15th May 2012 | 06:22
Is AMD's new Trinity fusion chip for thin-and-light laptops an Intel Ultrabook killer?
If the future of computing is all about mobile devices, the future of computer chips is increasingly about squeezing in more features into ever less space. Enter the AMD A10-4600M, the latest all-in-one chip for portable PCs.
Previously known under the Trinity codename, the AMD A10-4600M is exciting for several reasons. For starters, it's our first taste of AMD's new Piledriver CPU architecture. Piledriver is a development of AMD's radical Bulldozer CPU design.
Regular TechRadar readers will know that Bulldozer promised much but delivered relatively little. It's a thoroughly intriguing design in theory, thanks to its modular architecture. But in the final reckoning, it's performance that really matters and Bulldozer didn't dish enough up.
So, we're awfully keen to learn whether the revised Piledriver design can turn Bulldozer's theoreticals into useful processing reality.
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The AMD A10-4600M is also the first Bulldozer-derived chip of any flavour to integrate graphics functionality. AMD's previous fusion processor (also known as Accelerated Processing Units or APUs for short), the chip codenamed Llano, was based on AMD's older Stars core as found in the Phenom II and Athlon II chips. It's an architecture that is relatively little changed since the original Athlon 64 was launched was back in 2003.
But it's not just the CPU cores that are new inside the AMD A10-4600M. The graphics core has had an update, too. Admittedly, it hasn't been brought right up to date with AMD latest Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture. But it has received a number of upgrades along with a significant clockspeed bump.
Put the whole package together and you have a chip that promises to keep Intel's mobile processors for Ultrabooks, like the new HP Spectre XT, honest.
Ultrabooks have been a big hit for Intel and there's no doubting the thin-and-light remit makes for desirable portable PCs. But in terms of keeping the market competitive and prices under control, it would be great if AMD could throw something into the mix to frighten Intel.
What's more, it might just make for a much more affordable and portable alternative to all those big money, heavy weight gaming laptops out there. A cheap laptop with game-worthy integrated graphics really would be big news. Meanwhile, we're also very interested to see how the new A10 compares with outgoing Llano chips, like the AMD A8-3500M.
Like most mobile processors, the new AMD A10-4600M isn't a chip you're likely to buy separately. Instead, it will come as part of a portable PC of some kind. Inevitably, therefore, the specifics of the AMD A10-4600M are somewhat blurred by the platform into which it's inserted.
The first laptops with the AMD A10-4600M aren't quite ready for retail consumption, so AMD provided us with a whitebook system that's used for evaluating the underlying platform. It's a pretty conventional and dowdy looking thing, but the aesthetics aren't important.
For context, however, the specifications do matter. It's a 14-inch system with a TN panel and 1,366 x 768 pixel native resolution. AMD has fitted a Samsung 830 Series SSD and 8GB of RAM, so there should be little to nothing holding the AMD A10-4600M chip back. It's a solid platform for mobile computing.
As for the AMD A10-4600M itself, it's nominally a 2.3GHz chip manufactured using the same 32nm production process as both Llano chips (like the AMD A8-3500M more powerful Bulldozer-class desktop processors including the AMD FX-8150).
But that doesn't tell you all that much in the context of what is a pretty novel architecture inside the AMD A10-4600M. Take the CPU cores. They're the first examples of AMD's new Piledriver architecture.
A revision of the intriguing but disappointing Bulldozer design, AMD hasn't been hugely forthcoming regarding the changes. But the basics remain pretty similar and involve two Bulldozer-style CPU modules and therefore four of those tricksy modular cores.
As we know, a single Bulldozer core is no match for even AMD's old Phenom cores much less Intel's immensely powerful Sandy Bridge and, soon, Ivy Bridge cores. So it will be awfully interesting to see how Trinity compares on CPU power with its direct predecessor the AMD A8-3500M, a chip that sports four pukka CPU cores, as well as Intel's dual-core chips for Ultrabooks.
But what about the graphics half of the AMD A10-4600M equation? AMD is calling the integrated 3D core the Radeon HD 7660G. Inevitably, perhaps, things aren't quite what they seem. This isn't a bona fide HD 7000 series design based on latest AMD's Graphics Core Next architecture, as found in desktop graphics cards like the AMD Radeon HD 7970.
Instead it's based on what's known as the VLIW4 shader design, something that lived relatively briefly in the Radeon HD 6000 series of graphics cards. This is where things get complicated, because the AMD A8-3500M, which claimed to have HD 6000 graphics but really had HD 5000 vintage hardware, has 400 graphics shaders, whereas the AMD A10-4600M has just 384 of those VLIW4 shaders.
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Since the two architectures are not directly comparable, don't assume that makes the new chip less powerful. If nothing else, the AMD A10-4600M's graphics core runs around 200MHx faster at 685MHz.
As an overall proposition, then, the AMD A10-4600M combines AMD's latest CPU design with its most advanced integrated graphics ever in a package that might just offer one of the most compelling compromises between power consumption, price and performance.
