AMD's Demos Zacate Integrated Fusion CPU: Updated

AMD always hosts an event in the shadow of Intel's Developer Forum, so it wasn't surprising to hear the company was demoing its upcoming Zacate processor this week. Zacate is the codename associated with AMD's 18W dual-core APU and will target the $500 notebook market. The second chip, Ontario, is a 9W APU that'll chase after Atom's business. According to AMD's Director of Fusion Marketing, John Taylor, Zacate-class APUs are ideal platforms for what he calls "no-compromise cloud computing." Why's that? He's glad you asked.
Increasingly, we go online for collaboration and social interaction...Nowhere is this more evident than on social networking sites. These sites...often requir[e] quite a bit of processing power both in the cloud and on the client. The client-side processing is in fact increasing as the experience becomes more visually engaging, in the browser and the internet applications, and in the media players.

It is because of that balanced cloud computing need: low power to stay connected longer, with enough local visual compute power for media rich activities, that “Zacate” is poised to be a fantastic no-compromise mainstream platform and ideal for cloud computing with highly-mobile form factors.
Taylor isn't just talking about Zecate as a client-side APU; he's coyly hinting that AMD's new low-power wunderkind will perform quite effectively in cloud server clusters. The IDF demo, however, wasn't just about words; AMD had testbeds ready to demo Zecate's performance against Intel's Core i5. Here's where things get...questionable.

First, there's AMD Space Command, an unreleased HTML5-based title written by AMD. According to this gem of a title, the Core i520M maintains 23 fps while the Zacate consistently delivers 38-40 fps. There's every reason to stare dubiously at this benchmark, but the performance gap isn't crazy. Intel's integrated GPUs have long been the ill-fated henchmen to AMD's tank of ill-tempered sea bass, so there's nothing all that strange about Zacate's GPU outperforming Intel's Core i5.

AMD also includes comparisons between Zacate and Core i5 in City of Heroes: Going Rogue and in the psychedelic browser benchmark. According to AMD, Zacate is ~10x faster in Psychedelic and substantially faster in CoH:GR. The problem here is that the Core i5's browser benchmark score is exceedingly low relative to what other individuals have seen using the same test on older Intel hardware. As for Going Rogue, earlier AMD blog posts specifically note that the game has been optimized to run on ATI graphics hardware. That doesn't change the fact that Zecate may genuinely outperform Core i5, but we'd have preferred to see a neutral title as well.

While there's no proof that AMD sabotaged the Intel system (there could be an issue with the IE9 preview platform), the specialized nature and limited scope of the tests the company did show leaves us unable to conclude much of anything about Zacate. One thing we'd love to know is the extent to which the various tests rely on CPU performance. None of the tests AMD demonstrated were overtly CPU-centric. AMD has a history of skirting such tests with its existing products; omitting numbers for Zacate could be an early sign that new chip lags the Core i5 in CPU performance. That said, AMD seems to be driving the graphics point home firmly with respect to Zecate.

Update:  Anand of Anandtech also thought the Core i5's numbers were a tad strange and revisited AMD's suite. The problem turns out to be the OEM's fault; the latest set of Intel drivers that will automatically install are dated 3/31/2010. Forcing a manual driver updated fixed Intel's low scores in the Psychedelic benchmark--but Zacate's lead in all of the existing benchmarks (plus a few more Anand installed and tested) held firm.

We also spoke to AMD, who highlighted the fact that the Zacate hardware is aimed at a $500 price point while the specific Core i5 laptop tested sells for $800-$900. AMD didn't avoid CPU benchmarks to hide a performance weakness on Zacate's part, but simply wanted to highlight the platform's strengths. We still don't know how Zacate compares to Core i5 in terms of CPU performance, but given the two different price points, the two may not compete much.