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While AMD has been trailing Intel's performance in the high-end processor space for some time now, a potentially larger problem for AMD's future is Intel's superiority in the mobile computing space. Low-end AMD processors are great for desktops, as they provide a huge amount of bang for the buck. However, AMD's processors have been inferior in terms of power consumption for some time now. Intel's Atom has been a success, as have been Intel's new low-power Core 2 processors.
So far, AMD has had nothing to respond with. But AMD is currently working on a new processor architecture called Bobcat, and it is aimed directly at the low power mobile computer market which Intel currently dominates.
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A New Cat in Town
AMD's Bobcat architecture isn't overly complex. The base design is a simple single-core architecture, although it can be assumed that dual core variants of Bobcat will eventually come to market. The base architecture includes L2 and L1 cache, as typical of today's processors. It will support out-of-order execution but like all current and planned AMD processors it will not support hyper-threading or any similar technology.
It is too early to judge how Bobcat might perform. The lack of hyper-threading or a base design including two cores suggests it will not be able to keep up with Atom in programs which take advantage of multiple threads. This could easily be deceiving, however. Intel's current Core 2 Solo mobile processors do not support hyper-threading and do not have multiple cores, but the fundamentally faster architecture design means they are usually quicker than Atom products even when running programs which use hyper-threading well.
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Of course, performance isn't the only thing which will determine if Bobcat is successful. Power consumption is even more important. There is no way to determine how much power Bobcat processors will end up using, but AMD states it should scale between 1 and 10 watts depending on the specific processor in question. This would compare favorably to Atom, which uses between 2 and 8 watts in PC applications.
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The GPU Question
One possible advantage for Bobcat will have nothing to do with Bobcat at all. AMD has become a force to be reckoned with in GPU technology, both in mobile applications and across the desktop video card and motherboard integrated markets. There is no doubt that Bobcat would be offered on a platform that could include an integrated GPU. This would give mobile products using AMD's Bobcat and its related chipset (whatever that may be, as no details are currently available) a serious performance edge in certain applications.
Of course, it must be stated that this is currently just speculation. Details on Bobcat are vague, and details on hardware which AMD might offer with it are essentially non-existent. Bobcat is to be released in 2011, however, so we will probably know more by mid-2010. In any case, the existence of Bobcat as its own architecture, rather than a derivative of an older one, shows that AMD is committed to the mobile space. It seems that the netbook market will become a three-way race in 2011, as Nvidia intends to enter it with products based on their Tegra mobile processor as well.