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Is AMD's new mainstream computing solution - their A-Series 'Fusion' APU, hero or hype?
AMD A-Series for 2011 delivers what it promises it can achieve on paper but no more. Mid specification CPU and GPU, low power consumption and good compute performance. However due to its older architecture CPU core and mild clock speeds at best it can match its competitor the Intel i3-2100 on an overall basis. In 3D or computationally intensive applications the AMD APU is superior. In productivity or video conversion the Intel is faster.
How relevant is graphics performance with modern software especially integrated graphics?
We can see significant speedups of order of several times magnitude with both systems when graphics acceleration is used to speed up computationally intensive applications especially video applications and HTML5 web browsing. The most significant increases are noticeable when Intel's Quick Sync hardware video engine is used to convert video.
No integrated graphics can currently run 3D games at full HD resolution medium to high details at playable frame rates. this is something that still needs an add in graphics card
Which 2011 mainstream PC is a better choice for the consumer - AMD or Intel?
It is hard to say as both platforms have their strengths and weaknesses. Both platforms are the same price, have the same features except Intel graphics does not support excluding DirectX11 and OpenCL and scheive similar levels of performance.
The AMD platform offers the best overall experience, it allows end users to play 3D games at medium resolution and details at 30FPS while the Intel solution only allows playable frame rates in modern games at low resolution and detail settings. Having said that the GPU power in the A6 for modern 3D games is just, barely enough to allow these games to be played. Future releases of AMD APU should fix this.
Users who perform frequent video conversion such as converting videos to use with their smart phone or media device are better off with any Intel 2nd Generation Core CPU and Intel HD Graphics, otherwise the AMD A-series offers a balanced computing experience with all applications rather than fast performance in some applications and slower in others. We recommend the AMD A8 over the A6 however.
What we really think of AMD A-Series and 2nd Gen. Intel Core i3
We were impressed with the performance displayed by both the AMD A6 system and the Intel i3 system for different reasons.
The overall package of the 'Llano' based AMD A6 system gives a good balanced computing experience. A basic system built around this APU can run any 3D Application or game that has been released in the past or the future at medium resolution and details thanks to the compatibility and performance of its Radeon GPU. This is great for the average user who may not be a regular gamer and may try a PC game infrequently or even once a year. The systems can do attitude will handle whatever is thrown at it for some time to come.
The issue we have had with specifying home PCs for our readers or clients has been home users may occasionally want to try a game where as business users would not unless they would rather be playing that working. Yes Intel can run games but not as well as AMD or NVIDIA, even Intel will admit this to a degree. Having the integrated mid level discrete Radeon graphics gives the system builder or OEM peace of mind as they will never have to think about how well any application will work on their system.
Llano has excellent and impressive power saving features allow for low power consumption figures given what is under the hood. This allows for energy efficient small form factor systems, notebooks or DIY users who would like to upgrade an older system with new internals. Graphics performance has traditionally not been possible with small form factor PCs.
The main issue with AMD A-Series is that it is too little, too late against Intel. Due to the older Phenom derived x86 cores, 100 watts thermal budget, Global Foundries' ability to pump out good yields of chips built on AMD"s 32nm HKMG manufacturing process and the need to preserve the role of its flagship products, A-Series has a mild CPU clock speed under 3GHz for the time being. For tasks that are CPU bound, Quad Core A-Series either loses out or just matches in raw CPU performance. It would have helped for Llano to have newer and faster CPU cores but the focus of the product is vision - its graphics, visual and compute capacity. For graphics or compute tasks, Llanos' innovative fusion architecture gives it a significant edge about the i3-2100 and even i5-2500K's integrated graphics.
A-Series is meant for the mainstream user so high performance gaming or expansion is not a priority for the platform.Like Intel's mainstream products it has a product life of 12 to 18months
Typically computer vendors like how aircraft manufactures might not put a new engine in a new airframe, will never release a product based on a complete clean sheet approach. The manufacturing process is perfected first and the vendor releases a completely new design of product based on this already stable and perfected manufacturing process. Intel calls this paradigm 'tick-tock'.
If A-Series were launched, say six months earlier, it would provide stronger competition to Intel's Sandy Bridge; however, we cannot ignore the higher raw performance the Intel chip provides at the same price as the AMD chip. Even if we discount the 20% performance deficit the A6 has over the A8, the Intel i3 still excels in many tasks as shown in our benchmarks. Many of these tests are simply better optimised for the Intel chip however and future software updates may remedy the situation.
There are too many A-Series models on offer for desktop and mobile, many of which are there simply to fill in product line-up charts. A-Series has some headroom and we feel that AMD should have launched not only significantly less models but put more emphasis on the A8 class. End users need MORE performance not LESS, especially typical non-computer savvy users who may get very frustrated at their computer or not use it often.
A 3.1+ GHz A-Series with all graphics cores enabled would be interesting comparison to the i3-2100 as a mainstream/end user part. This is something worth investigating, however with both Intel and AMD refreshing their lines mid 2012, perhaps overclocking A-Series would only benefit hobbyists. Casual users will be more than satisfied with either system for everyday use.
