07 May The Right CPU and GPU Combination for a Balanced Platform?

In my last blog I talked about the importance of a balanced platform and what I believe consumers are doing with and aspiring to do with their systems. For this blog, I would like to discuss the required type of balance between the CPU and GPU required for some of the key usage models described below. I know I’m engaging in generalizations here, but the complete variation and dependency list is so large it could fill the Library of Congress. So please don’t hammer me for the brevity.

  • Content encoding and creation: While years back the exclusive domain of the enthusiasts, video, audio and photo encoding have been embraced by the mainstream. They just may not know it yet. Both iTunes and Windows Media Player offer video, audio, and photo re-encoding. This is currently 100% the domain of the CPU. While somewhat codec dependent, the better the CPU (e.g. quad core AMD Phenom™ X4), the better the encoding experience. I believe this will change in the future as the software stacks improve on the GPU to enable the parallelization of these tasks, particularly on the video encode.
  • Gaming: If you start with a high performance CPU like the Phenom X4, then many titles become more GPU-limited than CPU-limited. This means that they are aching for more graphics performance from the GPU (e.g.ATI Radeon™ HD 3870). The added GPU horsepower (which can be further optimized through the use of our proprietary ATI Hybrid Graphics) allows the user to play at improved frame rates, at higher resolutions, and with the eye candy turned on, ultimately translating into a more enjoyable gaming experience. (1) Try playing a decent game with a higher end CPU and the integrated graphics of our major competitor. Pain is the only thing that comes to my mind. This is well illustrated by an Arstechnica review here. See it in action in a video here. The only major relevant exception on the GPU and CPU rule I can think of are for Flash-based web games on sites like NickJr.com, Lego.com, and Disney.com. And these are scalable with the CPU, not the GPU.
  • High-def video playback: In my opinion, the most important thing to have is a graphics card or graphics chipset with special circuitry specially designed to decode (playback) and enhance the quality of high-def video like BluRay movies. Examples of this are the ATI Radeon™ HD 3000 Series graphics cards and the AMD 780 chipset, which both take advantage of AMD’s proprietary Unified Video Decoder technology. These free the CPU to do other tasks while playing back HD video. Generally, the better the graphics card family, the higher the 1080P BluRay visual quality as measured by third party tools such as Silicon Optix’s HQV Benchmark. While the CPU can certainly decode high-def video, a more efficient way to do it is with the GPU. In a recent Arstechnica review here, it shows how an AMD GPU + CPU system walloped our competitor’s platform by a 2:1 ratio when playing a BluRay movie. Click on the video here to see this is action.
  • Multi-tasking: Generally, scaling is based primarily on the software performance of the CPU like the Phenom X4. The more things you are running in the foreground or background simultaneously, the more CPU horsepower you will need. This is true for the single user model and gets even more complex for a family that shares a PC, even if the family members physically use it at different times. For example, my home CPU gets hammered when multiple family members remain logged in at the same time, and I find myself competing with Disney “ToonTown” cycles left on in another session. Take that even further when that same PC is being used as your home server to serve up content to all the other PCs or devices in the house. The big exception to this, of course, is if you are blending GPU-limited apps with CPU-limited apps, then it becomes a toss-up. For example, you need a solid CPU and GPU if you would want to watch a BluRay movie the same time you are doing something else in the background, such as content encoding. Same thing goes for game multitasking.
  • Social networking: Sites like MySpace and FaceBook have really become content showpieces for personal video, photos, and music. These sites are based on Flash, so they scale with CPU performance. As addressed in content creation above, this is the domain of the CPU.
  • Productivity: Like you, I sometimes have gotten my jollies debating “how fast can someone speed up word processing”, but in my opinion, productivity is still ripe for CPU and GPU enhancements. Presentations are turning into multimedia extravaganzas. I am a marketing guy, so I know. Just try and do a pitch without video, pictures, video, 3D text blocks, and 3D rendered backgrounds. A real snoozer, particularly in our fast-paced “give it to me now” society. Finally, it’s hard not to discuss multitasking when you are doing work. How many windows and programs do you have open right now? Are you using Windows Vista with Flip3D and all the GPU rendering tricks enabled? Do you have two or more monitors? Enough said. CPU and GPU both matter here.

I hope I have made the case that a balanced configuration with the right amount of CPU and GPU processing are critical to meet the needs of what users are doing or want to do in the near future. I think I have also shown the complexity as well, particularly for an end user to really know what they need. It’s true that in the majority of cases, end users get their PCs from AMD’s OEM’s and channel partners. I believe that AMD’s job is to better educate and train these OEM and channel partners so that they have the necessary insight to create balanced platforms, which can be configured for specific end user requirements. I will discuss a few of the ways we are doing this in future blogs.

1) http://www.hardocp.com/article.html?art=MTQ3MCwzLCxoZW50aHVzaWFzdA