14th Jun 2011 | 04:01
AMD's second Fusion processor ups the performance ante with more cores and better graphics
AMD A8-3500M review: Overview
AMD is on the up. With the launch of its new A Series Fusion processor, tested here in AMD A8-3500M form, it looks like the good times are going to keep on rolling.
With four cores and grunty graphics in a single, power-efficient chip, the processor previously known as Llano – part of the company's Sabine notebook platform - looks set to take the notebook market by storm.
It feels good to type those words. After all, AMD's processor division had been taking a beating from arch rival Intel since way back in 2006 when the first Core 2 processors were launched. It was all one way traffic until AMD launched its first fusion chips, the C and E Series processors based on AMD's new low-power Bobcat core.
The platform will be marketed under the AMD Vision brand. As well as this A8, there will also be A4 and A6 variants available. We're testing this inside a whitebook (unbranded latop), sent to us by AMD.
AMD claims the C and E Series APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit) have been such hot sellers that millions have shipped already this year and supplies have literally run out. That's not a big surprise. As a cheap netbook and low-end notebook processor, the C Series in particular is an awful lot better than Intel's Atom. The Atom is arguably better suited to ultraportable devices.
It's therefore the job of the new A Series APU, codenamed Llano, to do the same thing for AMD in the mainstream laptop and notebook market. It certainly has some serious weapons. For starters, it packs highly efficient 32nm transistor technology. It also sports up to four CPU cores. Significantly, each is based on AMD's Stars architecture as found in its top-end Phenom II chips, rather than the relatively weedy Bobcat core in the C and E Series.
Then there's Llano's new integrated graphics core. It's the most complex integrated core the world has ever seen. In short, Llano is a much more powerful chip than the C and E Series and it might just have what it takes to take the fight to Intel's Core i3, i5 and i7 notebook processors.
AMD A8-3500M review: Specifications
The key factoid to fathom with the AMD A8-3500M is that it's AMD's first full-power Fusion processor combining CPU cores and graphics in a single chip. It's unambiguously a mobile processor designed for notebooks and laptops. The chip itself is codenamed Llano and contains four cores derived from AMD's Stars processor architecture. Stars is the processor core design found in existing AMD Athlon II and Phenom II CPUs.
AMD's first Fusion chips, the C and E Series APUs, sport AMD's Bobcat core. It's much more power efficient than the Stars core. But it also delivers much less performance. Of course, the use of the Stars core means much of the Llano chip isn't strictly new. But there's plenty that is.
For starters, Llano is AMD's first 32nm processor. Of course, Intel has been flogging 32nm CPUs for well over a year and is planning 22nm processors for early 2012. Still, better late than never for AMD's 32nm transistors.
The other really exciting news involves Llano's graphics core. With 400 DX11 shader cores, it's easily the most powerful integrated graphics core in the history of computing. For context, AMD's previous best was just 80 shader cores. Or, to put it another way, AMD's most powerful dedicated graphics chip as recently as 2007, the Radeon HD 3870, had just 320 shaders. It's a properly powerful bit of graphics hardware.
What it doesn't have, however, is the very latest AMD graphics gubbins, as seen in the Radeon HD 6900 series desktop cards. Instead, Llano's graphics is the slightly older graphics architecture first seen in the Radeon HD 5800. That means you get the so-called 4+1 ALU setup instead on the latest four-way symmetrical ALUs.
For the record, the rest of the Llano graphics core specification highlights include the full UVD3 2D video feature set and thus hardware acceleration support for all the important video codecs. Oh, and the minor matter of just 20 texture units, eight colour ROPs but only two render back ends. Still, the net result is raw number crunching throughput of 355 GFLOPS. Add in the four processor cores and you're looking at over 500 GFLOPS. It's quite a chip.
Other architectural interests go as follows. Both discrete graphics and AMD's Crossfire multi-GPU technology is supported courtesy of 16 on-chip PCI Express lanes. As for the supporting mobile chipset, it's packed with high-end features including six SATA 6Gbps ports and support for a pair of USB 3.0 sockets.
As a mobile chip, AMD has also ramped up the power-saving features. Which brings us neatly to the specifics of the AMD A8-3500M model tested here. Like most of the new A Series range, it's a quad-core processor. Seven A Series chips are available at launch, five quads and two entry-level dual-core models.
Where the power savings come in involves the 3500M's clocks. Nominally, it's a 1.5GHz processor, which isn't all that impressive. But thanks to a new version of AMD's Turbo Core feature, up to two cores can run at 2.4GHz. AMD has also added support for the power saving C6 idle state. Combine that with those tiny 32nm transistors and you have a mobile CPU AMD claims is capable of both excellent performance and 10 hours of battery life. But can it really be the best of both worlds in a single processor? Time to see how Llano performs.
