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When Will Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.'s Zen-Based Chips Become Available?

By Ashraf Eassa - Sep 23, 2015 at 8:00AM

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It's still looking like late 2016 for AMD's latest processor core.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD -2.21%), which has struggled to compete with much larger rival Intel (INTC -1.55%) in PC and server microprocessors for years now, is betting big on its next-generation processor architecture known as "Zen."

Zen, according to the company, is expected to deliver a 40% improvement in performance-per-clock relative to its current Excavator processor core, the last in the line of processor cores derived from its Bulldozer architecture -- though AMD has not indicated at which frequencies its Zen-based processors will run.

At any rate, following the departure of AMD's Jim Keller, the now-former Chief Architect of Microprocessor Cores for the company, AMD issued the following statement:

Jim's departure is not expected to impact our public product or technology roadmaps, and we remain on track for 'Zen' sampling in 2016 with the first full year of revenue in 2017.

This statement has led to some confusion as to when products based on these "Zen" cores will actually hit the market. In this article, I'd like to clear up that confusion.

What AMD said at its investor day earlier this year
AMD hosted an investor day back in May in which it outlined its product launch plans. According to that presentation, the first products based on the company's Zen processor cores -- aimed at high-performance desktop PCs -- will hit the market at some point in 2016.

These processors are expected to be pure CPUs rather than what AMD refers to as Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs; that is, they will not feature integrated graphics processors.

AMD didn't give explicit detail except for a leak by the reputable BenchLife.info suggested that AMD's plan is to get these first Zen chips into the market by the fourth quarter of 2016.

The statement from AMD doesn't contradict this
I reached out to AMD's Drew Prairie and he confirmed that, per the company's analyst day comments, "Zen will be available in 2016." In other words, the statement that AMD originally gave wasn't indicative of any slip in the Zen-based chip schedule.

Why Zen is so important to AMD's future
AMD seems committed to reestablishing itself as a major player in both the PC processor and the server chip markets. Although today's PC and server chips integrate far more than processor cores, the performance and efficiency of the core is central to the competitiveness of any chips aimed at these markets.

If AMD is able to put out a competitive CPU core with Zen, then the company might be able to halt -- and perhaps even reverse to some degree -- the share erosion that it is experiencing in PC/server processors at the hands of Intel.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a big "if." Intel has continued to invest heavily in its processor cores, and is even beginning to create different variants of its cores for different market segments. Developing cores that will ultimately be competitive with what Intel will have out in the marketplace in the late 2016 time frame and beyond seems a rather difficult task.

At any rate, I plan to keep a close eye on AMD's Zen project. If there is concrete evidence that AMD has built something competitive, then the company's fortunes might just be set to turn around. However, given AMD's uninspiring track record, I'll have to see it to believe it.

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