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AMD’s Brazos vs. Atom Thermals, Revisited

Last week, we met with AMD at their CES location to see some of their upcoming systems and laptops. While they’ve also recently released several new desktop GPUs, there wasn’t anything new to discuss in that area. The same applies to their desktop CPUs—we’re all waiting to see Llano and Bulldozer. So the focus at CES was understandably on Brazos, aka the “first APU” Vision C- and E-series processors.

We’ve been critical of some of the staged platform comparisons we’ve seen in the past—as Anand put it, the onus is on AMD in this case to provide a truly representative comparison between their new product and Intel’s competing offerings. After the demonstration of their Brazos netbooks on Thursday, AMD called us back and said they wanted to let us rerun the tests to make sure we accurately represented the two platforms. See, there was a slight snafu in the initial thermal imaging comparison. Specifically, AMD thought they put out a netbook with a C-50, but the test system was actually a C-30. So, we returned….

The reason for the mix-up was simple: they had both a C-30 and C-50 system from the same OEM, and they’re basically identical (one was dark blue and the other was light blue). Given that the two C-series parts are both 9W TDP, we didn’t expect much to change, and the new testing confirmed this. We did get some better images of both the top and bottom of the three test netbooks—Atom N550 vs. C-30 and C-50. Unfortunately, stupidity on my part resulted in the loss of said images (it’s a long story…), so all we have are the thermal shots from the keyboard area and screenshots showing CPU utilization during playback along with screen captures taken with FRAPS.

The above gallery shows essentially the same thing as our initial testing: Brazos using its GPU uses less power and runs cooler than Atom N550 doing the decoding in software. The difference between the C-30 and C-50 is pretty much non-existent, as expected. The testing environment was not conducive to doing any form of noise comparison, so while the N550 setup was clearly warmer we couldn’t say if it was quieter or not. Battery life is looking to roughly equal Atom, so that’s good to see. Now we’re waiting for final hardware to see if we can shed any more light on the situation, as well as running our full suite of tests.

We also took the opportunity to capture a video showing the 1080p playback comparison, as that’s part of the story. The video in question is Big Buck Bunny, an open movie demo created as part of the Peach movie project. (You can read more about it on their site, though it’s old enough now that if you haven’t heard of it already there’s not much to add. Suffice it to say, the lack of any licensing issues meant BBB was all over the CES floor, and I’m tired of the short now!) This particular version is a stereoscopic rendering, so instead of the normal 24FPS the frame rate is 48FPS according to FRAPS.

I believe during playback Arcsoft TotalMedia Theater 5 is skipping half the frames, as none of the netbooks come equipped with a 3D 120Hz panel. Does that actually matter? Not that we could tell—now that we’re home from CES, I ran the regular 24FPS version of Big Buck Bunny on a different dual-core N550 netbook, and frame rates still frequently dropped into the teens. Actually, it was worse than the netbook at AMD’s demonstration, but that’s probably more to do with lack of optimizations and some bloatware that came preinstalled; but I digress….

You can see during playback that the Atom N550 periodically stutters and drops below 48FPS—and more importantly, it’s far below 24FPS as well at times. In comparison, both the Vision C-30 and C-50 Brazos/Ontario chips manage a consistent 48FPS. The C-30 does flicker between 47 and 48FPS, but again, that may simply be an artifact of using a stereoscopic 3D video on a non-3D panel. Temperatures are in line with what we reported in our earlier coverage, and the two AMD netbooks are virtually identical. CPU utilization on the dual-core C-50 is lower by about half, as expected.

Once More, With Feeling

This is essentially the killer app of Brazos compared to Atom, and it’s important to keep things in perspective. These chips have a much better IGP than Atom, but at least on the nettop side of things the faster AMD E-350 isn’t miles ahead of Atom D510 in the CPU department. When we drop clock speeds down to 1.0GHz (dual-core C-50) from 1.6GHz (E-350) and compare that to the Atom N550 (1.5GHz)… well, 62.5% of the performance of E-350 compared to 90.4% of the performance of D510 means that in some tests the N550 will probably beat the C-50 for raw CPU potential. Yeah, that’s a concern for me. The GPU is the real difference, so naturally a video decoding test is the best-case scenario. I suspect C-50 will be underpowered for most 3D games, even if the DX11 GPU inside Brazos is fast enough—it will just be the AMD equivalent of Atom + NVIDIA ION, only without as many discrete chips.

