Friday, June 3, 2011

AMD Fusion Upside

AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) recently revealed that it has been unable to meet the demand for its first Fusion processors. They call these APUs, for Advanced Processing Units, to indicate that each chip includes both a CPU and a GPU (graphics processing unit). Introduced in late 2010, the first APU variety was designed to bring low cost, high quality graphic capabilities to inexpensive notebook computers. Computer makers (HP, Lenovo, Sony, etc.) embraced these first Fusion chips as a big improvement on the Atom chip from Intel, famous for underwhelming netbooks (sub-standard but very portable notebooks).

Does that mean the sun is finally rising on AMD investors (that includes me)? Intel remains not only holding most market share, but dominating the most profitable segments of the market, including chips for server computers. On the other hand Intel has its own problems, pressed from below by ARM architecture based chips in smartphones and tablets, while failing to be able to deliver the graphic quality consumers now expect. To make a workable business or consumer computer manufacturers need to add an AMD Radeon or NVIDIA GPU to the system.

Intel itself is not exactly the darling of Wall Street anymore. Today Intel is trading at 10 times last year's non-GAAP earnings per share. No tech bubble there. AMD is trading at 8.5 times last year's EPS. Intel is wading in cash; AMD has a substantial amount of debt. If you wanted to buy a computer processor manufacturing company, Intel would be the more obvious choice.

To break out of its trading range AMD, at the very least, would have to start generating substantially more earnings than it has lately. What are the chances of that, when the sector itself appears to be in trouble, and Intel has a tradition of crushing AMD whenever Intel's market share starts to slip?

It really does come down to Fusion. Intel is scared of Fusion, so it is using considerable resources to catch up in graphics technology. Intel is now paying NVIDIA to use its intellectual property, which probably includes graphics designs. That should start to show up in Intel chips in 2012. My guesstimate is that by 2013 Intel will have closed the graphics gap. So AMD's future profits, and the value of its stock, highly depends on how much market share it can pick up in 2011 and 2012, and at what kind of profit margins.

It came as a surprise to me, and probably to everyone, that AMD became supply-constrained in Q1. I think the problem is that the first Fusion chips were on the 40 nm process, which is where most graphics chips are at this year. Both NVIDIA and AMD reported supply constraints at 40 nm in early 2010. AMD failed to anticipate demand for its new chips, and so did not book enough capacity in advance. AMD now contracts for fabrication of its chips, whereas Intel has its own fabs. On the April 21 AMD analyst call for Q1 2011, AMD executives talked about insuring future fabrication capacity, so that must be about the Fusion shortfall.

Right now AMD is about to launch its second round of Fusion processors, which will be more powerful, but also will require more power. So they will be for higher-end notebooks and for desktop CPUs. The will be on the more-advanced 33 nm process. That may have its own issues, but it won't run into the 40 nm roadblock. Later this year AMD will also introduce its Bulldozer CPUs, which are not part of Fusion (they don't have graphics processing on the die).

The upside for AMD investors depends on continued support from manufacturers (HP, Dell, Lenovo, etc.) and from retailers like Best Buy. The near-universal sentiment now is that consumers get more for their money with AMD based computer systems, particularly when it comes to graphics capabilities. Thus AMD should pick up market share this year in the sub-$1000 categories of notebook and desktop computers.

One commonly told story is that consumers are moving to tablets, so sales of PCs and notebook computers are about to come to a grinding halt. The actual evidence for that is scant. In the U.S., prior to the introduction of tablet computers (they've been around for nearly a decade, but did not become popular until Apple marketed a more attractive, if less powerful, version), everyone pretty much had at least one computer, either a desktop or a notebook, maybe a netbook. Most moderate to heavy users had a PC at work and a desktop and either a notebook or netbook for personal use. As the new thing, tablets are going to sell, and with budgets tight, they are going to cause purchases of notebooks and desktops to be delayed. But most tablet computer users have found they are not really a replacement for their more powerful cousins. So, the question becomes: what do they upgrade next? Are they going to get an even newer tablet, or are they going to refresh the old desktop or notebook computer?

You know what the gadget guys will have. A good, reliable, high-performance desktop, a good notebook computer for working away from home, a tablet to be cool and consume video, and a smartphone.

AMD is not going to compete in the smartphone space, but their Fusion chips are beginning to appear in Windows-based tablets. Their stand-alone graphics chips are now used by Apple for its desktop computers.

Also, this is a global market. The same low-cost high-graphics capability that appeals to U.S. consumers will appeal even more to first-time PC buyers in India, China, Brazil, and developing countries.

A recovery of market share in the server GPU market would also benefit AMD, but I'll leave that topic to a later story.

Any reasonable investor not already holding AMD should probably take a show-me the market share and EPS gains attitude. On the other hand, there is a good chance that 2011 will be a year when those of us who already hold AMD will see the upside of Fusion. Maybe as early as the report on Q2, if production was ramped for the new Fusion products.

See also:
AMD home page

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