APUs strike the ideal balance of form, function, and power consumption for graphics-intensive portable devices
Achieving high levels of graphics and video performance for portable, small form factor systems is difficult when utilizing conventional CPU and discrete GPU processor architectures. With the recent advent of Accelerated Processing Units (APUs), designers are equipped to break this graphics barrier without giving an inch – literally – in board space.
Ongoing innovation in the x86 semiconductor industry is the foundation for the near-ubiquitous use of x86 embedded computing technology in the ever-growing range of SFF applications. Even with continued improvements in CPU performance and power efficiency, however, designers of SFF portable systems remain challenged to achieve their most ambitious design goals for graphics performance and visual immersion. Growing demand for higher performance graphics capabilities has led OEMs to explore new x86 processor architectures that promise to meet exacting multimedia performance requirements for applications spanning commercial, medical, and industrial domains, with a growing focus on portable and/or battery-powered devices.
Embedded boards and modules equipped with new-generation Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) can facilitate advanced graphics capabilities within an extremely small footprint, without compromising power and cooling efficiency or cost. The merging of advanced x86 computing capabilities with the parallel processing power of General-Purpose Graphics Processing Units (GPGPUs) in a single device allows OEMs to design low-power, graphics-intensive SFF systems that until now have been exclusive to power-hungry multicore CPUs and add-on graphics cards.
The evolution to increasingly intense graphics
Graphics-driven applications are accelerating the pace of innovation for portable, energy-efficient SFF systems. Applications spanning digital signage, information terminals, point-of-care medical imaging and diagnosis, and industrial applications are evolving to offer advanced graphics performance, but in many cases are constrained by conventional CPU and discrete GPU processor architectures. Here we’ll look at each of these applications individually and address some of their unique design constraints, and also assess the ways in which APUs can minimize these constraints.
Mobile digital signage and information terminals
The travel services industry in particular has embraced digital signage as a means to provide timely, location-aware information. GPS-assisted in-vehicle digital signage and other mobile digital signage better equip travelers for personal use and empower travel services and transportation vendors with “high proximity” advertising space for local businesses. Multi-screen display capabilities are emerging as an important feature for these applications, and mobile digital signage is especially sensitive to power consumption requirements. Low power draw is crucial if a mobile digital sign is to be powered by, for example, a shuttle bus battery.
Point-of-care medical imaging and diagnosis
Portable medical devices with sophisticated medical imaging capabilities for use at the point of care outside of the hospital can enable medical professionals to examine patients in the field, as well as access and process imaging-intensive patient data such as Picture Archiving and Communications Systems (PACS) datasets stored within hospital information systems. These devices ensure high-resolution imaging and ultra-precise diagnostic information that first responders and care providers count on to expedite treatment decisions.
Apart from the inherent design constraints associated with high-performance graphics processing, device portability, and battery-life preservation, medical device designers grapple with stringent device certification processes that often consume valuable time and intense time-to-market pressures that few other industries face as acutely.
Portable industrial applications
Imaging and data-intensive industrial applications such as image detection and recognition, automated inspection, and distributed data collection systems that require high-speed vector processing are increasingly being deployed in remote settings for monitoring purposes, and are therefore sensitive to portability requirements. In addition to requiring increased parallel processing capabilities to facilitate high-precision real-time data collection, these systems often need to be ruggedized for harsh environments. Highly compact, fluid- and particle-sealed system enclosures present obvious challenges to airflow and venting – challenges that are often insurmountable with traditional CPUs due to their thermal profiles.
APUs yield higher performance graphics with fewer components
New-generation boards and modules designed with advanced x86 APUs are ideally suited to minimize and/or eliminate the aforementioned design challenges while maximizing overall graphics performance. The combination of a low-power CPU and a discrete-level GPU into a single embedded APU provides OEMs with optimal picture resolution (frame rates and resolutions of up to 2560 x 1600 pixels, for example) for their graphics-driven, mobile SFF systems. Combining a GPU core on the same die as the CPU enables host systems to offload computation-intensive pixel data processing from the CPU to the GPU. Freed from this task, the CPU can serve I/O requests with much lower latency, thereby dramatically improving real-time graphics processing performance.
Size and integration
APUs also reduce the footprint of a traditional three-chip platform to just two chips – the APU and the companion controller hub. The combination of general purpose CPU and GPU onto a single die with a high-speed bus architecture and shared, low-latency memory model simplifies design complexity through a reduction in board layers and power supply needs, enabling SFF system designers to achieve aggressive form factor goals while driving down overall system costs.
