AMD aims new Neo processor at ‘thin and light’ ultraportables

Despite their differences in well just about everything there’s one thing which AMD and Intel agree on – and that’s that 2009 looks set to be the year of thin and light notebooks.

Apple lit the touchpaper at the beginning of 2008 with the MacBook Air and now just about every major player in the world of Windows has a slim and sexy ultraportable in the stores or on the launchpad.

Mooly Eden Intel vice president and general manager of the company’s Mobile Platforms Group told APC late last year that the forthcoming mid-2009 ‘Montevina’ refresh of the Centrino 2 platform and early 2010’s arrival of the sixth-gen Centrino ‘Calpella’ platform would both spur the release of thin and light notebooks – or as Eden more honestly calls them “thin and sexy”.

But it looks like not all of these will be packing Intel silicon. AMD has its eye on the thin and light segment with its new Neo processor which it’s partnering with ATI Radeon graphics in an attempt to deliver improved media performance to these boutique notebooks.

Ultrathin ultraportable thin and light thin and sexy – whatever you call them AMD wants to have a slice of the action. The chipmaker’s combo of Neo processor and ATI Radeon graphics has already found its way into HP’s Pavilion dv2

AMD has all but ceded the netbook market to Intel and its peppy little Atom processor while most conventional notebooks favour the Core 2 Duo and most likely the next generation of mobile processors based on Intel’s 45nm Nehalem microarchitecture (which will probably called called Core i-something in keeping with the performance desktop moniker of Core i7).

But ultraportables – premium 12-13 inch notebooks which are slim stylish and expensive – are a niche which AMD reckons it can exploit. Just as the makers of ultraportable PCs see them as filling a gap between netbooks and notebooks (a gap which is based on size and weight mind you certainly not price!) so AMD sees this as an opportunity to carve out some new ground for itself.

How large that gap is and if there’s room for much more growth once AMD jams its toe into the door remains to be seen.

Neo is the first processor for AMD’s Yukon ‘ultrathin notebook’ platform and AMD’s pitch for Yukon is budget-priced silicon to make ultraportables more affordable – but backed by ATI graphics to boost video performance so that even the cheapest ultraportable can play 1080p HD video and indulge in low-impact ‘casual gaming’.

AMD will offer Yukon in two combinations. The cheaper ‘balanced performance’ package partners the Neo processor with ATI Radeon X1250 integrated graphics while the ‘true HD entertainment’ package relies on ATI’s Mobility Radeon HD 3410 discrete GPU.

AMD calculates that while both systems will easily outperform netbooks they’ll still come in shy of notebooks with Intel’s Core 2 Duo and integrated graphics. But this is less important than getting both price and performance into the sweet spot where the Neo is ‘good enough’ – ironically the exact same strategy used by Intel in developing the Atom.

Intel’s primary advantage is that it’s still one clear lap ahead on the track. The current crop of small package or ‘pint-sized Penryn’ processors are all dual core chips built to a 45nm process with models ranging from 12GHz with 3MB of L2 cache to 2.4GHz with 6MB of L2 cache. Neo is a single-core 65nm CPU clocked at up to 1.6GHz (in the Neo MV-40) with 512K L2 cache. (AMD hasn’t released pricing for the Neo but it’s expected to be considerably less than Intel’s list price range of US$262 to US$316).

The feeds-and-speeds race should start to close up mid-year when AMD unveils a 45nm dual-core Yukon processor codenamed Conesus with 1MB of L2 cache. Intel may however leap ahead with its Montevina refresh of the Centrino 2 due in the same timeframe.

The HP Pavilion dv2 is likely to become the first poster-child for AMD’s Yukon ‘ultrathin notebook’ platform

AMD has already scored a first win for the Neo with HP (perhaps the most fickle of PC makers when it comes to sharing its CPU affections) announcing the 12 inch Pavilion dv2.

The dv2 lacks an optical drive but is packed with just about everything else – including an ExpressCard slot three USB ports a memory card reader gigabit Ethernet and standard DVI out plus optional Radeon HD 3410 discrete graphics embedded 3G and a 500GB hard drive. Depending on the chosen specs it sells for US$699-US$899 – take that MacBook Air!

By the time all this is wrapped into the dv2’s magnesium-alloy shell the scales tilt to at a relatively hefty 1.7kg but it’s also a mere 2.2cm in thin. So in just about every respect the dv2 sits pretty much where AMD wants it to be – mid-way between top-end netbooks and mid-range notebooks but with an undeniable dollop of slim styling.