We also have to consider performance of the next tier of CPUs and IGPs. Atom is the lowest of the low hanging fruit; we have much faster chips and IGPs from both AMD and Intel, and we don’t need to move up to current generation parts like 2nd Gen Core processors. Even the old Core 2 Duo CULV chips are a darn sight faster than Atom (2x-3x faster), and bad as GMA 4500MHD is, it could do an okay job at H.264 offload. It appears that the E-350 will end up delivering performance roughly equal to the old CULV chips (probably a bit slower, to be honest). That means it will also be around the same level as the Athlon II Neo K325, only with a better IGP and apparently improved power characteristics.

The biggest point in favor of Brazos isn't performance, though. It's going to be cost. If AMD can get partners to put out $400 netbooks (hopefully without Win7 Starter and with more than 1GB RAM), that will hopefully put the nail in the current iteration of Atom. We've seen the Brazos chips, and they're extremely small—smaller even than Atom—so pricing should be very compelling. AMD also doesn't appear concerned about protecting their more expensive mobile offerings (mostly because there aren't many), so they don't have to castrate Brazos in the same way Atom has been stagnant since the first N270 rolled out. Well equipped Brazos netbooks (and nettops) in the $500 range should also be a more elegant choice than Atom + ION/NG-ION, so again AMD looks set to win several matchups.

We’re working to get Brazos hardware in for testing as soon as possible, but it looks like the biggest beneficiaries will be users that want good H.264 decoding in a 10.1” form factor, or an alternative to ION. If you’re looking for the ultimate HTPC chip, we’ll have to investigate that area in further detail, as bitstreaming support and other features are still a question mark. Right now, Brazos is shaping up to be what we all wanted from Atom last year; whether that will be enough in 2011 remains to be seen.

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  • AnandThenMan - Friday, January 14, 2011 - link

    Tomshardware has a decent article up on the Brazos platform, a good read. Anandtech dares not do a similar article because AMD really embarrasses Intel's Atom. Reply
  • StevoLincolnite - Friday, January 14, 2011 - link

    I agree.

    The general consensus on Brazos seems to be rather good around the web.
    It's an excellent alternative to Atom.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 14, 2011 - link

    You mean like our old Brazos preview, where we show E-350 leading the Atom in virtually every test? Yes, we certainly don't dare to do that! That would be horrible to report the truth, because that's only what we've been doing for years. But then you know that, because you've been accusing us of bias pretty much since Core 2 arrived and took a commanding lead over the AMD chips. The only *ONLY* reason we haven't done a complete writeup of a retail Brazos platform is because we don't have one for testing yet. I'm working to get some Brazos laptops in, and the sooner the better, but we don't have them yet.

    Funny thing is that THG's article isn't particularly gung ho on Brazos either: "Dress the technology up with new acronyms and sweeping initiatives, but the basic tenets distill down to this: integration is the key to higher performance, lower power consumption, and lower bill of materials in the mobile and mainstream desktop spaces. This is less about an earth-shattering vision and more about smart business."

    As I've said, Atom is so slow that just about anything is faster. Intel is afraid to make Atom faster because then it encroaches on their ULV chips and the Pentium class processors (which case about twice as much as Atom). But I won't give AMD a pass for making something 25%-50% faster than Atom, because CULV was already about twice as fast. It looks like the slowest dual-core CULV (Celeron SU2300) + ION ends up being comparable to the E-350, so what we're really talking about is a less expensive chip. It ought to win the power argument as well, and it has a better GPU. That's all well and good, but it's hardly revolutionary.
    Reply
  • StevoLincolnite - Friday, January 14, 2011 - link

    Excuse me? Maybe you have gotten me confused with someone else.
    I have not been accusing you or anyone else of BIAS since the "Core 2" days, but you are clearly accusing me.

    I could care less if AMD is a performance leader or not, as long as I can continue in getting great performing chips at a cheap price I am happy regardless of platform.

    I wasn't bashing the article per-say, I'll get what I can take, if anything I was expecting something longer detailing more aspects of the platform.

    In the end, it all comes down to cost.
    If Brazo's can out-perform an Atom (Without Ion) Mini-ITX in most situations, yet have costs in the same ballpark, it's a winner. - Shouldn't be hard to do, and it seems to may have done it.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 15, 2011 - link

    Was directed at AnandThenMan... didn't show up in the threaded view very well. :-) Reply
  • AnandThenMan - Saturday, January 15, 2011 - link

    That's some nice selective quoting Jarred. Maybe you should read the entire article instead of picking a few sentences that try and prove your point. You claim to be unbiased, but then why did you go through the text and find the most negative quote you could?

    If you actually READ the article, the overall impression is very positive. Brazos does exactly what it set out to do. At it's price point and power envelope, it is a very impressive offering. I can't wait to see Anandtech compare it with much pricier hardware, and talk endlessly about Intel products that have not been released yet.

