Investors who have followed the PC processor landscape know that there are two major competitors: Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ:AMD) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC). For years now, Intel has managed to gain significant market share against AMD. A large part of this share shift, in my view, has been that Intel has consistently delivered more competitive solutions than AMD has been able to.
At CES 2015, Intel announced its next-generation Broadwell family of chips for thin, light, and low-power notebooks while AMD announced Carrizo for those same markets.
While I'm not convinced Carrizo will be enough to reverse the share loss that AMD has been suffering in the midrange and high end of the PC market, I do think it's worth noting that the higher-end Carrizo gets quite a few punches in on Intel's Broadwell.
A full system-on-chip for PCs
Intel likes to refer to its Haswell/Broadwell Ultrabook chips as "system-on-chip" products, but it has been well known for quite a while that these processors aren't actually "system-on-chip" products in the traditional sense; most of the performance critical portions are integrated into the main complex, but key features are shoved into a second die integrated in the same processor package as shown below:
On the left is a die made in Intel's new 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, but on the right is the platform controller hub die made on Intel's relatively dated 32-nanometer technology used.
AMD's Carrizo chips, on the other hand, integrate all of that functionality onto a single die. Keep in mind that the AMD chip is a single chip built on a 28-nanometer manufacturing process (reportedly that of GlobalFoundries). There are cost trade-offs to doing multiple dies versus single dies, but I would expect a nontrivial efficiency improvement if Intel were to integrate the platform controller hub onto the main processor complex.
Intel won't be integrating this complex onto the main processor die with its next generation Skylake processor, due in the second half of 2015, either, according to CPU World.
Hardware H.265 decode
AnandTech reports that AMD's Carrizo has built-in hardware decode capability for 4K HEVC video streams (read here for why HEVC is a big deal). Intel's Broadwell, according to its technical disclosures at the Intel Developer Forum, has "GPU accelerated HEVC decoding and encoding." This means instead of using dedicated hardware (which is the most efficient way to do things) to decode HEVC 4K video, Broadwell requires the help of the graphics processing engines.
This method is more efficient than doing it in the CPU, but AMD's hardware support is the right way to go for power-constrained chips. But CPU World reports that Intel will be bringing this capability (along with HEVC encode) to its Skylake family of processors.
How did AMD's Carrizo manage to edge out Broadwell like this?
While it's tough to figure out the exact reason that Intel doesn't go ahead and integrate everything into a single, leading-edge chip (there are a number of good potential explanations, though, that are beyond the scope of this article), it's pretty easy to see how Intel fell behind on the HEVC decode/encode.
Intel had previously claimed that it planned to go into high volume production on Broadwell by the end of 2013, so it should have been in systems for back to school 2014. Broadwell production ultimately began in the second quarter of 2014 and is now being released about half-way through its originally intended life cycle.
Broadwell's feature set would have been more than competitive for a product expected to last in the market from mid-2014 to mid-2015. With systems hitting the shelves in early 2015, however, its feature set in some areas is already showing its age relative to most high-end mobile chips (which usually support HEVC decode/encode) and even AMD's upcoming PC chips.
Also, keep in mind that while Broadwell has been shipping to OEMs since last year and is now available in system that can be purchased today, Carrizo isn't expected to land on the shelves until "mid-year" 2015. If Skylake launches in the back to school 2015 timeframe, then AMD's real competition is Skylake and not Broadwell. AMD appears to have a time-to-market edge for 4K HEVC decoding, but it's not as large as it would have been if Skylake were pushed out due to the Broadwell delay.