AMD's Cartwheel platform promises simplicity

It's a step forwards, says Tom Yager

If the reality of the "standardised PC" were aligned with the rhetoric, no PC would ship with a separate driver disc. Windows XP would install onto a blank hard drive in the time it takes to copy the files. There would be no Found New Hardware Wizard, and if you inherited a PC with no discs or documentation, you could be certain that a store-bought Windows Vista DVD would be the only thing you'd need to make it work. That's the reality for every modern-era Mac. A used Mac, plus nothing but a generic copy of Leopard, is a working computer. On that Mac's first connection to the internet, all of that specific model's latest device drivers and firmware are downloaded and installed in one hands-off operation. Surely, if someone were given a chance to lay out the requirements for a PC standard from scratch, this sort of simplicity would be among them. PC users can have computers that install from scratch with generic Vista or Windows media. If you knew that essential device drivers were on all Microsoft's install discs, and that all system drivers could be updated any time with a single download, that'd feel more like the sort of standard you'd expect. I was pleased to find that a major piece of the bridge to this future recently fell into place. I just took delivery on a box containing a reference system for AMD's new Cartwheel (780G series) desktop platform. Inside an unnecessarily large, black, desk-side chassis was a system built around a very green (2.5GHz, 45 watt) dual-core AMD Athlon X2 4800 CPU. This system is what I now demand all desktops to be when I'm not racing them: Silent. But to my point about standard platforms: All systems built on AMD's Cartwheel, regardless of vendor, will use an identical bundle of device drivers for CPU, core logic, internal and external SATA disk controller, RAID, Ethernet, multi-display 3-D accelerated graphics (DirectX 10 compatible), DVD/Blu-Ray/HD-DVD decoding, and USB 2.0. Any system based on Cartwheel runs Vista out of the box with the drivers Microsoft put on the disc, and runs fully optimised after one trip to AMD's Web site to download the latest driver bundle. The problem with most attempts at platforms is that they are inflexible. For example, Intel can claim that its chipsets' benefits overlap with AMD's, but Intel's chipset-integrated graphics are barely adequate for text, much less 3-D. AMD played the trump card of engineers from graphics chipmaker ATI, so that even the least of the Cartwheel desktops will still be able to play HD and Blu-Ray DVDs, along with HD content, games, and, oh yes, Vista. While Cartwheel will get this done and establish lower price points doing it, it has another advantage that Intel lacks. For those users and system makers wanting more 3-D kick from Cartwheel than the 780G integrated graphics provide, AMD offers the unique option of Hybrid Graphics: You can add an AMD/ATI discrete 3-D graphics accelerator, ranging in power and price from bargain bin to barnburner, to your system, and when running Vista, Cartwheel systems will use the combined rendering power of integrated and discrete GPUs (graphics processing units). Even with Hybrid Graphics, the platform still uses one set of drivers common to all implementations, downloadable from AMD. The Cartwheel desktop platform will have a Puma counterpart for notebooks, extending the reach of AMD's consistent, unified PC platform to all clients. Is this certain to carry buyers of AMD 780G systems toward Mac-like simplicity? There are a couple of major bumps in that road. One is the BIOS. Each PC maker contracts out the initial and continued development of its systems' boot firmware and arranges distribution to customers. As long as a user can be cornered into having to flash his PC's BIOS to get an OS loaded, no PC can claim to be as easy to deploy as a Mac. The other limitation is audio, which is not part of the Cartwheel/Puma platform, so neither AMD nor users can predict which one of many digital audio chips their system will use. Audio drivers are often missing from Windows install discs, forcing you to find them on vendor-supplied media or on the vendor's Web site. I can still see a day when an AMD platform-based PC will boot from a Microsoft install disc, connect to, automatically identify and download the latest unified drivers, and come to life as a fully optimised PC, all without the user's intervention. That's as it should be, and as I've said, I think that AMD is the only outfit that could pull this off. Until then, customers who buy AMD 780G platforms from whatever system makers they choose will find that their CPU, core logic (chipset), and graphics device drivers are developed and maintained by, and downloadable from, AMD. That is a major step forward.

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