It's been three years since the release of Advanced Micro Devices' (NYSE:AMD) first accelerated processor unit (APU) and eight years since its original development under the name Fusion. The idea of the APU was born after acquiring ATI Technologies for $5.4 billion, a price that exceeds AMD's current market cap of about $3 billion. ATI Technologies was a semiconductor company that specialized in graphics processor units (GPU) and with this acquisition AMD could excel in both CPUs and GPUs which led them to design the APU. Although this hardware took many years to develop it is gaining traction with wins in desktops, servers, and gaming consoles, and more. Although the APU will take more work before reaching its true potential, AMD is taking the right steps to make it succeed.
Since Llano, their first APU release in 2011, we have seen leaps of improvements in performance and efficiency thanks to AMD's strong focus on the APU for their computing solutions sector. The APU is expected to further its growth in the coming years, especially outside of the PC (see chart below), and Lisa Su, Senior Vice President of AMD, says, "The APU is one of the most important architectural innovations of the decade." That's a big statement and as a strong supporter of the APU, I would like to discuss several advantages in this breakthrough and cover why she may be right.
The APU, like the CPU is the heart of a computer but is a processor that is fitted with AMD's latest Radeon graphics cores in addition to their general computer processing cores. In other words, a CPU + GPU combo on the same die. Thanks to ATI and years of research, AMD's capabilities in this type of chip where graphics are intergrated far exceeds those of Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC). The APU with its unique architecture is a step into heterogeneous computing, which is a movement towards having both processors work together to complete applications in the most efficient way possible. The result of this product is a cost-effective, energy efficient, and compact processor that provides optimal overall performance while still having incredible graphics. As most of us know, Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox One and Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Playstation 4 use APUs and thanks to this architecture, they are both available at very attractive price points while still offering phenomenal performance. Not only was this an effective use of the APU, but it was also a great demonstration of its abilities.
Why design an APU?
A traditional setup normally involves a CPU and GPU for maximum performance as two separate units. A CPU is a serial processor and a GPU is a parallel processor and each excel at handling different types of applications. For example, a GPU is much better at handling visuals like computer graphics due to its ability to process data simultaneously, or in parallel, thus allowing it to generate multiple shapes and shades across millions of pixels in your monitor. Traditional setups can still outperform APUs in certain circumstances but are usually more expensive and suffer from the architectural limitation of having to work separately. In other words, the CPU and GPU are usually "taking turns" when handling intensive applications when necessary in order to get the best performance.
The rise of the HSA Foundation
To target this disadvantage, AMD created the APU and founded the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation in an effort to have both units work together in applications. Since these processors are better at doing different tasks, through proper coding and utilization of each in an APU, an application can harness the power from a GPU or CPU wherever one is more efficient than the other. This is possible because through HSA, or full HSA, the APU's CPU cores and GPU cores share the same memory bank, or hUMA (heterogeneous uniform memory access).
Coding for a CPU is much easier and takes less time but sometimes a GPU is more efficient in specific tasks but is very difficult and time consuming to code for. This makes coding for the GPU less common and often leaves a CPU doing all of the work when processing. HSA, or full HSA, is an in-between measure that utilizes the benefits from both the CPU and GPU simultaneously. Unfortunately, as beneficial as this sounds, it is only useful if developers and corporations cooperate and can efficiently code for it.
This resulted in the creation of the HSA Foundation, a growing group that includes many larger corporation from ARM, Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and more. In short, the HSA Foundation is a large growing group of members who are making heterogeneous computing possible and more attractive by reducing the difficulty of coding for different types of architectures through various means such as open source software. This is a very important step to getting the world on the same page while allowing heterogeneous computing to grow and prosper.
TrueAudio and Mantle Integration into APUs
Lastly, AMD has been taking many steps to allow their products to offer the best possible performance. Two in particular are the technologies TrueAudio, an audio enhancing technology, and Mantle, a low level API that allows video game developers to get every drop of performance out of AMD's graphics hardware. These two features were an addition to many of AMD's new Hawaii-series consumer graphics cards and are now part of the new Kaveri APUs.
Although these are more steps that require action from developers and software companies, it is attractive due to the increased performance it offers. TrueAudio and Mantle allow improved boosts in audio and gaming experiences and with Mantle's premier at CES 2014, we saw a 45% increase in speed over DirectX while using the same hardware. The new Kaveri APU is already capable of handling graphic intensive games like Thief, Tomb Raider, and battlefield 4 with medium settings and 1080p resolution at over 30 frames per second without Mantle. Mantle is already getting ready to be taken advantage of by over 20 game titles and is just going to be an additional perk to AMD's new APUs.
As AMD continues its stride in changing the world through their breakthrough in computing with the APU, we may see a rise to powerful processors across all spectrums while offering the highest level of efficiency available in the market. We are only witnessing the beginning of this standard and with the release of the new Kaveri APU, for the first time ever we have full HSA in action and the results are phenomenal. We're even starting to see beats in certain categories against Intel's Haswell processor as seen below. So yes, this is a product to be excited about and yes, should AMD continue their hard work and succeed in bringing out its full potential, we will without a doubt be talking about the most important architectural innovation in computing solutions of the decade.