Conclusions and Closing Thoughts
Well that was a lot to take in, without a doubt, and now I’ll try to summarize it all in a single page for easy consumption. But if you just skipped here right away, you are missing out on some very important details so be sure you use that handy dropdown box up above and read the whole review.
CPU (x86) Performance
So… this didn’t turn out to well for AMD as we kind of expected after writing up our review of the mobile variant Sabine platform. The truth of the matter is the Phenom core was originally released in November of 2007 as the Phenom 9600 and it was last updated in mid-2008 as the Phenom 9950. The Phenom II CPU was released in January 2009. So, at best we are working with a CPU core based on 2008 technology and at worst 2007 technology – and it shows. There have been some IPC improvements to the core but you can only polish this core so many times before it loses life completely and we may have hit that with the Llano release.
The problem really lies with the 2.9 GHz clock speed that the top end A8-3850 is tagged with, well below the speed of the most recent quad-core Phenom II parts from AMD that reached as high as 3.7 GHz. Because of the combination of a new 32nm process technology and that Llano is the first "true" Fusion part with standard CPU and GPU technology, AMD obviously had more problems getting this part to the speeds it wanted. Quite simply they ran out of time even after several delays and HAD to get something out into the market for OEMs to dabble in.
It is not all gloom though – the four cores of the AMD A8-3850 are still much better than running any kind of lower class of processor like Brazos or Atom designs. When compared to the Core i3-2100, the most similarly matched processor from Intel in pricing and position, AMD isn’t able to win in the large majority of our x86 CPU benchmarks even with a dual-core HyperThreaded configuration going up against AMD’s true quad-core CPU. In a couple of cases the A8-3850 was able to get the victory (CineBench 10 and POV-Ray come to mind) but only those applications that are really pegging all four threads have a chance of showing that result. Lightly threaded applications or even some other less optimized programs will continue to show the Core ie-2100 with its higher IPC and clock rate in the better light.
So the CPU performance let us down but the exact opposite was our experience with the GPU portion of the AMD A8-3850 Llano APU. The 400 Radeon Cores of our sample outperformed the Intel HD Graphics 2000 found in the Core i3-2100 by as much as 4x but never less than double. When looking at the games, resolutions and frame rates on those graphs you MUST remember that we are talking about processors that cost a grand total of $135 or so and that includes your x86 and GPU processing technology. For that dollar amount, the amount of gaming horsepower in the A8-3850 is truly an impressive feat.
In case the results didn’t speak for themselves, with the A8-3850 at least and the Radeon HD 6550D integrated graphics, entry level users are finally at the level where I feel PC gaming can be comfortably accomplished. The integrated graphics on the Intel Sandy Bridge processors was impressive when it launched, at least partially because of how bad previous Intel graphics cores were, but the Llano launch exceeded that. With a $135 processor and $80 motherboard, along with your memory and storage solution of choice, you can build yourself or a friend a very basic gaming computer with entry-level discrete graphics performance for an amazingly low price.
AMD launched a few new features with the Llano APU as well including Dual Graphics technology, Steady Video image stabilization and Turbo Core Technology (though not on the models tested today). I think that the Steady Video technology is an example of where GPU computing can take place that we might not have thought of previously and when it works well, the difference is pretty stunning. We are going to do a video feature on the technology in the near future so stay tuned for that…
AMD Dual Graphics is a technology that I think has potential but lacks in some areas that I thought it needed to excel in. The fact that it doesn’t support DX9 games completely confounds me and the response from AMD was built around the idea of "time commitments and value propositions." I don’t see how DX9 titles, which are still FAR AND AWAY the majority of games out there right now, could not be worth the investment for gaming on the APU. Based on my results in 3DMark Vantage and Dirt 3 (both of which used DX10 or DX11), the hybrid CrossFire technology does work and benefits the entry-level consumers by utilizing every bit of hardware in their computer and allowing for easier upgrade paths down the line.
Turbo Core technology is something we had high hopes for on the mobile front but that didn’t quite live up to the bar set by Intel’s own Turbo Boost technology. Once we get some hands on time with a CPU that utilizes it on the desktop we will be able to more properly evaluate its value for the AMD A-series of APUs.
Pricing and Availability
The AMD APUs are dirt cheap – it is AMD’s attempt to stay competitive in the x86 CPU battle. If the prices were based on the GPU portion of the silicon, they would be much higher as the value there far exceeds what even the best Sandy Bridge processors can offer.
- A8-3850 – $135
- A6-3650 – $115
- Core i5-2300 – $185
- Core i3-2100 – $130
AMD says the motherboards and processors for the Llano platform will be available in "early July" so I would expect them to be on sale in the next several days if they aren’t already by the time you read this.
The key take away from the launch of the AMD A-series of APUs on the desktop is summed up in my line from the pricing segment: if the price of this processor was based on the GPU rather than the CPU portion of the silicon, it would cost quite a bit more on the market. But, unfortunately for AMD, most people still value the processing horsepower of the x86 cores over that of the GPU cores. As we correctly demonstrated the x86 "Stars" cores on the Llano CPU just can’t keep up with what the Intel Sandy Bridge architecture is capable of even in the low price points under $150. Yes, the A8-3850 will be able to do just about anything you want it to do on the x86 side of things, but it will do them slower.
If you are looking to build a low cost gaming machine using integrated graphics, the AMD A-series of APUs presents you honestly with the only solution you need. A discrete card of at least $50-60 is needed to put the Core i3-2100 configuration on the same performance level as the AMD A8-3850 and even then you will see higher power consumption and noise levels. Building a gaming rig targeted at 1680×1050 and lower resolutions might seem odd to some extreme gamers, but that is in fact the majority of the PC market today, and the A-series Llano APUs address that area far better than Intel does.
If we were 2-3 years in the future, when many more applications were written to fully utilize the capabilities of SIMD arrays like the one found on the Llano APU, the A8-3850 would be an easy recommendation over the Core i3-2100. We are sorry to report though that it is still 2011 and the number of GPU-accelerated applications is still limited though not due to the push of NVIDIA and AMD. With the exceptions of some video processing apps and gaming, the GPU in the Llano will be under-utilized I fear and even in some of the areas AMD claims victories in (video playback, transcoding, etc), Intel is doing nearly as well or "good enough" to get by. AMD needs those must-have applications that utilize the GPU today. For now, the only one we can definitively put our hat on is gaming – and in that realm Llano is king, stepping spitefully on the shoulders of Sandy Bridge.
I think in the coming months we will see much more success for Llano in the notebook market than in the desktop market with the exception of those budget minded users that like a little gaming on the site. AMD’s A-series of APUs are the first step into the greater Fusion world – I just wish it were a little bit bigger of a leap.