Hardware, Software Programs

AMD Virgo Uncovered: Trinity Gives You Wings?

Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen two opposite things – Intel bringing features from the high-end 7-Series (2012) into the mainstream 8-Series (2013) chipsets, while AMD stock reached a 52-week low. In this article, we’ll try to address both sides of the fence.

The question why would Intel increase features on H81 and H87 chipsets received its answer at exactly one minute past midnight Eastern Daylight Time on September 27th, 2012. AMD lifted the embargo on the Virgo desktop platform, and no less than eight APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit) based on the Trinity architecture. According to our sources close to Intel, the company brought features such as SLI (giving NVIDIA extra $5 from a greater number of motherboards) into the more mainstream chipsets, all in order to make the platform more appealing.

AMD Roadmap for 2012 and 2013. Trinity arrives in 2012, Kaveri comes end of 2013. Both parts will utilize the same platform - "Virgo"
AMD Roadmap for 2012 and 2013. Trinity arrives in 2012, Kaveri comes end of 2013. Both parts will utilize the same platform – "Virgo"

This unveil marks the beginning of a period which AMD internally calls the "Speed Month". Over the course of next couple of weeks, AMD will unveil two platforms – Virgo platform / Trinity APU and a refreshed Scorpius platform with an 8-core "Vishera" CPUs. In this article, we will focus on the Virgo platform and Trinity APUs, followed by our in-depth benchmarks article.

Changing PC Landscape
Over the past couple of years, we have seen the changing face of computing. Demand for visual delivery of information and changing user interface spiked the rush to smartphones and tablets. At the same time, the market we perceive as the "Personal Computer" stagnated in terms of units delivered and witnessed staggering growth in the overall revenue. We’ve seen the disappearance of netbooks, for which in 2008 the analysts claimed they would pass the 100 million shipped units by 2012. On the high end scale, we’ve seen the arrival of small and customized PC integrators which ship low-volume, high-revenue systems, such as a vendor that ships 40 computers per day, at an ASP of $4800 (we know of more than one vendor en route to $100 million annual sales). Case manufacturers were supposed to be the dying breed, yet we’ve seen BitFenix and Fractal Design coming out of the blue and becoming consumer favorites, yet alone PC component makers such as Corsair reaching $500 million in revenue. Furthermore, companies such as Kingston Technology ($6B rev estimate, private company) and ADATA ($1.03 billion) reached stratospheric levels.

When we refer to mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, people tend to forget that all these devices require more and more powerful servers which will take over the computational load. Yet, with the growth of personal cloud, we’re coming back to full circle and PC as a device in your home which you use for productivity and enjoyment. After all, we witnessed record growth in personal storage devices such as external hard drives belonging to the DAS (Direct Attached Storage) and NAS product lines (Network Attached Storage).

Naturally, the question is – where does AMD fit in all of this? Without its market niche, investors heavily punished the stock. If we can judge by Virgo and Trinity, rumors of AMD’s demise might be premature.

AMD’s Fusion: As the name says, mixed emotions
Ever since AMD launched its Brazos platform under the Fusion E-Series branding, it was clear that the 2006 takeover of ATI Technologies finally came to fruition. By looking at sales results, Brazos platform is the best-selling AMD product of all times. According to the sources close to the company, Brazos is selling like hotcakes in both desktop and mobile markets. In fact, we heard that there was quite a lot of struggle inside the company to order enough E-Series APUs, as the demand vastly outnumbers the supply. The second Fusion platform was codenamed Lynx, with the flagship product being Llano APU. Unfortunately for AMD, GlobalFoundries had to pay for mistakes of the past and could not deliver enough 32nm Llanos, and AMD lost the Apple deal. Apple deal would see AMD Llano powering the 2011 MacBook Air, following by 2011 MacBook Pro and iMac.

AMD Trinity APU is consisted out of three parts: Piledriver cores, Northern Islands GPU and Southern Islands VPU
AMD Trinity APU is consisted out of three parts: two blocks of Piledriver x86 cores, Northern Islands GPU and Southern Islands VPU

The issues we mention above are the key reasons why AMD Launched Trinity in notebooks back in June 2012, supplied its OEMs with sufficient launch quantities and waited with the Virgo desktop platform all the way until October. In our conversations with the senior management, we learned that there was insistence that the products should not be launched until there’s sufficient supply of products, in order to prevent the channel starvation, which cost AMD dearly during the past 12 months.

With Virgo and Trinity, AMD is coming to the desktop market with a hard launch on October 2nd, 2012.

Is Virgo the lucky Constellation for AMD?
Moving onto the platform itself, the biggest physical change between Lynx and Virgo is the processor socket. Given that Trinity APU introduced several new power planes, the company had to rewire the processor from within and the Socket FM2 was born. The physical differences between AMD sockets are minimal (Socket 939, 940, AM2, AM3, FM1, FM2 – all come with practically identical dimensions and use the same heatsink mechanism).