General Benchmarks for test whitebook
- Cinebench 11.5 2.06pts
- Battery life 5h 2m
Games and graphics
- Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim @ 1,280 x 720, 0x AA, high detail 46fps
- Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim @ 1,366 x 768, 4x AA, ultra detail 25fps
- World in Conflict @ 1,280 x 720, 0x AA 25fps
- World in Conflict @ 1,366 x 768, 4x AA 18fps
- Heaven tessellation benchmark @ 1,280 x 720, 0x AA 18fps
- Heaven tessellation benchmark @ 1,366 x 768, 0x AA 17fps
Firing up the AMD A10-4600M for the first time is exciting stuff. The key reference points here are AMD's outgoing A8-3500M and one of Intel's dual-core Intel processors for Ultrabooks such as the Intel Core i7-2637M.
On the CPU side, we can make a direct comparison. It's a little trickier regards graphics thanks to our comparison systems having discrete GPUs on board. But with those provisos noted, let's see what she'll do.
First up is the Cinebench 11.5 professional rendering benchmark. It's about as clean and simple a test of raw processing power as you're likely to find. It's also a great metric for measuring the multi-threaded throughput of the latest multi-core PC processors.
The new AMD A10-4600M knocks out a score of 2.06pts. But by the standards of powerful desktop processors, that's pretty weedy. Intel's six-core beasts hit about ten points.
But compared to CPUs for thin and light laptops, the AMD A10-4600M looks quite a bit more clever. It's comfortably has the measure, for instance, of the older AMD A8-3500M, which manages just 1.89 points. The Core i7-2637M, meanwhile, is good for 2.23 points.
Ultimately, then, Intel's finest is a bit quicker. But we'd argue the gap is negligible in real-world,-can-you-actually-feel-the-difference terms. And it's certainly quick enough to make the AMD A10-4600M interesting if it delivers in other areas like battery life and graphics performance.
Regards the former, making comparisons between dissimilar notebooks is hard enough at the best of times. But in the context of a whitebook not intended for sale, it's even trickier. However, the fact that the relatively rough and ready test system survives for over five hours in our wireless internet test (including a little video consumption) is very promising indeed.
As for graphics performance, the comparisons are again a little clouded by the differences in laptop specifications. But we can still get a pretty good idea of what the AMD A10-4600M is capable of. One of the most popular titles of the moment, for instance, is the swords and sorcery epic known as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
It's a very expansive and very pretty game, so long as you use high-res texture packs. So configured and running high detail settings and antialiasing disabled, you're looking at a very healtbhy and playable 46 frames per second at 720p.
Up the ante to ultra quality, 4x antialiasing and 1,366 x 768 pixels and you'll still get a near-playable 25 frames per second. No previous integrated graphics core comes close to this. Even Intel's latest HD 4000 core as found in the new Ivy Bridge processor family is barely half as fast.
Admittedly, we still wouldn't recommend the AMD A10-4600M for serious gamers. For that you need a proper discrete graphics chip and some dedicated graphics memory. But in a make-do scenario where you've no choice but to use integrated graphics, it's easily the best currently available.
The task for the new AMD A10-4600M is twofold. Firstly, it needs to move the game on, both from AMD's existing fusion processors or APUs. Secondly, it needs to keep AMD relevant in the portable PC market. That means improving on the disappointing Bulldozer CPU core architecture and beating the outgoing AMD Llano APU for graphics grunt.
Part two involves taking the fight to Intel in the burgeoning Ultrabook market. Strictly speaking, of course, a portable PC with the AMD A10-4600M cannot be called an Ultrabook. It's a marketing term and Intel has it locked down. And yet AMD can still get its new chip into thin, light and sexy laptops that are Ultrabooks in all but name.
Our main worry with the new AMD A10-4600M was that its Bulldozer-derived CPU cores might actually make for a backwards step in performance compared to the fully quad-core Llano chip it replaces. We needn't have worried. It's not a huge step forward, but it is quicker.
However the real advance involves the graphics core. Increasingly, graphics performance is what matters most in mobile devices. For proof, observe the fact that Apple's recent third-gen iPad pretty much carried over the two CPU cores from iPad 2, instead preferring to double up on graphics performance.
Similarly, the AMD A10-4600M delivers a big advance in graphics performance. It's easily the fastest integrated graphics core out there. More importantly, it makes playing modern games at half decent detail settings a real possibility. For gamers on a tight budget looking for a portable to do some casual gaming away from home, AMD's new fusion chip is very exciting.
In terms of battery life, drawing conclusions at this early stage is difficult. But if this evaluation platform is anything to go by, it looks promising.
Relieved as we are by the CPU performance of the AMD A10-4600M, this first showing suggests the revised Piledriver architecture isn't going to put the frighteners up Intel in a broad sense. AMD needs a fundamentally new architecture to achieve that.
It's been tough going for AMD in the conventional x86 chip market of late. Its long-awaited Bulldozer architecture was a particular disappointment on the desktop. But AMD is looking much more competitive in the mobile segment.
The new AMD A10-4600M has the makings of a very successful chip for thin-and-light notebooks. Buyers looking for affordable laptops in the Ultrabook idiom but with a little extra graphics gumption would be well advised for the first retail systems with this impressive little chip to appear.