The AMD Llano Notebook Review: Competing in the Mobile Marketby Jarred Walton & Anand Lal Shimpi on June 14, 2011 12:01 AM EST
AMD’s Llano Platform: Contending for your Mobile Dollar
When we first heard about Llano, it sounded like a good idea but we had concerns it might be too little too late. Core 2 was already beating AMD in the mobile sector, and since then we’ve had Arrandale and then Sandy Bridge. What was once a performance and battery life deficit has grown to a gaping chasm, and returning yet again to the aging K10/K10.5 architecture—which is a reworking of K8—felt like AMD’s mobile platforms were going to continue their history of stagnation. This is an important sector as well, as many businesses are shifting to completely mobile PCs and laptops are now outselling desktops. What we get with Llano is in some cases better than we were hoping for and in others not enough, but make no mistake: Llano is really all about the mobile sector.
The power and battery life optimizations are the best evidence of this: Llano offers roughly triple the battery life of the previous generation Danube platform, all while providing similar to superior CPU performance and a dramatic upgrade to graphics performance. From that perspective, Llano is a clear win for AMD, allowing their less expensive notebooks to finally offer competitive battery life with superior graphics. If you do a lot of complex CPU calculations (and you can’t or won’t switch to GPGPU computations), Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors are still faster than Llano, often times by a large amount. However, not everyone needs a quad-core Sandy Bridge notebook for $1000+. That’s where AMD hopes to come into the picture, offering a viable entry-level gaming notebook that can handle all the other mundane tasks you might want for under $700.
What we can’t really comment on is how gaming potential and performance will scale up and down with the rest of the Llano lineup. The A8-3500M is very likely one of the best A-series offerings, with the full 400 Radeon cores and four CPU cores. The A6 series has similar quad-core clock speeds, but the fGPU is trimmed down to 320 cores and the clock drops from 444MHz to 400MHz—so the HD 6520G provides 72% of the compute power of the 6620G we’ve looked at today. In a similar vein, dual-core processors aren’t completely dead yet, as Intel continues to prove with their i3/i5 series parts. Unfortunately, with the A4 Llano parts you get higher clocked dual-core with only 240 Radeon cores—the 6480G has 60% of the compute power of 6620G. If the fGPU is largely bandwidth limited, the drop in computation performance may not matter, but where the A8-3500M can generally handle medium detail 1366x768 gaming, A6 will likely require a few lowered settings to hit 30FPS and A4 will mostly fill the role of minimum detail 768p gaming.
The other interesting takeaway with Llano is that Brazos has just become far less interesting for many of us. Double the performance of Atom still isn’t enough, and now it’s only a bit more money to double or triple CPU performance while gaming (graphics) performance is two to four times faster than E-350. I’m pretty much content to say that I have no interest in Atom—even Cedar Trail—outside of tablets and smartphones, and Brazos while better is in a similar position. Those who like 10” netbooks are welcome to disagree, but that’s really the only stronghold where Llano and Sandy Bridge can’t quite compete—and Intel is even encroaching on that market with their new Ultrabook platform. Intel looks set to leave Atom out of the laptop race going forward, shifting it to tablets and other fanless designs, and Llano looks set to push Brazos into a similar niche. That’s fine with me, since in a couple more years we’re likely to see performance equal to or better than today’s Llano on tablets and smartphones.
As usual, your choice of laptop will once more come down to deciding what you really want/need. If you want maximum performance with reasonable battery life, Intel’s quad-core Sandy Bridge parts matched with NVIDIA’s Optimus-enabled GPUs are the best way to get there, but you’ll pay quite a bit more for the privilege. If you’re willing to forego battery life, Sandy Bridge with discrete-only AMD or NVIDIA graphics will power the fastest notebooks you can currently find, but they’re bulky, heavy, and expensive. It’s when you start talking about moderate priced laptops that Llano becomes important.
Some people will try to tell you that AMD will sell you more CPU cores than Intel for a lower price, but unlike desktop parts, mobile Llano cores don’t clock high enough to consistently outperform dual-core Intel processors. Even in heavily-threaded benchmarks where quad-core CPUs can shine, dual-core i5 processors are still typically 30% faster than the A8-3500M. Instead of selling you more CPU cores for less money, what AMD is now selling is substantially better graphics for less money. Home theater enthusiasts might find a use for such parts as well, but really the purpose of GPUs is simple: they’re for playing games. Until and unless GPGPU can take off and provide some killer apps, businesses and non-gaming folk alike will be better served by Intel’s processors—unless you want to save $100 to $200.
If you’re after a good all-around laptop for $500-$600, Llano should have just what you need; and for gaming, it will likely power some of the best sub-$700 gaming capable laptops you're going to find right now (short of fire-sales and refurbished laptops). For those interested, the only viable gaming notebook (e.g. with at least HD 5650M/6530M or GT420M/520M GPU) we can find for under $700 with an Intel CPU is the MSI CX640 at $650. Hopefully we'll see Llano offerings drop into the sub-$600 range with A8 APUs.
Now if you want to have your cake and eat it too, the APU to wait for would be Trinity. Due out somewhere in the 2012 - 2013 timeframe, combine a Bulldozer derived architecture with AMD's next-generation GPU architecture and you've got Trinity. Third time's the charm, right?