AMD's recently launched Fusion A-Series processors are finally making their way into the PCs, and shoppers looking for an inexpensive machine that's still capable of tackling their media and even a bit of gaming are in for a treat.
A quick look at our PC group tests reveals a rather stark preference from manufacturers for Intel processors. This isn't entirely surprising. While rival AMD has long offered strong, competitively priced CPUs, Intel wares have consistently proven to be more powerful, negating AMD's cost advantage in all but a few categories.
For higher end machines that isn't about to change. But AMD's new A-Series APUs are positioned to make a very sweet deal for budget-minded consumers who want to save a bit of cash, but don't want a sub-par experience.
Let's get some of the jargon out of the way. AMD's A-series APUs, previously codenamed "Llano", signal AMD's shift down to the 32 nanometer process, chipping away at power consumption while boosting performance. "Lynx" is the codename for Llano's desktop iteration. In notebooks, it was codenamed "Sabine."
An "APU" is a new termed coined by AMD, meaning "Accelerated Processing Unit." It means that the CPU and GPU are combined onto a single chip, akin to Intel's Sandy Bridge CPUs.
Both Intel and AMD have implemented a form of automated overclocking: Intel calls it Turbo Boost, AMD calls it Turbo Core. Both technololgies work similarly. When the processor has some spare thermal headroom, it overclocks a few notches, delivering an extra bit of speed when circumstances allow. Neither of the two processors I looked at offer these technologies however. AMD will be releasing a model later on, the 2.4 GHZ A8-3800, that will offer Turbo Core, but no pricing or availability has been announced yet.
I've put the hardware through its paces, and the results are impressive, if not especially surprising.
For my tests, AMD provided an A8-3850 APU, along with an ASRock A75 Pro 4 motherboard. The A8-3850 is quad-core, 2.9GHz chip, with Radeon HD 6550D "discrete class graphics" integrated onto the die.
In layman's terms, that means the power of a lower end graphics card is baked right onto the chip, ostensibly eliminating the need for a graphics card entirely. For comparison, I tested a dual-core 3.1GHz Core i3-2100. This Intel Sandy Bridge processor was paired with an Intel motherboard based on the H67 chipset.
With the exception of the aforementioned motherboard and processors, the testbeds were identical, a 1TB hard drive, 4GB of RAM and a DVD-RW drive for loading drivers and the like. All tests were run on the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium.
As this review was primarily focused on the processors and integrated graphics performance of the competing platforms, I didn't include a graphics card until testing AMD's new Dual Graphics tech.
First up is the old industry standard, 3DMark Vantage. We've been using 3DMark 11 for our graphics card testing, as it's the new, DirectX 11-based update to Futuremark's popular benchmark suite. Alas, Intel's Core i3-2100 is limited to DirectX 10.
A swift note about synthetic benchmarks: these tests aren't indicative of real world performance, but they do offer a pretty good idea of hardware handles strenuous tasks.
The A8-3850 takes a decisive lead here, with AMD plainly showing off the Lynx platform's strengths. 3DMark assigns points based on a machine's performance during the tests. Higher scores are better.
Note the near comical difference in GPU performance between the Lynx integrated graphics processor, and Intel's Sandy Bridge offering. And then, note that Intel's wares boast the stronger CPU score. AMD's Radeon HD 6550D graphics ultimately trounce the Intel HD Graphics 2000 implemented in the Core i3-2100, but Intel's wares pull ahead where raw sequential number crunching is concerned.
Next up is WorldBench 6, our homegrown testing suite. It simulates an average user's workload by running through sample workloads in off-the-shelf applications. Firefox churns through webpages, Photoshop touches up some photos, standard tasks you might find yourself doing while using your PC.
We see more of the CPU versus GPU discrepancies once we move on to some real world applications. Intel's Core i3 2100 took the lead here, by roughly 14%, a fair margin. It earned a score of 127, while the A8-3850 saw a respectable 109.
AMD Dual Graphics
We've covered the performance gains you can expect should you install multiple video cards onto a Desktop, thanks to AMD's Crossfire and Nvidia's SLI technologies. AMD's Crossfire makes an appearance of sorts here, in the form of Dual Graphics.
Dual Graphics works much like Crossfire does: add a discrete graphics card and it will work in tandem with the A8-3850's integrated graphics to improve performance. It's a (potentially) inexpensive way to upgrade your machine, though AMD does warn that you'll want to include a card that's reasonably more powerful than the integrated Radeon HD 6550D to see much of an improvement.
Setting up Dual Graphics was deceptively easy, though you will need to be comfortable navigating through the motherboard BIOS. I shut my testbed down, and added a Radeon HD 6570 graphics card onto the motherboard. After toggling the Dual Graphics option in the system BIOS, the machine booted into Windows. After a few screen flickers as the machine recognised the card, AMD's Vision Engine took control and automatically activated AMD's Crossfire.
All results are listed in frames per second. For Just Cause 2, all settings were turned to their lowest values, anti-aliasing was disabled and antistropic filtering was set to 2X. For S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (hereafter referred to as CoP), all of the extraneous bells and whistles were turned off.
I originally hesitated to include data for Just Cause 2 and CoP. These are the most strenuous titles on my graphics card testing retinue, and the numbers offered up here never approached "playable." It was a good illustration of the strength of the Lynx platform's integrated graphics however, you'll simply have to pick up a graphics card if you're going with Intel's offerings, while AMD leaves you a bit of wriggle room (provided you disable every single graphics option or stick to simpler titles).
Add a GPU, and things take a sharp turn for the better. Taking advantage of the Dual Graphics option turns the A8-3850 from a stuttering slideshow into a proper gaming machine, albeit with the settings turned down. But it's important to keep in mind that the Lynx platform is specifically targeted at inexpensive budget desktops, which (traditionally) aren't meant to be gaming much anyway.
With so much to gain from adding a modestly priced graphics card, gamers on a budget are going to have a lot to look forward to in the coming months.
Entry level processors like the A8-3850 and the Core i3-2100 are designed with low power consumption in mind, and they're both appropriately thrifty with wattage. While idle, the A8-3850 pulled a meager 42.3W, while the Core i3-2100 measured in at 44.6W. Both of these measurements were taken directly from the outlet, and don't include a display or case, so your measurements will vary.
While watching a 1080p video, the A8-3850 climbed as high as a meager 66.2W, while the Core i3-2100 hit 72.6 on our power meters. You can also expect to see those numbers balloon if you add a graphics card into the mix.
The Lynx platform is impressive, but what we're seeing is par for the course from AMD. What the part lacks in raw computing power, in makes up for with a (relatively) powerful integrated graphics processor.
Will it be enough? If you're on a tight budget, the answer is a resounding yes. AMD is playing to its strengths, and manages to deliver a platform geared towards media savvy consumers who want to enjoy high definition video and even some light gaming, if they temper their expectations.
Adding a discrete graphics card only improves things. Some configuration will be necessary (and AMD promises to improve the transition with BIOS updates later on), but coupling a relatively inexpensive graphics card offers a measurable bump in performance, a great way to eke more performance out of your media centre without adding too much cost to your machine.