SlashGear 101: What is AMD Fusion?

AMD's news this week that it has begun mass production of the next phase of its AMD Fusion range of processors will mark the company's new assault on Intel: in the lucrative mainstream notebook and desktop segment. Based around AMD's new APU chips, the company claims Fusion is an entirely new architecture with its own unique advantages over what Intel is pushing. Join SlashGear 101 after the cut to find out what that means, why it's important, and whether you should be putting Fusion-powered systems on your shopping list.

I've heard of a CPU and a GPU, but what's an APU?

An APU is an "Accelerated Processing Unit", and at its most basic it's a mixture of CPU – the core brain of your computer – and GPU – the chip responsible for graphics processing – on a single unit. Although Intel's new 2011 Core processor range has a basic video chip living on the same core unit as the CPU, AMD has gone one step further and included extra intelligence in how the tasks you ask of your computer are worked on.

So, rather than the CPU being responsible for all general tasks, and the GPU only being called upon to handle what you see on the screen, a system using APUs can assign tasks to both. Some tasks are better handled by the CPU, as is traditional, while other tasks are better handled by the way the GPU can work on multiple problems simultaneously. Although GPUs have been used in this way before, AMD's Fusion technology is special because it pulls everything together in one place, and so reduces the delay normally found as data shuttles from one part of your computer to another.

AMD calls this "Heterogenius" computing, processing that can take advantage of the best of both CPUs and GPUs, and has branded it AMD Fusion. The first Fusion chips began to show up in netbooks earlier this year, under AMD's VISION brand.

So is it just for netbooks, then?

Not at all. The first range of Fusion APUs – the C- and E-Series chips – were targeted at netbooks, with relatively low processor speeds and frugal power consumption, but the APU concept ramps up in performance just like a traditional CPU. What AMD has announced today is that its mainstream range of Fusion chips are now in mass production and headed off to notebook and desktop computer manufacturers.

These new Fusion chips are the A-Series, which AMD internally calls "Llano", and they work in exactly the same way as described before. The difference is, they contain more CPU and GPU power to handle trickier tasks like gaming and video processing, just as the sort of people looking for a mainstream laptop or desktop might be asking for. They also demand more power to run. AMD expects the first computers using these A-Series APUs to go on sale before the end of June 2011.

Why should I care?

AMD argues that, by using the combined brains of the CPU and GPU in everyday computing, users will see their software run quicker without needing a hugely expensive processor. That should mean cheaper netbooks, notebooks and desktop PCs which are still capable of playing games and doing video processing – as well as browsing the internet quickly and doing all the usual Office tasks. If a manufacturer decides to prioritize battery life, then AMD reckons its Fusion chips will be happy sucking just a little juice while still offering the option to play high-definition video.

It's also important that AMD Fusion is based on open standards for software developers to use. That means more likelihood that your favorite applications will work properly with the Fusion APU's intelligence, and take advantage of the two kinds of processing on offer.

What's next?

"Faster" and "frugal" are the two keywords in processors these days, and AMD Fusion is no different. As you'd expect, AMD will be increasing the speed that the CPUs and GPUs in the Fusion chips can run at – that will mean a shorter time to crunch video and other tasks – with lower power consumption so that notebooks and netbooks can run longer on a single charge.

Next in line for release will be AMD's Fusion chips for performance notebooks and desktops, which the company hopes will take a bite out of Intel's Core i7 range.

More on Fusion at AMD's site.