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Intel, AMD, Nvidia and ARM: 2012 semiconductor year in review

Competition heated up as firms tried to cut power and improve graphics performance
Thu Dec 20 2012, 14:00

CHIP VENDORS have concentrated their efforts in improving GPU performance in 2012, with AMD, Intel and Nvidia all pushing the graphics - and general purpose GPU computing - capabilities of their products thanks to manufacturing improvements. The INQUIRER has a look at the major semiconductor vendors and how they fared during 2012.

AMD actually launched its biggest product of 2012, its Radeon HD 7000 series GPUs, at the tail end of 2011, but thanks to production and capacity issues at TSMC, very few consumers could get their hands on products until the second quarter of 2012. The firm was quick to trickle down its Graphics Core Next architecture to mainstream parts and once again showed that while its CPU business might not be able to compete in terms of performance against market leader Intel's processors, in GPUs it can still deliver the goods.

Even though AMD still excels in designing high performance GPUs, the firm's bread and butter is CPUs and in that market 2012 held relatively little joy for the firm. In May, AMD launched its second generation accelerated processing unit (APU), better known as Trinity, that was the first chip to sport the Piledriver architecture, but systems based on the chip did not appear in stores for months.

AMD's decision to introduce its Piledriver architecture with its Trinity chips was, it claimed, due to the product being the most important launch of the year for the firm. The company continued to use its previous generation graphics architecture, rebranding it as a Radeon HD 7660G GPU, perhaps because it knew that even that technology was still good enough to beat Intel's much revamped HD Graphics 4000 GPU.

AMD rolled out its Piledriver architecture to desktop and server chips, and while it continued to offer socket compatibility and a healthy 10 to 15 percent increase in performance, given Bulldozer's very low baseline, there was little about its performance to worry Intel.

For AMD, arguably its biggest product announcement was its decision to get into the ARM server market in 2014. Whether ARM will provide the second front AMD needs is not clear at this point, especially given that it will go up against established ARM vendors in what is set to be a supremely competitive market.

However AMD's 2012 was dominated not by new products but rather the firm's future. For months rumours were swirling that the firm would lay off hundreds and in the end it announced that over 1,000 would be shown the door. Then AMD brought in management consultants - always a sure sign that things are not going well - and further rumours of investment bank JP Morgan being hired to find a buyer surfaced, all of which add up to a firm that has fundamental problems.

AMD's delivery of its impressive Graphics Core Next architecture means that the firm is still a force to be reckoned with in the graphics market, but when it comes to its CPUs, 2012 was largely a non-event. The company might have brought out Piledriver to its high volume APU range but so far it doesn't have a laptop or all-in-one desktop product adoption that looks the part, and as Apple, Asus and Lenovo have shown, design brings in sales.

AMD doesn't need chips, it needs desirable systems. The firm's chips might not match Intel in terms of raw computing performance, however the majority of consumers will find it hard to notice any slowdown in typical workloads due to its CPUs or APUs. But most consumers don't get to see that because they wind up in devices that do little to inspire.



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