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Dell eyes AMD chips for low-power PCs

AMD Fusion could lead to smaller computers

PC maker Dell is looking into AMD's Fusion processors for use in future laptops and desktops as it tries to make PCs smaller and more power-efficient, a company executive said.

The Fusion architecture combines a central processing unit and graphics processing unit into one piece of silicon. Fusion chips have already started sampling and are due to hit the market next year.

The concept of delivering a GPU and CPU in one hybrid chip could bring power and performance benefits to laptops and desktops, said Lane McCullough, senior product planner at Dell. The chip could improve the graphics performance on PCs without the need for power-hungry discrete graphics cards.

"We like the flexibility and options that brings us," McCullough said. He declined comment on whether the company is already testing Fusion chips with systems.

A hybrid chip combining a CPU and GPU is a big step ahead in convergence of components in systems, McCullough said. The Fusion chip could play a role in helping Dell shrink systems, which could lead to new form factors in laptops and desktops, he said. It could also extend the lifetime of PCs and reduce the cost of repeatedly changing components.

"The worst thing [is]...to get a weak computer that can't be upgraded or be used ... for a longer period time," McCullough said.

But the jury is still out on whether the Fusion concept will succeed, and Dell is being conservative on how it moves forward, McCullough said.

"If something makes sense we'll move in that direction," McCullough said.

AMD gained powerful graphics technology through its ATI acquisition in 2006. At the time, AMD said it would combine the CPU and GPU on a single die, but Intel has jumped ahead by combining the graphics and CPU in a single chip package with its latest Core processors.

But Intel's focus remains on adding CPU cores to boost PC performance. With Fusion, AMD is trying to achieve faster PC performance through a mix of CPUs and GPUs.

The first iteration of Fusion will include a CPU and GPU, but by 2015 the model could change, said Leslie Sobon, vice president of marketing at AMD.

"The second iteration [in] 2015 ... you're not going to be able to tell the difference. It's all going away," Sobon said.

AMD in February detailed the Fusion chip code-named Llano for laptops. The quad-core CPU is a modified version of the Phenom II microprocessor and will run at speeds of up to 3.0GHz. The integrated graphics processor will allow users to view Blu-ray movies or play 3D games. The GPU and CPU will work in tandem for faster execution of data-intensive tasks.

The GPU is known to be better at processing graphics-intensive applications as opposed to standard applications. But there are many parallel applications like antivirus that could harness the parallel processing capabilities of GPUs, Sobon said.

"The GPU is perfect for antivirus. It's a perfect parallel-processed application. In the Fusion-based time frame that's where it needs to go," Sobon said.

AMD is backing OpenCL as a standard to write applications that can be executed on GPUs, Sobon said. Other companies backing OpenCL include Nvidia, Intel and Apple. Depending on the software maker, AMD is promoting DirectCompute, an application programming interface (API) from Microsoft that harnesses the parallel processing power of graphics chips.

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