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HARDWARE

Cooking Up A Killer Kaveri Rig (Part 2)

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APUs like KAVERI are the future for AMD, Reckons Jeremy Laird, and there are already plenty of compatible motherboards to choose from.

For starters, Kaveri marks the beginning of a new approach to computing for AMD, and maybe the PC in general. The buzz term here is HSA, or Heterogeneous System Architecture. We’ve been through this in PCFs passim, but the basic idea is the ability for software to run in parallel and seamlessly across both the CPU and GPU. The details involve unified memory access for CPU and GPU, and essentially pushing serial work through the CPU and parallel through the GPU. We’ve been banging on about the concept for years, but AMD has finally built the requisite hardware.

HSA creates an improved processor design that exposes the benefits and capabilities of mainstream programmable compute elements, working together seamlessly.

Then there’s AMD’s GCN graphics technology, which has been integrated into a CPU for the first time. Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 use GCN, and it’s also the graphics architecture that enables AMD’s Mantle API, which promises to massively reduce CPU overheads in-game.

Oh, and let’s not forget the whole Steambox thing and the consolification of the PC as a games device. Does that mean a smallish, power efficient PC that’s gaming capable, or a truly thin client PC that is merely the target device for a video stream generated on a traditional big-iron desktop? Clearly, this is a pretty complex overall narrative, but the implications all point towards Kaveri being much more significant than the mere disappointment of the Steamroller CPU architecture.

Jargon explained

HSA The idea of Heterogenous System Architecture is to have one chip with lots of specialised units within. So instead of some general-purpose CPU cores, you have a 3D graphics core, a 2D video and encode core, and maybe some crypto functionality. Dedicated hardware typically performs far faster than general-purpose CPU cores. The really clever bit is making this invisible to software, and having the code run on the most suitable part of the chip

Priorities

All of that also puts a slightly different spin on the subject of motherboard platforms for Kaveri chips. For the most part, the same remit and the same metrics apply, but the emphasis and the balance of priorities look a little different – at least for some usages.

Suddenly, form factor becomes one of the biggies. Kaveri isn’t necessarily a bad choice for a conventional tower PC. But neither is it a particularly obvious choice. Instead, it is perhaps the perfect processor pick for almost everything except a traditional performance PC tower. Full-sized ATX rig on a super-tight budget? Yup. Puny mini-ITX box that still packs a punch? For sure. Something in between that deftly balances cost, proportions and performance? Definitely. With that in mind, there are a few more minor features that are suddenly looking more critical. An mSATA slot certainly looks attractive when space is at a premium, for instance. The same goes for integrated Wi-Fi.

The popularity of mSATA SSDs is probably one of the more unexpected SSD trends to show its face and, even today, e-tailers just can’t seem to keep mSATA SSDs in stock.

Equally, there are items that fall off the radar a little. Is outright overclocking ability critical? Probably not. Do we want to see debug ports, onboard power switches or voltage checkpoints? Not necessarily.

That’s not to say that all the enthusiast-class clobber is instantly redundant. We have a mix of Kaveri-compatible boards on test this month that span the full spectrum – including a mini-ITX and a full ATX. It is more a question of weighing up the value of such features a little differently.

Kaveri-based desktop system on display at CES 2014.

Now we’ve covered some of the broader issues to think about with a Kaveri-based system, what about the specifics such as chipsets? Here, it has to be said, it’s hard to imagine AMD being much more opaque. Long gone are the days of bigging up chipsets when it comes to APUs like Kaveri.

 

 

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