Battery Life, Portability, Heat, Software
Although lackluster performance has plagued AMD’s mobile processors for some times, I submit that it hasn’t been the company’s most pressing issue. That honor must be awarded to the woeful battery life endurance of AMD’s older mobile processors. Even AMD’s latest Athlon II and Phenom II mobile processors have been at an obvious disadvantage to the competition from Intel, and the problem has only grown worse with the release of the second-generation Core products.
The early Fusion E-series APUs provided a glimmer of hope. Although the models we tested (the E-240 and E-350) couldn’t provide life on par with Atom, their endurance was still respectable considering how thoroughly these APUs trashed the aging IGP found on Intel’s netbook processor.
The A-Series seems to make good on the better battery life promised by the early Fusion APUs. The testbed laptop provided by AMD came equipped with a 58Wh battery, which is a typical size for a mainstream laptop priced around $800. Out of this the testbed squeezed just over two hours of battery life in the Battery Eater Standard loop but nearly seven hours and a half out of the Reader’s Test and over 5 hours of WiFi usage.
The significant gap between the Battery Eater Standard and the other benchmarks tells us that the switchable graphics is doing its job. Battery Eater Standard engages the full might of the testbed’s dual graphics, sucking down battery wildly, but the GPU winds down when it isn’t needed and the battery stretches its legs. The Llano testbed bests the recently reviewed ASUS K53, which was equipped with a second-gen Core i5 and Intel’s HD 3000 IGP. It’s not possible to make an accurate prediction about how laptops based on A-Series APUs will be designed with access to a single system, but it appears that your typical system will give Intel Core laptops competition in endurance runs.
Battery life aside, the portability of the testbed is average, and I imagine that the same will be true of similarly equipped retail systems. The laptop easily fit into my messenger bag and didn’t add significant weight to my load, but this system’s dimensions are not particularly slim, no doubt due to the cooling the discrete GPU requires. This is not a problem, however, in my opinion. As sexy as paper-thin systems are, there isn’t much practical benefit to reducing a laptop’s thickness below an inch. After all, most of us carry around backpacks and messenger bags rather than manila envelopes.
The testbed system was quite warm after benchmarking or running 3D games. This heat output was noticeable not only on the underside of the laptop, but also on the laptop’s palmrest. Production laptops could solve this issue with better cooling systems, and it’s also worth noting that the testbed’s system fan was not aggressive, resulting in higher temperatures but less noise. Still, some heat output should be expected under these conditions. That’s simply the trade-off you must endure if you’d like reasonable graphics performance in a reasonably small package.
Software and Additional Features
The hardware in Llano is a drastic departure from previous mainstream AMD laptops. The inclusion of dual graphics in some models, alongside switchable graphics, has introduced more variables. Depending on your needs you might have dual graphics on, off, or configured to work with certain applications but not with others.
AMD has had to throw in software, called the AMD VISION Engine Control Center, to let users configure their hardware. The switchable graphics option has the capability to choose its mode of operation on its own, but by default it often asks the user for input. If you hated Window’s UAC, you may not much like the constant prompts asking how you’d like the switchable graphics to operate with a given program. There are just two settings – Power Saving and High Performance – and your settings are saved once you’ve chosen, so eventually the prompts will be a rare occurrence, as all of your frequently used software will already be assigned.
Navigating the VISION control center is painless. Most options are clearly labeled and not difficult to understand. The software is quick, as well – no waiting for menus to load. The overall presentation is superior to that found on current systems equipped with Nvidia’s Optimus switchable graphics solution. Although Nvidia’s controls are functional, they’re less attractive and somewhat more confusing.
Switchable graphics is far from the only feature in the VISION Engine Control Center. All of AMD’s typical GPU features are here including Eyefinity multi-monitor support, Hydravision multi-monitor desktop management, and audio via HDMI. Although these extras won’t be the make-or-break for most buyers, they’re always nice to have.