Imagine shake-free photography and video, even when the environment is unstable. Imagine real-time rendering of video, virtually instant application of effects and speedier graphics in everything from computer aided design (CAD) packages to presentations. Those are a few of the promises from AMD around its newest generation of processor, the Fusion family of accelerated processing units (APUs), designed with the help of Canadian ingenuity and a research and development grant from the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.
It's hard to make a microchip seem sexy. It is, after all, just a slice of silicon, part of the plumbing inside of a computer, and most people neither know nor care about plumbing. However, this proverbial pipe is, according to AMD, "the largest shift in PC technology in 40 years."
While that might be a bit overstated, the technology definitely makes graphic magic happen. At its launch event at the Ontario Science Centre in January, AMD demonstrated how a choppy video of jets taking off from a heaving aircraft carrier could be smoothed, in real time, into a quite watchable clip.
Analyst Michelle Warren, principal at MW Research and Consulting, was impressed. "I thought the Fusion announcement was innovative, timely and completely in-tune with industry trends," she said. "Specifically, merging graphics capabilities with the CPU is, quite honestly, brilliant."
It's technology that has been in the works for several years, thanks to AMD's 2006 acquisition of Canada's ATI Technologies, which gave it the graphics expertise and intellectual property it needed to integrate graphics chip and central processing unit (CPU) into a single chunk of silicon the size of a fingernail. And not only does the Fusion chip occupy less space than its predecessor CPU and graphics processors, it uses less than half the power of the two combined. In the grand scheme of things, that means longer battery life for portable systems as well as cooler operation (anyone whose lap has been toasted by a regular laptop will appreciate that part of the innovation). It also means more computing and graphics capabilities for smaller devices.
Chris Hook, head of public relations for AMD's graphics products group, said that the day-to-day uses are many and varied. For example, synching HD video to an iPod may involve transcoding it to a different format; the APU can speed the process by up to 10 times. For businesses or consumers, searching photos and video for specific images can be a time-consuming task. Whether it's an auntie looking for shots of a favourite nephew or a journalist tracking down a clip of the celebrity of the day, it usually involves staring at the screen for long periods while going through file after file. Now facial recognition software can use the APU to quickly hunt through still and video images, frame by frame, to find a selected face.
Pulling those shots or clips together into a tidy package with video editing software usually needs a fair bit of computing power and a lot of time. That, too, may change.
Greg Wood, senior product marketing manager at Corel, said, "For a long time, video editing has been a niche market. With Fusion, the barriers are falling." Before Fusion, he explained, anyone attempting video editing needed a special capture device and a high-powered PC. Fusion brings video editing capability to the masses, even allowing generation of real-time effects on computers accessible to the budget-constrained hobbyist or small business.
"I love it when Canada hosts a big win," he said. "Fusion is a big win!"
The key is in the complementary functions of the two parts of the APU. Each part handles a different kind of work. When the computer is asked to perform the same operations on a lot of data (while doing the aforementioned facial recognition searches, for example), the graphics processing component (GPU) is in its element. It is very, very good at what's called parallel processing, where you have a lot of data to be processed in the same way, but the results of one operation don't affect the next, so several resources can work on the problem independently (for example, when you're flipping through a stack of photos looking for a picture of your cat, you can split the stack, hand pieces of it to others who know what the cat looks like and get the job done faster; that's parallel processing).
The "regular" processor component (the central processing unit, or CPU) is better at serial tasks where things need to happen sequentially (think spreadsheet calculations, where the result of one operation affects the next). Put the two together and you cover the computing bases nicely, as long as the software you're using was developed with GPU processing in mind. New programming languages and standards allow developers to write software (like Corel's new VideoStudio Pro XP4) that takes advantage of the respective strengths of CPU and GPU to improve performance.
Ben Bar-Haim, general manager of AMD Canada, sees video conferencing becoming one killer app that justifies a move to Fusion- powered machines in businesses. He thinks if businesses can have the necessary graphics processing power in low-cost netbooks, they will take advantage of it to save on travel costs. And, he added, any application that could profit from parallel processing, such as spectrum analysis or analysis of photos or video, can run on the GPU. "It's not about the display part," he said. "It's about the analysis of many pixels."
"Companies like Adobe are switching their image processing from the CPU to the GPU," he went on. "It can make the applications very efficient, and run much faster." In fact, he said, the GPU on Fusion chips is bigger than the CPU; he believes that bottlenecked applications today need GPU computing, not more CPU.
Netbooks and tablets are already supported, but what about smaller devices like phones? Although AMD did not commit to them, the technology is there. It is, said Mr Ben-Haim, a business decision, not a technology decision at this point: what is the best place to put R&D dollars.
"We've bet our future on Fusion processors," he said.