AMD A-Series Sabine Platform Mobile Review

Editor’s Note: From here on out, most of the testing and writing was done by our own Matt Smith, mobile guru.  Since this is really a mobile platform review above all else, I thought it would be most appropriate for Matt to get a lot of hands on time with the machine and report the findings in a way really talks to the consumer looking for a notebook.  We are already in the process of getting our hands on the desktop Llano parts due out later in the summer and we are going to go through much more of the CPU-specific testing at that point, though we do touch on some of that here today in our performance pages.  You will find me interjecting in a few places throughout the remaining pages, however. 

The year has been an excellent time to review laptops. While in the popular media the focus has been on newer devices like smartphones and tablets, laptops have been enjoying significant improvements. Purchasing a high-performance laptop no longer means enduring a drastic reduction in battery life, and purchasing a laptop with an adequate graphics solution no longer means putting up with a gigantic chassis.

Intel and AMD have enhanced laptops by integrating a GPU into the architecture of their CPUs, reducing the silicon required and making it possible for both components to share cache, but they’ve introduced these architectures at different ends of the market. Intel’s second-generation Core processors are clearly high-end components for systems typically priced $600 and above, while AMD’s Fusion APUs have (until now) been placed into netbooks rarely priced above $500.

Both of these new processor architectures are successful in their respective markets, but there has also been no real competition between them. Today, with the release of AMD’s new Llano processors (the Fusion A-Series), the race truly begins. Let’s take a look at what AMD is placing on the grid.

A Bird’s Eye Overview

The processor in our 14” Compal testbed system is the AMD A8-3500M. The A8 series products are, according to AMD’s own material, the most badass new mobile processors the company plans to release. They’re aimed straight at Intel’s Core i5 and i7, which is a lofty target indeed. The A8-3500M has a base clock speed of 1.5 GHz, with a potential Turbo maximum of 2.4 GHz. This is the least powerful A8 available at the moment. 

Editor’s Note: The rest of the test configurations were selected in order to pit the A8-3500M against what we thought was the most accurate competition and of course using our current selection of products and results as the pool of available resources. Both the ASUS K53 and N53 notebooks come with Core i7/i5 processors that are direct competitoin to what AMD is releasing today so of course those were included.  The K53 relies solely on the Intel HD 3000 graphics while the N53 gets the aid of a discrete NVIDIA GPU and thus we get to see interesting results from both angles.  The Sony VAIO Y series that uses AMD’s own E-series processor was included to see how far the A-series was able to separate itself from that first generation of APU.  

Although the A8-3500M is not the fastest of the new processors available (that title goes to the 1.9 GHz A8-3530MX) it is equipped with the same Radeon HD 6620G as its quicker brethren. Part of AMD’s latest Evergreen architecture, the Radeon HD 6620G has 400 cores clocked at 444 MHz. For comparison, an AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5650 (which was one of the more impressive mid-range mobile GPUs available late last year) also has 400 cores, although they can be clocked as high as 650 MHz.

In addition to this, our testbed system supports AMD dual graphics in the form of a separate, discrete GPU called the Radeon HD 6630M. This can operate in CrossFire with the Radeon HD 6620G on the APU, and when their powers unit they create the Radeon HD 6690G. No, I’m not kidding. AMD has separate names for not only the graphics on the APU and the discrete GPU but also the combination of the two in CrossFire. Someone in marketing is pulling out their hair over this.

Given the information above, it seems clear that AMD is trying to use its advantage in GPU performance as a way of negating its disadvantage in CPU technology. But don’t take my word for it – AMD itself stated the same in slides leaked to the press which included a pie-chart breakdown of how AMD’s new A-Series APUs allocate resources in comparison to Intel’s Sandy Bridge.

It should be noted, of course, that this is a test-bed system, not a retail product – though it is possible you will end up seeing this system in the lineup of a major manufacturer. From the look and feel of the laptop I’d say Dell, Acer or even Samsung could slap their label on this chassis. However, that’s beside the point for this review. We’ll be focusing only on the battery life, performance and software of this laptop, leaving aside the user interface and design.

Performance is the big story, after all. AMD has been re-hashing its mainstream laptop processors for years now, and it’s showed. When we reviewed the AMD Turion II dual-core Acer Aspire 5551G last year, we found that the processor was woefully underpowered compared to the first-generation Core processors of its day. The newer Sandy Bridge Cores are even stiffer competition. AMD is certainly the underdog, but that doesn’t mean it can’t compete.

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