AMD A8-3500M review: Benchmarks
Professional rendering, Cinebench R10
Time: faster is better
AMD A8-3500M 2m21s
AMD E-350 7m20s
Core i7 2820QM 47s
Video encoding, x264 HD
Frames per second: higher is better
AMD A8-3500M 8.3fps
AMD E-350 3.2fps
Core i7 2820QM 28.4fps
Gaming, Call of Duty 4
Frames per second: higher is better
AMD A8-3500M 46fps
AMD E-350 11fps
Core i7 2820QM 27fps
Gaming, World in Conflict
Frames per second: higher is better
AMD A8-3500M 18fps
AMD E-350 5fps
Core i7 2820QM 13fps
GB/s: Higher is better
AMD A8-3500M 10.8GB/s
AMD E-350 2.1GB/s
Core i7 2820QM 14.9GB/s
Battery life during 720p video playback
AMD A8-3500M 6h5m
AMD A8-3500M Idle 15W, peak CPU 44W, peak gaming 61W
AMD A8-3500M review: Performance
First the bad news: for a quad-core PC processor, even one designed for laptops rather than desktop PCs, the AMD A8-3500M's raw CPU performance is mediocre. That's because the clockspeed is limited to just 1.5GHz when all four cores are crunching numbers. In fact, in our testing we never detected any cores running beyond 1.5GHz, though AMD says it does happen when only one or two cores are under load.
Consequently, the 3500M gets absolutely hammered by the likes of Intel's quad-core Core i7-2820QM. Take the x264 video encoding test. The 3500M manages just 8.3 frames per second. Intel's 2820QM hammers out 28 frames per second. It's a similar story in the Cinebench R10 3D rendering benchmark. Intel's mobile quad completes it in 47 seconds. The 3500M lumbers across the line in two minutes and 21 seconds.
Of course, the A8-3500M is a much cheaper chip designed for relatively low-cost laptops. The harsh truth is that most of Intel's Core i3, i5 and i7 mobile chips will have the measure of the 3500M for plain CPU performance. But the crucial question is whether that actually matters. For day-to-day computing, there's more than enough processing power on offer.
What's more, where AMD's new chip really comes good is where you need performance most. Gaming. In the 3500M, the graphics core is known as the Radeon HD 6620G, it has all 400 cores enabled and runs at up to 444MHz. And it absolutely destroys Intel's equivalent integrated graphics core, the HD 3000.
Running an older game such as Call of Duty 4 at 1,280 x 800 pixels, the Intel HD 3000 can only manage around 27 frames per second. The Radeon HD 6620G cranks out 46 frames per second. In a more demanding title like World in Conflict, the HD 3000 is frankly unplayable, even at just 800 x 600 pixels. The Radeon struggles, too, at standard settings. But it has just enough grunt to cope if you knock a few of the detail settings down. Overall, it's a great little graphics chip for low key gaming on the move. A spot of World of Warcraft or Portal 2 at the airport? No problem.
AMD A8-3500M review: Verdict
AMD's new mobile chip is not a performance heavyweight in a conventional sense. Let's be clear about that. With four rather elderly cores and a clockspeed that doesn't often - if ever - go beyond 1.5GHz, that was always going to be the case.
But this is a chip for compact, cost effective laptops not mega-power workstations or gaming rigs. What it does do, therefore, is deliver an outstanding compromise between performance and efficiency.
The test system provided by AMD is extremely thin and light. But it has plenty of oomph for daily computing right up to and including one of the more odious demands on consumer PCs, decoding high definition flash video.
And yet AMD claims up to 10 hours battery life. Our testing indicates around six hours when decoding 720p video, so 10 hours idle is very plausible. Then there's the graphics performance. The test system offered both the integrated core and a discrete chip along with the promise of Crossfire multi-GPU for extra performance. In the event, Crossfire failed to function.
But here's the thing. The AMD A8-3500M processor makes most sense in its simplest form without discrete graphics. The integrated Radeon HD 6620G graphics is massively faster than any previous integrated core. And while most decent discrete GPUs remain quicker, the 6620G is still a nice little core for casual gaming. Thanks to Llano, 'integrated' is no longer a dirty word when it comes to graphics.
Strictly speaking, this is probably the slowest quad-core PC processor you can buy. We also don't know how much shipping hardware will be as yet - and cost will have a major bearing on the success of this platform.
Never mind that because the best thing about this new Fusion APU isn't any individual feature. It's not the 32nm transistors, the quad-core CPU or that game changing integrated GPU. It's the way the whole thing hangs together in an efficient, cost effective package under the AMD Vision umbrella. With this new Fusion processor on the scene, we confidently predict there will be many more affordable but seriously effective thin and light laptops on the market. Give it up for Llano.