Articles: Graphics

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I am sure no one doubts that the today’s fastest PC processors do not come from AMD. And this didn’t happen overnight. Since Intel had switched from Pentium 4 to various Core processors, AMD products rolled back to the second place. In fact, all current AMD processors are either entry-level or some special niche products, which are not particularly interesting to the majority of users out there, who value performance the most. However, not very high performance, as well as decrease in the market share are not reasons enough to give up the achievements of AMD processor division for lost. This company’s engineers are known for their ability to produce some unique solutions from time to time, which allow AMD not only preserve their market positions, but to influence the entire industry. And the examples are, in fact, quite recent: 64-bit extensions of the x86 microarchitecture, multi-core processor design, integration of the memory controller and chipset North Bridge into the processor – all these things have been developed and first implemented by AMD and not by the current processor market leader.

This is exactly why we continue to closely monitor all the innovations cooked in the heart of this company. And it looks like they have found that new goldmine, which should not only give them a positive boost, but also inspire the entire processor market. This goldmine is APU (Accelerated Processor Unit) – the ideology, according to which the traditional computational cores are combined with a high-performance graphics core inside a single semiconductor die. And I am not talking about placing them into mutual vicinity, but about a complete symbiosis, i.e. the merger of their mutual resources for execution of joint tasks.

The APU category includes several different AMD products released back in 2011. The most interesting one of them is the A-series of processors codenamed Llano, which are used in Lynx and Sabine platforms and targeted for a wide variety of desktop and mobile systems. Although these processors and platforms are sort of a “trial run” used to polish off the APU principles, the market gave them a really warm welcome. Llano turned out particularly demanded in the mobile segment, which immediately increased AMD presence in the notebook segment. And this is indeed the case. While a few years ago mobile AMD platforms were a pretty rare occurrence in the notebook market, today there are numerous products with AMD APU inside in any computer store.

However, increased interest of the mobile market in AMD processors is not caused entirely by their hybrid design. In fact, it is more of a side effect. In reality, pretty powerful graphics core combined with decently fast computational cores is exactly what Intel lacks in their current product line-up. And taking into account extremely affordable prices of AMD APUs, it is not surprising that they became a perfect fit for inexpensive notebooks. Namely, they allow assembling sufficiently fast and contemporary systems without external graphics accelerators and respective additional costs. As a result, the whole APU concept was broadly popularized. Its advocates from the AMD camp worked closely with software developers and at least had at their disposal real applications benefitting fully from the resources and potential of the hybrid processors. And the May refresh of the AMD’s mobile A-series processor line-up with the new Trinity design, which offered higher computational as well as graphics performance, became an extra argument in favor of this attractive concept. So, the share of notebooks with an AMD Vision logotype will continue growing.

However, the story of the desktop AMD APUs is completely different. The desktop users’ demands are very different from what the notebook users want and need, and they were not too thrilled about the whole APU thing right from the start. Very powerful graphics was the driving force for the growing popularity of the first generations of hybrid processors in the notebook segment, but it didn’t strike as “oh so powerful” in the desktop PCs. Desktops support much higher screen resolutions, where AMD A-series processors failed to reach acceptable performance. In other words, desktop users do not see that much difference between the graphics core in AMD’s Llano processors and the integrated graphics from Intel: both of them are not a very good fit for an entry-level gaming rig. However, the computational cores in the hybrid AMD processors are significantly slower than those from Intel, thus making it impossible for Llano to find its way into a number of home and office systems. Even as the heart of a media-center, AMD APU will hardly withstand the competition. This is where they suffer from higher heat dissipation and the lack of technologies that could accelerate HD video content transcoding.

However, the toughest obstacle yet preventing Llano from succeeding in the desktop segment was the specially designed Socket FM1 platform with very uncertain future. It is only compatible with Llano, which makes it a “thing-in-itself”. On the one hand, it doesn’t encourage future upgrade, and on the other – it has limited life span. Of course, this combination of features is not particularly appealing to desktop users, because the market is flooded with competitor LGA 1155 solutions with a much longer shelf life for any user with any budget.

However, AMD has absolutely no intention to hand the integrated desktop processors market to the competition, especially since Intel clearly sees the indisputable potential of the APU concept and hurries to pack their own graphics cores with more power. Therefore, about a year after the Llano launch AMD is finally ready to introduce to us their second generation of the A-series processors, which has been refreshed and enhanced in many aspects. The new desktop APUs do not have specific or utilitarian design. It is Trinity, which has been running in in the mobile segment since early summer. However, in the desktop modifications they have significantly increased the frequencies of the computational and graphics components of their APUs, and therefore they are confident that many desktop users, including enthusiasts, should really like them this time.

Overall, we are about to believe AMD on this one, as Trinity design is undoubtedly better than Llano in many aspects. As we have already seen in the mobile APUs, the Trinity computational cores with Piledriver microarchitecture work somewhat faster than Husky cores from Llano, which microarchitecture is already the thing of the past. The performance of the graphics core has also improved a lot, and its internal structure has been significantly modified. And most importantly desktop Trinity processors are now compatible with the new Socket FM2 platform, which should be free from all the old issues. AMD is ready to guarantee its stable presence over the next several years, and the line-up of compatible processors will include a large variety of models in different categories.

In other words, if we compare Trinity and Llano, the new processors are undoubtedly better. However, are they good enough to encourage the adoption of the APU concept in the desktop segment, where users are still pretty skeptical about solutions like that? Today we will try to partially answer this question by taking a closer look at the functionality and performance of the graphics core in the new generation of AMD’s desktop hybrid processors, and see if they are capable of powering entry-level gaming systems.

Unfortunately, the second part of our Trinity discussion dedicated to its computing component needs to be postponed for now. However, it isn’t our fault. The thing is that the new desktop A-series processors haven’t been officially launched yet. Therefore, we are still under the NDA on that side. However, we are free to talk about Trinity microarchitecture, so first let’s take a look at what AMD engineers have done to make new APUs a reality.

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