AMD Socket FM2 - Expected to last well into 2014
AMD Socket FM2 – Expected to last well into 2014

As you can see on the slide above, Virgo’s Socket FM2 will cover Trinity APU which arrives on store shelves next week, as well as the 2013/14 processor of unknown codename (at least, according to the slide). If we look at the slides from 2012 Financial Analyst Day, we see that the codename of the 2013 part is "Kaveri", a 3rd Generation APU which combines "Steamroller" CPU cores with "Sea Islands" GPU architecture.

The Virgo platform consists out of three chipsets, all with varying features: A55 and A75 served as the base for Lynx platform and they’re now paired with the n
ew Socket FM2 in order to address the needs for entry level and HTPC customers. For those that want performance, AMD is releasing A85X chipset, intended to be paired with the unlocked "K" processors.

AMD's new chipset - A85X is the fourth iteration of Hudson chipset, bringing a field of USB 3.0 and SATA6 ports

The A85X chipset is the fourth iteration of Hudson chipset (Hudson-D4) and at glance, there are no major changes from A75. New features are support for multiple displays, as Trinity APU natively supports Eyefinity setup. In case of the A85X boards, we’re seeing Dual-Link DVI, DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 1.4 and Analog D-SUB. In all cases, 3D display is supported, but you cannot link three 120Hz panels in Eyefinity 3D combo. Still, the fact that AMD offers multiple display outputs with full Eyefinity features puts this offer ahead of Intel platforms, even when combined with low-end NVIDIA GPUs. The undisputed fact is that AMD has the best multi-display functionality on the market, and combined with Trinity APUs it makes for a great value proposition if multiple displays are in list of your needs.

The features where Intel doesn’t come close with any of their chipsets (high-end Z77 and X79 included) are storage options. A85X offers no less than eight SATA6 ports, with one port being used for eSATA. AMD’s RAIDXpert utility has matured over the course of past couple of years and now it supports plenty of modes that should keep up with your storage needs. If you need to combine for example, two SSDs in RAID0 and four regular HDDs, you can easily create what we believe to be the ideal storage combination (2x120GB SSD plus four 2TB drives).

Meet the (Holy? Unholy?) Trinity
Trinity for desktops is practically the same as the mobile part which debuted on Computex Taipei. The name comes from way how the chip was designed – Piledriver CPU Cores, Northern Islands VLIW4 GPU architecture and the video processing/Eyefinity from Southern Islands. Another way of explaining the codename would be – two Piledriver modules with a single Radeon HD 7000 series GPU.

AMD Trinity APU die

The chip was manufactured using 32nm SOI process at GlobalFoundries, packing no less than 1.3 billion transistors. Bear in mind that in early 2012, AMD changed the way how they calculate transistors, and the Trinity transistor count does not include around 350-450 million de-capacitor cells.

Piledriver CPU cores are supposed to offer a 10% performance increase over the Bulldozer and STARS (K10.5) cores, even though that difference might grow to 20% when using Windows 8 Task Scheduler (when compared to Llano). The cores now support FMA3 (Fuse-Multiply Add), which Intel will only start supporting with the upcoming Haswell (22nm, 2013) and Broadwell (14nm, 2014) architectures.

One of disappointments on the technology side comes in the shape of PCI Express Gen3, or lack off. Given that AMD was the first company that had a PCIe Gen3 part on the market (Radeon HD 7970), it is odd seeing that the brand new processor only supports 20 PCI Express Gen2 in the form of one x16 (or two x8 lanes) and four x1 lanes for expansion. In our conversations with motherboard vendors, we learned that most of the FM2 production will be limited to smaller form factors such as micro-ATX. Just as Llano, Trinity APU does not use HyperTransport protocol, but communicates with the chipset using the United Media Interface (UMI), with the total bandwidth of 2GB/s.

AMD Trinity Lineup at a Glance

The lineup above shows the Trinity at glance. AMD is launching six APUs and two CPUs which will require a discrete graphics card. The clocks vary from 3.2 to 3.8GHz, with the Turbo Core 3.0 mode boosting the frequency of all two or four cores anywhere from 3.6 to 4.2 GHz. While the prices are being cloaked until October 2nd, we can advise you to type the magic word and see the results for yourself. Magic word being "Google", of course.

