Earlier this year we saw the first fruits of AMD’s Fusion strategy. The E-350 APU in particular was an Atom-smasher, easily outperforming Intel’s low end netbook processor in pretty much any common task. But taking on Atom is relatively easy – AMD’s latest move is anything but.
APU Buying Guide: AMD Fusion netbooks under $700
It’s new A series APUs have finally been announced after a long wait. These are initially laptop APUs, targeted at Intel’s incredibly successful Core i3 and i5 product lines. Mobile has traditionally been AMD’s weak point and an area in which Intel has not only dominated, but focused its immense R&D efforts upon. Thankfully AMD has some fantastic tricks up its sleeve, ones that can only come from a company with strong x86 CPU and DirectX GPU product lines and patents.
With the A series AMD promises big. Perhaps the biggest is the mythical all-day battery life, but equally important are the claims of laptop supercomputers and brilliant HD. We’ll get to battery life in a bit, but suffice to say that AMD has held back a lot of really nifty silicon engineering for the A series, and it has translated into some pretty impressive power management within the APU itself (which only draws 35W).
Brilliant HD is a no brainer. One of the key parts of ATI’s graphics success was the advancement of both high quality 3D graphics and video playback. In fact, one of the smartest moves with the A series has been to incorporate the RADEON UVD3 hardware (ATI’s third generation Universal Video Decoder) into the APU, which allows it to use the GPU hardware entirely for video quality improvement.
The supercomputing analogy gets trotted out regularly, and has little to no implication in the real world. Heck, as far back as the PlayStation 2 the whole supercomputer thing has been used. What AMD means is that it has chips capable of 500+ gigaflops of compute power. This is thanks to the combination of four CPU cores and 400 Stream processors, and while an impressive number the end performance is more about how coders utilize these disparate processing architectures than raw grunt.
From an architectural perspective the A series is fascinating. AMD has not only put a discreet GPU and CPU onto the same die, it has also tackled problems with memory access and display outputs. The CPU cores are slightly tweaked versions of the current Phenom lineup, while the GPU is a member of the latest generation 6 series RADEON cores. It is at its best when both kinds of processors are being used, but still delivers solid CPU performance in traditional applications.
The 'Llano' core used in the A8-3500M. AMD has dedicated a lot of space to the GPU side of the APU.
Historically GPUs have been squarely aimed at gaming, but in recent years this has changed a lot. While gaming is still one of the core uses for a GPU, more and more software is capable of being accelerated by a GPU. This ranges from video playback and editing through to web browsing (all three major web browsers are now GPU accelerated). AMD is putting a lot of effort into getting more and more software running using OpenCL and leveraging both GPU and CPU, and the range of supported programs will only grow over time.
AMD supplied us with a white box laptop a few weeks ago in order to get our heads around the A series performance. It has a top end A8-3500M APU as well as a discreet 6700M series GPU. Alongside this are 4GB of DDR3, WiFi, a 1366 x 768 screen and the usual assortment of features. AMD’s new chipset supports native USB 3 and SATA 6Gbps (Intel has no USB 3 and only two SATA 6Gbps ports), which is a nice bonus. The laptop is purely designed to let us test the A series platform – it will be a few weeks until we see what actual A series laptops look like.
Firstly the battery life. AMD claims a bit over 10 hours using a Windows idle test. Our laptop battery tests are a bit more complex, cycling through a series of web pages until the battery dies down (think of it as light use). In this test the A-3500M managed a stunning eight hours and 21 minutes before it ran out of juice. A similarly specced basic Core i5 2410M laptop in the same test only got five hours and 15 minutes (although this will vary by manufacturer).
As for gaming, well we were stunned. Our first port of call was the recently released Dirt 3 rally game. We tested both the APU on its own and the laptop’s ‘Dual Graphics’ setting, which uses both the APU and discreet GPU to render the game. At medium detail the APU only managed a very playable average of 35 frames per second, which jumped to 65fps when using Dual Graphics. In contrast the HD3000 processor graphics on the Core i5 2410M managed only 16fps.
Shogun: Total War 2 was our next port of call. This is a system hungry PC-only game, and recently received a patch to update it to DirectX 11. The inbuilt benchmarking lets us test both DX9 and DX11 and the picture it painted was fascinating. Using Dual Graphics it managed 35fps in DX11 but only 24fps in DX9. This shows off another advantage of AMD’s architecture – DX11 support isn’t available in Intel’s processor graphics and as this test demonstrates it can seriously effect performance.
RAW CPU performance wasn’t as grand, with our real world tests delivering a score of 0.49. This works out as half the raw CPU grunt of a desktop Core i7, but as AMD stresses CPU isn’t everything anymore. It does make us stop and think, but then we look at the results from gaming or watch a video and it becomes fairly obvious to us that the broad strengths of the A series APU well outweigh the raw CPU advantages of Sandy Bridge.
Unless your laptop requirements are particularly extreme (I’m looking at you HD video editors) then the A series APU delivers all you need. Gamers in particular should leap on Dual Graphics laptops, and as long as AMD can keep up supply of the processor while keeping laptops to its target price range of US $600-$700 it looks like it has a winner on its hands.
John Gillooly travelled to Abu Dhabi as a guest of AMD for its Llano Tech Day briefings.