There is another scenario that we need to mention. System builders can purchase last year's AMD quad Core CPU for $100 and pair this CPU with a $50 AMD Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce Graphics card. This combination works out similar price to A-Series, delivers similar performance and negates the need for the user to change their system motherboard to one featuring the Socket FM1 suitable for the A-Series APU. We don't have the coveted fusion architecture that speeds up GPU compute enabled applications but some system builders or DIYers simply don't care and nothing can convince them otherwise short of a killer app.
We need a killer app for GPU computing, there are a few good apps but nothing sticks out like a sore thumb or even Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. The modern GPU had its killer app in 2001, it was called Doom 3 and fans of gaming and graphics were in awe when the iDtech engine that powered Doom 3 was demoed alongside the NVIDIA GeForce 3 Launched at Macworld Tokyo in the hands of iD software's John Carmack and Apple's Steve Jobs, however its taken ten years to fully evolve the GPU and to make the best use of it.
GPU computing technology is good, but it needs strong software support. Developers to add the necessary APIs and frameworks to their software wether it be AMD APP, OpenCL, DirectCompute, C++ for GPU, Brook, CUDA or Physx. Some good software is here, but the software library is still relatively small and niche, focusing on multimedia or science. Additionally the software needs to be optimised for best performance. It will be another few years for this.
Full Video acceleration in the GPU of all major video codecs did not take as long. We had different assist technologies since the early days of DirectX 6 AGP graphic cards especially the ATI Rage 128 but it wasn't until the 2007-2008 timeframe that the GPU has been able to decode the entire video pipeline in hardware, dubbed bit stream decoding. This worked great for decode and fixed HD video playback on the PC for good but encoding was still very slow without expensive professional real-time hardware. Contemporary software used the GPU rather than the Video engine for encoding. We needed large and expensive of GeForces or Radeons to significantly boost video encoding speeds.
Intel Quick Sync simply has taken the computer industry by surprise. From what we have seen anyone who has formally tested this technology has been blown away by its performance and Intel's competitors are scrambling to produce a competitor. Since many of us own portable devices that shoot or play video, video conversion is a priority for some people. AMD has genuinely tried with its video encoding speed and for some time was the industry leader but AMD's video encoding technology simply is no match for speed alone. Several years ago Jen-Hsun Huang CEO of NVIDIA said at a presentation that video conversion was one of the most time consuming and frustrating tasks on the PC and this had to change. Although NVIDIA did provide a better solution that what existed at the time with CUDA and Baddaboom, fast forward a few years and Intel has nailed the problem smack bang on the head and video conversion is finally a useable tool on the PC for the consumer.
I commend and applauded AMD for changing the PC industry status quo, for emphasising on graphics, for making us all 'Think Different' just as they did with their AMD 64 platform in 2003-4 and VISION in 2010-11. However at particular times in the last 15 years, Intel has held a card up its techno-sleeve and in 2011 it played its card by releasing its Quick Sync technology in its 2011 CPU line, a technology that in terms of speed up of a specific software task compared to a previous generation product offers a many times speed up and can be said to be unprecedented at least with consumer hardware.
Having said all this, nothing is a given in the computer industry. it is a tug of war with the victor frequently changing release cycle to release cycle.
A glimpse of things to come
By the time, you read this review it will be late October and both AMD and INTEL have significant product updates in their roadmaps slated for 2012 which address the shortcomings we have highlighted with either vendors 2011 computing platforms.
AMD plan to update A-Series with their clean sheet 'Bulldozer' CPU core, five years in the making which the industry is anxiously waiting for. This update is codenamed 'Trinity' and performance is said to be 'up to 50%' over the 2011 'Llano' A-Series chips used in the 2011 'Lynx' platform that we featured in this review. This address our CPU performance concerns however one year too late compared to Intel Sandy Bridge which launched 1st quarter 2011.
Intel will have refreshed their 2nd Generation Core CPU, codenamed 'Ivy Bridge' by mid 2012. The update will use smaller manufacturer process of 22 nanometres and delivers a major update to the Intel Integrated graphics adding DirectX11, OpenCL compute, even faster video encoding and other unannounced features. These features are the ones we cite as missing from the Intel 2011 and addresses our GPU concerns with Intel however it will still be a entry level graphics solution but with additional features and some performance increase.
By mid next year this review will be obsolete as each vendor will have released their annual improvements and updates changing the game. However, competition in the computer industry can be seen as tug-of-war. Brand A may win one round and Brand B the next round and the cycle repeats. This has happened before and will happen again. AMD, Intel and NVIDIA are extremely competitive and for matter of speaking their products are very similar overall. Such is that ten years ago AMD and Intel released their first 1GHz CPUs within a day of each other.
Although we feel the AMD 'Fusion' architecture mainly and especially the A8 gives the end user the best overall and balanced computing experience, neither AMD nor INTEL is the outright winner due to both brands aggressive innovation and competition.
The victor of the 2011 computing race is not AMD or Intel, but the consumer.
The following firms contributed products used in this review.
Network Synergy Corporation
Western Digital Australia