AMD claims that with Trinity, you can play games in 1080p, Full HD resolution when compared to an Intel CPU which costs three times as much (HD 4000 powers Core i7 processors)
AMD claims that with Trinity, you can play games in 1080p, Full HD resolution when compared to an Intel CPU which costs three times as much (HD 4000 typically powers Core i7 processors)

The best part of Trinity APU is the same best part as Llano or Zacate, for that matter: the GPU. AMD was the first manufacturer to offer full DirectX 11 compliancy with their APUs, and that continues to this date. Intel’s 2013 part "Haswell" claims full compliancy, but we haven’t seen that part running with Tessellation on, for example. Trinity comes with the same VLIW4 core that powered the Northern Islands parts (Radeon HD 6000 series). Depending on a model, AMD enables anywhere from 128 to 384 cores on the Trinity die. GPUs will identify themselves as Radeon HD 7480D (128 cores, 724MHz), 7540D (192 cores, 760MHz), 7560D (256 cores, 760MHz) and 7660D (384 cores, 760 or 800MHz).

Just as the discrete parts, AMD claims you should be able to significantly raise the clock of both the GPU and the CPU parts. In a way, we feel it’s a shame the company officially limited its TDP to 100 Watts. If AMD chose the 130W range, we believe there would be room for "A10-5900K GHz Edition", with four cores operating at 4GHz (with 4.3 or 4.5 GHz Turbo) and GPU cores operating at 1GHz. Then again, you can pay less, invest more in better liquid cooling solution and probably create such part yourself.

Third and the last part of Trinity APU architecture is the Southern Islands feature set. This is mostly focused on the content functionality, with the inclusion of complete HD Media Accelerator (UVD, GPU-accelerated video transcoding in Windows 7/8) and support for all the latest panels thanks to Radeon HD 6970-class Display Controller.

AMD Radeon RAMDisk
One of major new features on Trinity is the AMD Radeon RAMDisk technology. As we all know, AMD recently partnered with Patriot Memory to manufacture AMD-branded memory and Solid State Drives, as a way to diversify its product lineup. AMD kept this technology under wraps just as the Eyefinity was hidden from Evergreen GPUs (Radeon HD 5000 Series) back in 2009.

AMD will supply Radeon RAMDisk utility as a part of its software stack
AMD will supply Radeon RAMDisk utility as a part of its software stack

The premise of RAMDisk is very simple; install as much memory into the system as possible, use the utility to create a partition and use that partition to install load sensitive applications. We have not received the utility yet, but we will perform tests in due time. Even though AMD claims the partition can go as high as 64GB, the fact of the matter is that Socket FM2 supports four DIMMs and the highest memory configuration that can be put in the system is 32GB. In that case, you’d probably pay more for the memory than for the motherboard.

This is definitely an interesting concept, though. The idea that the user can put its favorite game in system memory isn’t new, but this is the first time a silicon vendor is including this feature from the launch day. We would not advise to use more than 50% of system memory, though.

Can Virgo Revive AMD?
Our testing was unfortunately hampered by the faulty pre-production BIOS on a motherboard – but with the platform up and running now, you can expect a performance scaling article. What we are seeing with the A10-5800K, 8GB Kingston DDR3-2666 and an ASUS F2A85-M Pro motherboard is the following – fairly smooth gaming experience in titles that literally came out last week in Full HD resolution. Yes, you cannot push the visual fidelity to the levels offered by the discrete graphics and quite frankly, whoever says that – needs to get their heads checked. Discrete graphics offers so much more – from a simple ability to run Anti-Aliasing, for example – to pushing the details where you can see how the games should look like in 2012.

AMD stakes a claim they can outperform Intel Core i5-3450 paired with a Fermi-based GT 630 2GB
AMD stakes a claim they can outperform Intel Core i5-3450 paired with a Fermi-based GT 630 2GB

From our initial experience with the Virgo platform, we believe that AMD is selling this platform short, as it offers quite the punch. AMD’s representatives were constantly comparing the part against the Core i3 and Pentium processors, but we live in a different world today. Today, a dual-core or quad-core ARM-based processor in a tablet will "beat the living daylights" out of Core i7-2700K or even i7-3770K when you push the demanding visual content. The difference lies in fact how optimized the platforms are, and how the gazillion servers are preparing that content for simple display on a smartphone or a tablet.

Besides the expected weaker x86 performance, the only real question is why Trinity doesn’t come with a PCI Express Gen3? We expect it had something to do with the investment needed, and the fact that notebooks don’t require PCIe Gen3 at the current point in time.

The future of computing is a tricky beast to handle – AMD is using "Trinity" Fusion to buy time until 2014 and 14nm parts, when the company is expected to reach process parity with Intel. Until then, it all depends do you need the raw x86 performance, where Intel leads, or wish to utilize native USB 3.0 and SATA6 ports. Still, we believe both players have their work cut out for them, as Samsung Galaxy S3 and Apple iPad 3 were the best selling computing devices in the second quarter of 2012.

Windows 8 will be much more important than any of the vendors wants to admit, and performance in driving the touch-screen interfaces will be the key.