By providing native, high-performance graphics processing at the silicon level, APUs preclude the need for bulky add-on graphics cards that usually require a right-edge connector. In space-constrained designs, an edge connector takes up more space (card-edge boards are typically 3" to 5" taller) and exposes it to additional shock and vibration that can lead to signal integrity issues. Designing APU-caliber graphics capabilities directly onto a carrier board is a more rugged, long-term option.
Power and cooling
The Performance-Per-Watt (PPW) gains enabled by APUs assure greater power efficiency and lower heat dissipation, which in turn can preclude the need for fan cooling within SFF systems, thus helping to preserve board space, improve overall system reliability, limit system noise, and lower BOM costs. Supporting Thermal Design Power (TDP) profiles from 5.5 W to 18 W, with typical power consumption below 6 W, AMD G-Series APUs equip designers with the ability to keep board-level total power dissipation to within approximately 35 W, well within the 45 W threshold at which mobile systems begin to become hot and physically uncomfortable to the touch. These factors enable designers to optimize their SFF systems for extremely compact enclosures and/or applications with power constraints, and can help designers stay within the 25 W threshold at which passive cooling is an acceptable (and typically favorable) option.
Multi-display video immersion
The ability to support multiple independent display outputs simultaneously is an emerging requirement for realizing ultra-immersive video displays for digital signage, and also SFF portable medical devices. New-generation APUs enable designers to cost-effectively develop multiple video displays without sacrificing board space for add-on graphics cards and controllers or compromising overall picture resolution. They also offer the ability to decode up to three HD video streams in parallel and support up to four independent digital displays via a wide range of standard interfaces, including DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, LVDS, and VGA.
Vector processing for SFF industrial systems
Applications requiring increased parallel computing capabilities, such as the portable medical and industrial devices mentioned above, are well suited for boards and modules equipped with APUs. These applications include 3D medical X-ray image reconstruction and smart camera applications such as high-precision image/pattern detection and identification. However, traditional CPU architectures and application programming tools are optimized for scalar data structures and serial algorithms, and as such, are not the best match for data-intensive vector processing applications.
The integration of general-purpose, programmable scalar and vector processor cores for high-speed parallel processing establishes a new level of processing performance for SFF systems at an unprecedented PPW. In the case of AMD G-Series APUs, the general-purpose vector processor cores within the embedded GPU – 80 shader cores running at 500 MHz (AMD Fusion T56N) – drive the ultra-high-speed processing required to handle intensive numerical computations.
Time to market
The inherent architectural advantages introduced with APUs go a long way toward minimizing design complexity and accelerating time to market. These advantages are owed primarily to reductions in board layers, discrete add-on processors/cards, and power supply and cooling needs, which naturally minimize the number of components on the board and therefore enable designers to shorten, and in some cases eliminate, design cycles.
The underlying x86 APU architecture also enables portable SFF system designers to tap into the vast selection of existing x86-optimized software, applications, and development environments available on the market, introducing additional opportunities to enhance development efficiency and speed time to market. The open development ecosystem for the AMD G-Series platform, for example, includes support for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOSs), multiple BIOS options, OpenGL 4.0 and OpenCL support, and source-level debug tools.
By implementing AMD G-Series APUs on the most common form factors for graphics-intensive applications, such as Computers-On-Module (COMs) and SFF SBCs and motherboards, Kontron is making the benefits of this new x86 processing architecture readily available for application development. OEMs and system integrators can take advantage of highly scalable, validated APU-based platforms that streamline design cycles and minimize design risks to ensure fast time to market for graphics-intensive and parallel-data SFF applications.
Making graphics performance goals achievable
New APU processor architectures are making a fast and transformative impact on SFF design initiatives, unlocking high-performance graphics capabilities in small form factors that simply can’t be achieved with conventional CPUs and GPUs. Continued innovation in the APU domain promises to push graphics performance boundaries even further, and will ultimately yield a new generation of portable SFF systems that defy space, power, and cooling limitations in ways previously unimagined.
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 For complete test and configuration information please refer to the AMD “Brazos” Platform Performance and Power Optimization Guide Publication #48109 Rev 2.01 available on the AMD Embedded Developers Support Web site.