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?

High Detail Gaming and Asymmetrical CrossFire
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  • ionave - Thursday, June 16, 2011 - link

    I'm honestly sick of the fact I can't play TF2 on high settings on my laptop AND I cannot find an affordable computer to do so while I'm not paying attention during class. Several people I know feel the same way. Reply
  • krumme - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    The GPU performance hits dues to the shares bus is very low. Getting NV 540 /ati 5650 performance is far better than most expected.
    Battery life is simply amazing. Far better than expected.

    The OEM is standing at a very long line for this.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    That battery life is incredibly impressive. That AMD will finally have a competitive mobile offering is huge news; their engineers definitely deserve a pat on the back. Let's just hope that OEMs don't mess things up by cutting costs and shipping Llano laptops with tiny batteries.

    Unfortunately AMD will almost certainly struggle to get the message across that their CPU performance deficit is pretty much irrelevant for the vast majority of mobile usage models. It'll be especially difficult to get across to the huge number of consumers that think a 2GB 6570 is better than a 768MB GTX 460, but I wish AMD's marketing department the best of luck.
    Reply
  • Dribble - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    They'll struggle because cpu performance deficit does matter, cpu performance matters more then gpu performance for most of us. While llano might be *enough* today everyone buys a notebook and expects it too last several years.

    If llano currently only has the performance of a notebook several years old (core 2 intel) then you can bet in 3 years it'll be dog slow.

    Really its only a winner for a pretty small margin of people. If you don't really care about gaming you go intel because cpu's are faster, if you really care about gaming you go intel + discrete. That leaves those who really care about gaming but are on an extremely tight budget.
    Reply
  • ET - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I think that you underestimate the effect of price. If you really care about gaming you go desktop, anyway. If you want a reasonable size laptop with good battery life and capable of some gaming, Llano will fit the bill, and if it sells considerably lower than the competition, then I'm sure a lot of people will buy it. It won't be anyones main gaming rig, but it will surely serve many as a secondary one.

    I agree that Llano is disappointing at the CPU level, but it really should be enough for most people. How well it sells will depend on pricing. There are big E-350 laptops being sold, which boggles the mind, and there wouldn't be if all people really cared or had any clue about performance.
    Reply
  • ppeterka - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I strongly disagree with you. My first notebook was exceptionally crappy in terms of raw CPU power. Desktop P4 Celeron 2.6GHz was used to power it. Yet I could use it for more than 4 years, after which I changed the CPU to a 2.8GHz P4, only to discover that the "user experience" was left unchanged except of the rare cases when I used the computer to work on it. Compile times were not left unchanged...

    But even with the Celeron in, the casual usage was just fine. Why? Because of the quite nice VIA IGP in it. I could actually play GTA San Andreas on the poor thing - even though there were times it was not very much fun, but it did work. Swapping the CPU didn't make it much better, only considering work duties.

    Today "everything" is about multimedia. By "everything" I mean 80% of what the people are doing. Youtube, Facebook, who-knows-what, all. None of my friends ever regretted heeding to my advice to choose a notebook with a reasonable graphics solution even when there would be an altenative type with a stronger CPU. (of course not to the extremities). Granted, they were not primarily interested in scientific calculations, or heavy duty software development.
    Reply
  • Dribble - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Multimedia doesn't need llano's gpu - SB graphics accelerates video just fine. Hence why you are recommending something that has better 3D graphics performance they'll never use, over something with a faster cpu which they will use all the time? Reply
  • GeorgeH - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    You claim that CPU performance matters. That's true, but can you answer the following -

    1) Consider two laptops side by side. One has a ~2.5GHz C2D, one has a quad-core Sandy Bridge. Name a single task more than 5% of mobile users run that would allow you to definitively tell which laptop is running the C2D and which has the SB. (Task Manager doesn't count, I'm talking actually using an application.)

    2) Name a single task or application that theoretically might let you do the above once it's widespread in the next 3-5 years.

    3) What percentage of laptops are sold for <$1000 with roughly Llano or below levels of graphics?

    4) What percentage of laptop buyers care about battery life?

    My answers are -
    1) No clue
    2) No clue
    3) Most of them
    4) Most of them

    That's why I say that Llano's battery life is huge and its CPU performance really doesn't matter. Even Intel agrees, which is one reason why you're seeing them move towards lower-power CPUs. Ivy Bridge will have "configurable" TDP, and Haswell will move from 35-35W to 10-20W:
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4378/ivy-bridge-a-ti...
    Reply
  • RussianSensation - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    3) The fact is you can get a laptop with better GPU performance and faster CPU performance for $700-750 on the Intel side:

    i5 480 + HD5730 for $700:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    i5 480 + GT 540M (which beat 6620 in almost every gaming benchmark in this review) for $700:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    i5 480 + HD6550M for $700:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    i5 2410 + GT 540M for $750:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Every single one of these provides faster CPU & GPU performance (http://www.notebookcheck.net/Mobile-Graphics-Cards...

    So Llano A-8 would need to be less than $700.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Can you find faster GPUs for <$1000? Sure, but that wasn't the question. Go to Dell or HP's website and look at the number of laptops priced under $1000, then look at the percentage of those that come with significantly better than Llano-level graphics.

    There's much more to determining the value of a laptop than raw CPU and GPU performance; you could easily pay more than $700 for a Llano laptop and still be getting a very good deal.

    I'm not saying whether or not Llano should target this or that price point, though - I'm just trying to give a little perspective.
    Reply

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