AMD Launches Trinity

Product: AMD Trinity
Company: AMD
Author: James Prior
Editor: Charles Oliver
Date: May 25th, 2012

AMD Trinity Preview

May 15, 2012: AMD launches one of their most important products, the second generation A-series Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) for mobility. Previously known under the codename Trinity, these APUs feature a multitude of new technologies and represent AMD's primary weapon in their battle for market share with Intel.

AMD A-Series APU's

AMD Trinity mobility APUs will replace the current A-series Llano APUs to offer more performance, and also offer a new ultra-low power 17W model. Both APUs are made at GlobalFoundries on their 32nm HKMG process, now fully functional after last September's problems, so no new process teething troubles. With the process technology now more mature, it should be easier for AMD to supply their customers with all the APUs they want this year.

32nm High-K Metal Gate transistors

The Trinity APU itself is slightly bigger than the outgoing Llano APU in just about every respect. The chip has gotten a little bigger, with die size given at 246mm2 - about 8% bigger than the 228mm2 Llano. That extra space is packed with more transistors, about 10.5% more, with Trinity clocking in at 1.303Bn transistors. The difference in apparent transistor density from Llano (1.178Bn transistors) to Trinity is simply explained - different functions use different amounts of area.

APU Evolution

Trinity APUs feature one brand new technology, and that is AMD's second generation Bulldozer architecture known as Piledriver. Piledriver is part of the Bulldozer family and is similar in concept as the original design but with several improvements. The cores are still arranged in pairs and called a module, where two modules make the full CPU side of Trinity, with up to 4MB of L2 cache. Third generation Turbo Core technology controls both CPU and GPU, which should make for interesting behavior when overclocking. The 128-bit (dual 64-bit) memory controller is described as improved, now offering support for 1.25V DDR3 LR-DIMMs but the expected support for 2133MHz memory (desktop, 1866MHz notebook) hasn't appeared; memory maximum speeds stay at 1866MHz/1600MHz for dual channel in desktop and notebook respectively.

Trinity core

Another big change is the graphics core inside the Trinity APU, now using AMD's Northern Islands architecture with the VLIW4 design seen in the last gen high-end Cayman cards now comprising the graphics core of AMD's APU. An odd choice, given that the CPU guys managed to leapfrog the first-generation Bulldozer architecture but likely due to playing it safe in both terms of resources and potential issues; while AMD might have design portability, implementation of a 40nm TSMC product in a 32nm GlobalFoundries package isn't child's play. Alongside the 384 v2.0 Radeon Cores is the new Video Codec Engine introduced with AMD's Southern Islands GCN-architecture based cards. AMD markets this functionality as part of the AMD Accelerated Video Convertor, using the VCE in conjunction with GPU Compute, Picture Perfect HD post processing options to provide higher quality video encoding/transcoding for applications like video conferencing and Windows drag-n-drop media transform. Software to use this hardware is accompanying the launch, according to AMD.

Trinity GPU core
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Trinity features 24 native PCI-Express Gen 2.0 lanes as well as native support for AMD Eyefinity, although it will be down to OEMs and IHVs to define their output port configuration. The accompanying Fusion Controller Hub is part of the continuing A-series chipset, with no real new features. A new project from AMD codenamed Lighting Bolt is combining the capabilities of USB 3.0 and DisplayPort 1.2 to create a portable computing dock that charges your notebook as well as enabling an additional triple display configuration with storage capabilities. Clearly this is using the much-vaunted, never produced MST hub technology that AMD are struggling to get to market to address issues with tearing on unmatched display input connected Eyefinity configurations. Hopefully the inclusion of that technology won't allow this to be the only Lightning that follows Thunder, ever.

AMD Dock concept

There are three basic configurations you'll see for graphics, when it comes time to buy; APU alone, Dual Graphics, and AMD Enduro. As it sounds, you can get your AMD APU-powered portable computing device (ultra-thin, value, mainstream or performance designs) with just the graphics powers of the APU inside, or you can bolster it in one of two ways.

AMD Radeon HD 7000M Graphics - VLIW5

Firstly, you can use Dual Graphics, a form of asymmetrical CrossfireX introduced with first-generation APUs. This uses the London series Radeon HD 7000M notebook graphics, the last generation Northern Islands GPUs which themselves were evolutions of the original Evergreen GPUs introduced in 2009 - sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same, as these are the same GPU's as paired with Llano APUs, under the Radeon 6000 branding. AMD estimate up to 89% more performance under Dual Graphics than APU alone, and tout a new feature known as AMD Crossfire technology profiles, a bolt on set of settings for optimized performance using control panel settings.

Dual Graphics

Enduro graphics is the new name for Switchable Graphics, a capability again first seen in the Llano A-series APUs. The new part here is the discrete GPU to be switched to can be one of the London series Radeon HD 7000M graphics parts that use GCN architecture. All the mobility parts support Zero Core Power, although it's only branded as such on the new GCN chips. Both dual graphics and switchable configurations can be controlled from the Vision Engine Center to give granular control of which applications use dual graphics or a specific GPU, with plans for both battery and main supply conditions.

AMD Radeon HD 7000M Graphics - GCN

AMD's approach is aimed at managing the end user experience, not individual benchmarks. This has led to the use of a different resource allocation strategy than their competitor. Cynically this can be seen as playing to their respective strengths; Intel has very strong x86, so they solve everything with x86; AMD has strong GPU, so they solve everything with GPU - giving Trinity a pretty even 50/50 split between GPU and everything else needed. Intel's most recently released chip, Ivy Bridge, gives a lot more area to GPU than previously seen, but still is far short of the GPU performance lead AMD has. AMD estimate Trinity to offer between 20 and 50% more performance in gaming than the comparable Ivy Bridge chip which seems to be a bigger disparity than Intel's advantage on the CPU side of things.

AMD APU Experience Goals

Intel's $100M USD Ultrabook fund has allowed them to help many OEMs deliver a lot more variety of design into the market place than AMD, despite AMD being named to CRN's 5-Star Partner Programs Guide for their Fusion Partner Program. The biggest problem with the platform as a whole however, is out of AMD's hands, and that's OEM configuration. Currently it looks like you'll be hard pressed to find an APU with a 17" 1080P screen, and most 14/15" designs will be 1366x768 with maybe an expensive upsell for 1600x900. This is done for two reasons, price and price. The first price is the cost of the panel, making the little colored blobby bits smaller costs a lot more as you get into higher densities and that has an effect or margin, support costs (think replacing screens under accidental damage warranty) and so on. The second price is energy, it takes more battery power to keep more pixels lit up and that has a knock on effect for all the power metrics. By standardizing on 1366x768 panels, OEM's can keep tangible and intangible costs down, and claim exciting power use headlines too.

Overall the AMD Trinity APU based products appear to be very desirable, making some great competitors to Intel's Sandy / Ivy Bridge based designs. For those notebooks using Optimus and adding a Kepler GPU, AMD has that covered also with their excellent Dual Graphics and Enduro options. The ongoing investment in GPU compute enabled every day applications like WinZip, GIMP, VLC, Photoshop CS6 and plug-ins like AMD Steady Video will lift the user experience in meaningful ways where the extra GPU power will be noticed and appreciated, vs. the nearly inconsequential CPU performance differences for the TDP and price points the base chips will compete at. You'll have to read the full reviews of AMD Trinity powered notebooks to get the full details, but it's looking like the Summer of '12 is going to be a great one for notebook buyers.