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AMD’s final and only hope: Low power Kabini, Temash are ready to roll

Today, AMD is launching Kabini and Temash, the twin follow-ups to its popular 2011 Brazos platform. These new SoCs are built on 28nm technology, and feature an expanded, more powerful GPU, targeting systems with TDPs ranging from 9 Watts to 25 Watts.

One thing to understand is that while we talk about two distinct codenames, the underlying architecture is identical. Temash and Kabini have the same controller hub, the same memory controller, and integrate the same features.

It’s difficult to understate just how important these chips are to AMD’s future. Not only do they underpin both the Xbox One and PS4, AMD is counting on them to drive adoption in mobile, even as the PC market shrinks and consumer uptake of x86 tablets is stuck in the doldrums.

Temash: The tablet/netbook chip

AMD has been eyeing the tablet market for the past two years, and Temash is the company’s first real chance to grab some of that market for itself. Sunnyvale is launching three Temash products at 3.9 Watt, 8 Watt, and 9 Watt TDPs.

The major differences here are core counts and clock speed. The highest-end APU, the A6-1450, will offer a Turbo mode at up to 1.4GHz, with a GPU clock of up to 400Mhz. The A6-1450′s low TDP compared to its brethren implies that these are the highest-binning SoCs AMD is able to make.

The other two Temash processors are an 8 Watt A4-1250 (dual-core, no turbo, 1GHz clock, 300MHz GPU, but with faster RAM) and a 3.9 Watt A4-1200. The only listed difference between the dual-core A4-1200 and the A4-1250 is the slower Radeon core and the use of DDR3L-1066.

Compared to AMD’s lowest power 40nm part, the Brazos-based Z-60, the new A4-1200 draws 15 per cent less power (3.9 Watts vs. 4.5 Watts), adds 60 per cent more GPU cores (128 vs. 80) but cuts the GPU’s clock speed by 20 per cent (225MHz for the A4-1200 compared to 275MHz for the old Z-60). Overall performance should be better thanks to the improved Jaguar CPU core and the much-improved GCN GPU over the HD 5000-class hardware Brazos uses.

As expected, AMD is explicitly positioning Temash to drive a wedge between the Core i3 in tablets and Clover Trail.

Kabini: Ultrathin to mainstream

If Temash is designed to break into tablets, Kabini is the more mainstream part that’s headed for the value and mainstream notebook markets. AMD is offering a much wider range of SKUs for Kabini, as shown below:

The E1-2100 presumably exists so that OEMs that want to target a wide range of processors with a single chassis can design a 9 Watt part into it while leaving room to scale all the way up to 25 Watts. The “E” series parts aren’t actually very interesting – a 1.65GHz dual-core Kabini with a 128-core GPU at 450MHz is slightly better on power than the E2-1800 (1.7GHz dual-core, 523MHz GPU, 18 Watts), but performance is likely a wash. The A4-5000, on the other hand, hits the sweet spots. This is a 15 Watt quad-core at 1.5GHz with a 128-core GPU clocked at 500MHz.

If you’re curious about performance, Anand has some details on that. The long and short of it is this: Kabini is 10-20 per cent faster than Brazos clock-for-clock in single-threaded applications. It’s much faster than Brazos anywhere it can leverage multi-threading. It beats the crap out of Clover Trail, and it does so while maintaining very nice battery life characteristics. But when it comes to gaming? Kabini just isn’t good enough to drive modern titles. AMD alluded to this fact itself when it sent over a slide deck with these results in it.

As soon as I saw that the A4-5000 couldn’t push 25 frames per second in Left 4 Dead 2, I knew this wasn’t going to be a pretty show. By and large, gaming on Kabini – at least modern gaming – isn’t going to happen. Does that matter to buyers? That’s unclear. There’s no question that Kabini’s GPU, modest though it might be, is leaps and bounds ahead of Clover Trail’s single-core SGX544. If you care about tablet games in the Angry Birds class, Kabini is going to offer a much faster experience.

The big picture

Late last year, I theorised that Kabini and Temash could turn out to be precisely what the struggling x86 tablet/low-power market needed. After spending time with Microsoft’s Surface, Surface Pro, and Samsung’s Ativ (Tegra 3, Ivy Bridge, and Clover Trail), I concluded that the market badly needed a design that could offer stronger performance than Intel’s Haswell without the accompanying hit to weight and battery life.

Can Kabini and Temash do that? Maybe. The A4-5000 beats Brazos out on core count and Intel’s Clover Trail on CPU efficiency. The 128-core, 500MHz GPU will outperform the previous HD 5000 hardware thanks to its superior architecture and increased core count. I’m not sure there’s much of a market for the 25 Watt Kabini – AMD’s new A10-5745M is a Richland quad-core at 25 Watt with a 2.1GHz clock speed and a 384-core GPU. Granted, Richland’s TDP figures don’t include a south bridge, which tilts the maths in Kabini’s favour if TDP is a concern.

Still, after looking over Anand’s performance figures, I feel pretty good about where Kabini ended up. If you were looking for a laptop with long battery life and performance that sat considerably nearer to Ivy Bridge than Clover Trail (at a fraction of the price), these systems could be precisely what you want.

It’s harder to predict what will happen with Temash, mostly for reasons beyond AMD’s control. For whatever reason, x86 tablets have mostly failed to ignite the market. The problem is that AMD’s window of opportunity to grab a foothold in this space while Intel is stuck on 32nm is only 6 to 7 months wide. Come the first part of 2014, Intel will have Bay Trail ready to go, and Sunnyvale faces a serious fight.

All of this is happening at a time when AMD’s sales have slumped sharply. This hasn’t stopped CEO Rory Read from proclaiming that AMD will achieve profitability in the back half of the year, despite huge questions regarding customer demand for laptops, tablets, and the new consoles. If that demand materialises, AMD has a good chance of banking meaningful profits. If it doesn’t, the company could be forced into bankruptcy. The stakes really are that serious – if AMD doesn’t capture a significant boost in demand via new tablets, greater laptop market share, or strong console sales, the company won’t survive.

But Kabini, Temash, and the triple-set of licensing royalties from the Wii U, Xbox One, and PS4 are going to give it a shot.