    Some things are so predictable.

    BTW, Brazos is one tiny piece of silicon. But I expect you and others to paint that as a negative and complain how it's more about making money for AMD than anything else.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 15, 2011 - link

    Our lineup of laptops to compare Brazos with will include the standard low-cost, low performance offerings, just like it does with Atom.

    So on the Intel side, we'll have at least one Atom N450, one N550, one CULV (SU4100), I'll toss in the bottom Arrandale ULV i3-330UM as one more point of reference, and I'll even throw in the MacBook Pro 13. The only ION platform I reviewed is unfortunately the HP Mini 311, and I don't have a full set of results -- no one will even send me an Atom + NG-ION system.

    On the AMD side, we'll have the Toshiba T235D (Nile K625), and maybe bring back the MSI Wind or Acer Ferrari (something to represent the Congo era). Of course we'll have Brazos as well, and I would love to have C-30, C-50, and E-350 represented. We'll see if we can make that happen.

    Look at the Mini 5103 review and that's what I'm planning. What else would you like? (http://www.anandtech.com/show/4066/hp-mini-5103-lo...

    As far as selective quoting, that's the conclusion of the article. There are other paragraphs in the conclusion that essentially state exactly what I've stated. Let me quote them as well:

    "What we do have are the benefits of integration and a new processor architecture from AMD. The company clearly looks to be going after Intel’s Atom processor. It’s an easy target, given its “good-enough” approach to computing."

    "The experience of using a Brazos-based machine is night-and-day better than a desktop with Intel’s Atom. The Celeron SU2300 is an impressive little CPU, matched to Nvidia’s Ion chipset, and we’d have to call it comparable."

    "Unfortunately, this slide, which AMD presented back when it previewed Brazos, is entirely too optimistic. Zacate can go head-to-head against Intel's lowest-wattage Core 2-based Celeron processor, but I can't imagine it faring well against the Arrandale-based U3600, which runs at the same 1.2 GHz and costs the same $134. Even less likely is an even match-up against a Pentium-branded chip. In reality, I think AMD needs to shift the Intel column of the above slide up a notch to more accurately reflect its performance."

    "Had AMD been given a choice, I don’t think it would have decided to use Zacate and Ontario as the springboards for heralding the arrival of Fusion. As fate would have it, though, we’ll have to wait for the Sabine platform’s 32 nm Llano APU (expected in Q2’11) for a better look inside AMD’s plans for the future."

    That's like more than half of the conclusion (even the intro to the conclusion is somewhat negative, saying Brazos "doesn't deserve that kind of praise"), with some positive parts in there about the price of Brazos systems. We can beat the Better-Than-Atom drum all we want, but that's only one target. Better at roughly the same price is good and will get plenty of design wins -- I mentioned how many of them were at CES in the previous article.

    But even if Brazos sells, unfortunately AMD isn't making a ton of money off of it. Say the chip package costs $20 and AMD sells it for $50; well, Intel's SNB probably costs under $100 to package and they sell it for $200+. Anything is better than losing market share, but what AMD really needs is to (like in the K8 days) get out parts that they can legitimately sell for more than $200.
    Reply
  • ninjaquick - Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - link

    Yes, it is positively faster than Atom, but who actually cares about Atom? AMD needs to target CULV and either achieve the same performance at Atom power draw or run 50% faster than CULV at CULV speeds. That is what THG and Jarred are saying. Reply
  • ninjaquick - Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - link

    Yeah, don't worry man, if it is inline then it is a reply to whoever is less indented above. Reply
  • nitrousoxide - Friday, January 14, 2011 - link

    Agreed. You can't expect much from a chip built on 40nm process, integrating the north bridge, an entry-class GPU and two CPU cores, while shrinking the die size to barely over 70mm^2. It shocks Atom from any aspect, performance, power efficiency, die size and an important concern for OEM manufacturers: the price. Priced at no higher than $100, it is a good deal compared to D525+ION combo which costs $113 ($63 for the CPU and $50 for the GPU).

    AMD is surely doing its best, and given current technology AMD can do nothing better than this. Perhaps things will be much better with the introduction of Gen 2 APUs built on 28nm process, which means two times core count (hmm...quad-core, that makes Gen 2 APU more than "enough") with a much more competitive GPU based on the new architecutre.

    It's one year from now and Intel won't be introducing 32-nm based Atom--with no architectural advance but a simple die shrink, perhaps with a better IGP, but still far from AMD's--until Q1 2012. So AMD is actually keeping a fast pace on its Fusion Program, in less than two years they will come up with really convincing chips, NOT NOW.
    Reply

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