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AMD unveils 'sweet spot' processor for 'sexy' tablets

Z-60 aims between Atom and Core i3 for Windows 8 fondleslabs

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AMD has released its new Z-60 microprocessor – called in company parlance an APU, for accelerated processing unit – which it aims to squeeze into the Windows 8 tablet market above Intel's Atom line and below Chipzilla's lowest-power Core processor, the i3.

The Austin, Texas, chip designers just might have a solid offering for that slice of the tablet market. Among Intel's lowest-power Core processors, the i3-3217U weighs in with a power draw of 17 watts – but that's nearly four times as hungry as AMD's new dual-core, 1GHz Z-60, which sips a mere 4.5 watts, according to the company.

At the other end of the Intel Windows 8 tablet performance scale lies the tablet-centric dual-core, 1.8GHz Atom Z2760, aka "Clovertrail". Intel hasn't published power-consumption stats for the Z2760, but Anandtech reports that the company shared some data with them that showed power consumption to be between 2.3 watts when idling with the display lit up, and 3.0 watts when playing HD video.

The Z2760, however, is an Atom processor, with all the limitations that its 32-bit instruction set and relatively laggardly in-order execution entails, a situation that won't be remedied until the Next Big Thing in Atom CPU architectures, Silvermont, has its likely debut late next year.

The Z-60, on the other hand, is based on AMD's 64-bit, more efficient out-of-order Bobcat core, and on a tweaked Brazos platform – although without AMD's Turbo Core dynamic performance boost enabled – which also slots it in nicely between the Atom core and the i3's beefier compute cores.

And then there's graphics. Although Intel's integrated graphics performance has improved recently – and although more improvements are planned for the company's next-generation Haswell microarchitecture – the Z-60's graphics provenance comes from the AMD-acquired ATI team. Although we have no firsthand way to measure its performance, the fact that the Z-60 has 80 Radeon HD 6250 graphics cores bodes well for its performance vis-à-vis the Atom Z2760.

All three processors we've mentioned – the Z-60, Core i3-3217U, and Atom Z2760 – will provide what world+dog calls "the full Windows experience" when running Windows 8 on a tablet. That's shorthand for saying, "We're not competing with ARM-based tablet processors."

Which is fair. Despite all the hoo-hah about Windows 8 running on ARM-based machines, that version – Windows RT – will be a different cat, one incapable of dealing with all the x86 code that's now floating about around the world. Windows 8 tablets based on the three chips we've mentioned will be, well, actual Windows 8 tablets.

During a call with reporters in advance of Tuesday's introduction of the Z-60, AMD marketeer Christopher Sutphen emphasized a host of what he thought were his new chip's marquee features: power-management tweaks that should provide "over 10 hour battery life in a resting or idle or presentation-mode state," support for two USB 3.0 ports, 6Gb/sec SATA support, AMD Start Now technology providing fast boot and resume-from-sleep times, DirectX 11 support, HD video and image enhancement circuitry, hardware app acceleration through offloading appropriate tasks from CPU to GPU cores, and more.

"AMD really thinks that it's a nice sweet spot to be able to come in and provide great value with the right balance of performance, battery life, and value to the customer," Sutphen said, "all being delivered in sexy form factors as thin as 10 millimeters."

Just for a point of comparison, today's leading tablet, the iPad, is 9.4 millimeters thick. But it, of course, doesn't run Windows nor any x86 app.

Sutphen also promised that "You'll start seeing products on shelves coming from partners in and around the launch and the general availability of Windows 8, and you'll see other products coming throughout the rest of the year and into early next year."

When asked how many different Z-60 tablets shoppers might see on those shelves, Sutphen deflected the question. "We're going to be very focussed on the number of partners we're working with," he said. "Today's market is quite messy. There's a lot of players out there and not a lot of products selling. And so what we're looking to do is be very strategic and being very laser-focused on the design wins that we're going to be bringing to market."

Lasers, of course, provide small, pinpoint illumination – and it's safe to interpret Sutphen's remarks to mean that the number of partners with whom AMD is working on Z-60 tablets will be based on that pinpoint metaphor: meaning not a lot.

But after the Z-60 ships, and after we get a look at its true performance – and, of course, learn its pricing – we'll discover if Intel's remaining x86 competitor has a winner on its hands.

To switch the metaphor from lasers to baseball, although a team may look good on paper, it must play on a field. Or, in AMD's case, in a market dominated by Chipzilla and the ARM army. ®

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