AMD's Carrizo: Huge Performance Boosts For Everyday Laptops

We don't all buy ridiculously powerful notebooks. Gaming PCs, sure, but not notebooks. Normal laptops -- y'know, the ones you can buy in Harvey Norman and your local computer store, the ones that cost a thousand dollars and not five thousand -- are far more common, but we don't give them as much love as we should.

AMD has just taken the covers off its latest high-performance notebook APU, called Carrizo, and the under-the-hood improvements are genuinely amazing. Say hello to double the battery life of last year's laptops, as well as almost double the computing power.

AMD calls Carrizo its "most versatile notebook processor ever."

The raw numbers that AMD is claiming are incredible for a single-generation change in processing. Eight and a half hours of video playback for a Carrizo laptop versus three and a half for a previous-gen one. Almost twice the performance in the same programs, while simultaneously reducing power consumption by half -- a performance per Watt improvement of 2.4x versus AMD's last-gen APUs. All of this while still on the same 28-nanometre production process as the last generation of chips, too.

Now, Carrizo is aimed at everyday notebooks -- the $499, $799, $999 laptops you'll see on the shelves of stores like JB Hi-Fi and Dick Smith. The Dell Inspiron 15s and Acer Aspire R3s of the world, not massive hulking powerhouses from Alienware and AORUS. It's not a super-performance part like Intel's newest Broadwell Core i7s, and it won't beat them in outright CPU-compute performance. Nor is it a super-low-power tablet-esque like the energy-sipping Core M. Instead, Carrizo sits comfortably in between, consuming a little more power than Core M but besting Core i7 machines when it comes to the fun stuff, like gaming and video playback.

AMD's Carrizo is its latest, and sixth-generation, notebook accelerated processing unit, or APU. What that means is that Carrizo has four CPU processing cores -- AMD's latest Excavator cores, the newest and best processor microarchitecture from the company before Zen lands in 2016 -- and eight graphics cores, all on the same slice of silicon.

This approach isn't unique; Intel has its HD Graphics chips integrated with its Core processor silicon. But where AMD's approach differs is that while Intel-CPU-toting notebooks boost graphics power on higher-end machines by adding a separate (AMD or Nvidia) discrete graphics card, AMD's APUs integrate that discrete-grade graphics chip directly into the silicon already used by the CPU. And on Carrizo, those graphics are more powerful than ever, while still keeping power consumption low.

The improvements under the hood of Carrizo extend much further than baseline computing and graphics performance improvements. The latest low-power sleep modes are supported. A hardware h.264/h.265 HEVC video decoder is built in, much more efficiently playing video than by just using the CPU. Power improvements to the onboard memory cache, power improvements for the graphics voltage controller, power improvements to video game streaming and Skype calls in the next version of Windows.

That next version, Windows 10, itself comes with myriad improvements in the way notebooks and desktop PCs can operate -- for both productivity and less-productive tasks like gaming. DirectX 12 is a huge part of that, and Carrizo is AMD's first APU to support DirectX 12 instructions; as a result you'll see a performance boost of about seven times versus the last-gen part under the same test. It's also the first notebook to support HSA 1.0, the worldwide developer spec that aims to make it a lot easier to program software to run simultaneously across both CPU and GPU. This will be huge in the years to come.

Even if you buy a notebook with a discrete AMD graphics card, the APU will still contribute. AMD's preliminary tests show that a Carrizo APU will improve the performance of a discrete AMD GPU by about 20 per cent, lending its graphical power to supercharge the standalone GPU and offload less intensive tasks where necessary. It's an integration that benefits mainstream notebooks, but will also make a difference to gaming machines at the same time.

What's best about Carrizo, in a way, is that it's not a world-beating piece of hardware. It's not the most powerful CPU out there or the most powerful GPU out there, because that's a race that has already been run and that runs over and over and over. Carrizo makes huge, measurable, noticeable, important improvements in the middle of the market, in laptops that real people actually buy. I genuinely can't wait until they start appearing in notebooks on store shelves and superseding the last generation -- with battery and performance figures that just look embarrassing in hindsight.

Basically, if you want to buy a laptop that won't break the bank, that can handle the requirements of Windows 10 and DirectX 12 for gaming and modern mainstream games, that can handle high-definition video playback, that can game like a significantly more expensive Intel machine, that won't run out of power while doing so on the go, then AMD wants your money to go to a Carrizo machine.

Campbell Simpson travelled to Computex 2015 as a guest of AMD.

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