AMD's 'Kaveri' processor packs lots of muscle -- but for whom?

AMD's new notebook processor promises top-quality graphics and battery economy, but faces deflating PC sales

AMD has whipped the drapes off a new mobile processor, code-named Kaveri, that powers thin and light notebooks aimed at both high-end business users and gamers/enthusiasts.

It's a bit of a switch for AMD, which of late has aggressively built a portfolio of products in areas entirely outside the PC market. Now it may be trying to take the lessons learned there and drive them back into capturing a specific (and profitable) slice of the PC space, even as PC and notebook sales continue to edge downward year over year.

Known formally as the 2014 Performance Mobile APU processor, Kaveri mixes CPU and GPU cores on the same die: four CPU and eight GPU. This arrangement brings benefits like lower power consumption and better compute performance per watt, both meant to appeal to business customers.

AMD also wants to make this CPU/GPU blend a more useful resource for programming overall by orchestrating it all through what AMD has labeled the HSA (Heterogenous System Architecture). This AMD-led engineering initiative is meant to allow, for example, easier offloading of parallel processing to GPUs.

At least one business-class PC maker is already on board: HP. The business line of the Performance Mobile APUs (AMD PRO-A) is being readied by HP for a number of HP EliteBook, EliteOne all-in-one, and EliteDesk desktop PC editions.

Why aim for the higher end of a market that's dropped consistently over the last few years? The short answer: It may be one of the few places where AMD feels it can offer solid competition for Intel and turn a better profit. For AMD to go after the higher end of the notebook space is consistent with its earlier declarations that it would rather not trade profit for market share and would instead go after products that can deliver better value. (In the words of Lisa Su, general manager of AMD's global business units, "If we miss out on some units in the low end, so be it.")

It's clear in any case that AMD's main source of revenue in the last few years hasn't been in the shrinking desktop market. Rather, it has enjoyed a bump in its cash flow by being one of the main suppliers for game console GPUs via its custom processor division. That division of the company more than doubled its business in 2013 -- $91 million in operating income, nearly one-fifth of the company's total 2013 revenue -- thanks to AMD having its silicon in Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony game consoles.

Yet another place where AMD is aiming to make a splash is, again, the data center, by attempting to provide an alternative to the near-monopoly of the Intel x86 processor. One way AMD plans to do this is via the engineering effort Project SkyBridge, which allows both the x86 and ARM versions of AMD processors to be pin-compatible, and thus make it cheaper for server makers to support either architecture. AMD claims this has allowed it to unify both its x86 and ARM development teams, further cutting its own R&D costs.

AMD's adventures in tablet computing, though, have been rocky. Three of its earlier attempts at processors for tablets and low-power laptops flopped, in big part because Intel consistently undercut AMD on margins. To that end, as far as tablets go, AMD has since set its sights on the higher end of the Windows 8 tablet market.

With Kaveri, AMD may be looking for a way to extract revenue from the existing segment of business-class users who do need a full-blown PC -- and a PC that's no slouch. InfoWorld's Galen Gruman noted such a phenomenon back in 2013, where PCs were becoming "specialty devices used by people who need more than the mainstream devices [phones and tablets] offer." That might well be the niche AMD feels it can address here, even if it isn't one it can capture entirely.

This story, "AMD's 'Kaveri' processor packs lots of muscle -- but for whom?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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