starting price of $699. We have got the full specs of both the HP dv2 and the low down on the new AMD processor and platform here. But we also spoke in depth with David McAffee, AMD’s product manager for low-power product platforms, about where AMD hopes to go with the new not-quite netbook platform. In our hour long interview McAffee revealed that the Yukon platform:

  • Will outperform Intel's Atom: AMD's Yukon platform will have 100 to 150 percent better performance, and will cost 30 to 35 percent more than Intel's solution.
  • Is intended for11 to 13 inch laptops. However, OEMs may choose to put this platform in smaller notebooks.
  • Can exclusively be found in HP's dv2 but is expected to broadly adopted by other notebook manufacturers.
  • May not live up to Intel Atom's battery life as it is expected to get 3 to 4 hours depending on the system.

Check out the whole interview below. The notebook market just got a whole lot more heated and interesting. Why has AMD ignored the red-hot netbook category thus far? David McAffee: It’s fair to say that we’ve taken a wait-and-see approach to understand how netbooks evolve. Given the position that AMD is in currently, we have to be careful about where we place our investments and where we focus our energies. The platform for ultrathin notebooks fills an interesting market above where netbooks exist today, and that gives us a differentiated position from Intel. What makes AMD’S platform for ultrathin notebooks different from Intel's Atom CPU? We’ve leveraged the same architecture we use in our mainstream notebook processors and have brought that down into a frequency and power envelope that fits well into a smaller form factor notebook design. It’s a core difference between Atom and our Athlon Neo processor. We’ve enabled a native discrete graphics interface off of the Northbridge [chipset]. The ability to add discrete graphics represents a huge step in what can be done in terms of performance and pricing. Does the platform for ultrathin notebooks offer better performance than Intel's Atom? There’s a substantial difference in terms of raw performance. An Intel Atom–based system that costs 30 to 35 percent less than a given Yukon platform is going to have 100 to 150 percent less performance. Neo’s performance falls in between dual-core low-voltage processors and the Atom processor. We’ve seen faster transcode times for audio and video. The price-performance trade-off is competitive even against more-expensive ultraportable systems. What market segment are you going after with the platform for ultrathin notebooks? AMD sees the opportunity to go after the space that’s in between Atom-based netbooks and expensive ultraportables to match the best of both worlds. These devices are probably the second PC for the home, or primary PCs for students, college kids, and young adults. Our configurations offer the ability for OEMs to have native display options like HDMI, DisplayPort, or DVI. This makes it easy for a consumer to plug [a Yukon-enabled system] into their entertainment setup or their TV to enjoy the high-def content they have on their computer. Which screen sizes are you targeting? We see the platform for ultrathin notebooks in the sweet spot around 12 inches; 11 to 13 inches is a good range that OEMs would design this around. Others may see a need or opportunity for a 14-inch Yukon system, or an 8.9-inch one. We provide guidance to OEMs, but we’re not dictating what the system needs to look like or what the configuration needs to be.  I would project that if someone were to build a smaller 9 or 10 inch form factor based on Yukon, it would not be cost competitive with what Intel has enabled with its Atom processor. Which companies will be making Yukon-based notebooks and when can we expect them? HP will be the only partner with this platform at launch. Other OEMs will make products based on the platform for ultrathin notebooks, but it’s initially just HP. We expect the HP Pavilion dv2 to be available to consumers in April or late March. We see the dv2 as a product that targets a digitally connected lifestyle: mobility, connectivity, and consuming multimedia. Beyond HP, we’re engaged with all of the global OEMs. We’ve seen an enormous amount of interest and traction with a number of them. We expect this to be adopted broadly. How much do you expect ultrathin notebooks using the platform to cost? We’ll see platforms in the $500-and-up range, and scaling up from there depending on whether it has discrete graphics, different drives, etc. Keep in mind that much of the cost is from the hard drive, panel, and memory. AMD’s contribution doesn’t dramatically drive the cost of the product. What type of 3D performance will Yukon deliver? In our discrete solution platform for ultrathin notebooks, we’re seeing a 10X 3DMark improvement over our unified memory architecture (UMA) configuration; our platform offers more features and horsepower. It has DirectX 10.1 capabilities and our universal video-decode engine. MPEG2, MPEG4, and H.264 video content is off-loaded from the CPU and run through the graphics engine. You can play games like The Sims and turn on a lot of the richer, more immersive capabilities with this ultrathin notebook platform. On an Intel-based solution you have to scale back the level of detail. Will the battery life be long enough for highly mobile users? Based on our own and HP’s testing we’re expecting to see around 4 hours or so of battery life in this platform, depending on the configuration; it could be 3 to 4 hours depending on the system. Both performance expectations and battery life expectations scale inversely with the size of the product. I’m sure the battery life comparisons with Atom will be made. That product has a wide range of battery life configurations depending on the battery size, the system configuration, etc.  Both performance expectations and battery life expectations scale inversely with the size of the product.  The smaller you get the longer battery you expect, but you don’t expect as much performance. That holds true across the entire category of products. It’s one of the reasons we think our middle positioning is a good spot for us. What OSes will best be paired with the Yukon platform? Do you expect Linux to be a widespread option for this plaform? Our driver set is capable of supporting Vista Premium, Vista Basic, Windows XP, and even Linux. As for Linux, not really. There’s not a need in mature markets. I expect Linux in other parts of the world. PCs are a Swiss army knife; there’s no one application people use them for. Windows is too comfortable and familiar for Linux to easily come in and upset. I think a simplified shell environment as a first PC for kids with a basic level of controlled tasks could be a play for Linux. But the challenge with Linux is when you get beyond the surface and have to do something like install or connect to a wireless network the model breaks down and is unfamiliar and unusual, people don’t have the tolerance to learn it all over again. Do you think people want affordable ultraportables over netbooks? We do think that slim-line notebooks, as a category, offer a large market for secondary, tertiary, and primary notebooks. There is a lifestyle consideration in this. For that segment of consumers who are attracted to design, we think it’s highly attractive. It’s important that consumer expectations are set. Size drives a lot of that expectation; when you see small things you don’t expect it to scream, but you expect killer performance out of a 17-inch notebook. Can Yukon help AMD regain notebook market share given that Intel has such a commanding lead? Not too long ago, processor brand was in the top 3 of purchase criteria factors. Now I don’t think the brand or frequency is even in the top 5 of what people care about. Price and OEM brand in our research are the key drivers in a decision.h