Nick Race takes the cover off the new high-end low end, as we compare performance and positioning within the Fusion family.
It seems the next big battle for the hearts and minds of the budget-buying public is going to come in at the low end. Devices such as netbook computers, tablets and nettops is an area seeing a huge amount of growth. They tend to be good devices for providing internet access; frankly, many people really don't want more than that.
Intel's success with Atom for computing platforms where it's all about consuming internet content has been a huge success. It's also true that internet content is getting “richer” and putting much more demand on the computing platform itself. Perfect examples include the increase in resolutions available in YouTube video content, flash content in general, and upcoming implementations to the HTML specifications, including HD video support native to the browser. As web content gets more complex, more of it is offloaded to the client PCs that consume it.
So we're in a situation now where low-end systems designed to consume web content are beginning to have a hard time of it. NVIDIA has made a top attempt to fill the gap with its ION platforms, which adds higher-end graphics and a custom chipset to the Atom recipe. It's a neat solution, but it adds cost where people are most sensitive to it.
AMD's solution with the C-Series processors seems to be one that works. The C-Series processors include the same Bobcat cores running in the E-Series chips (running at a lower clock speed) and the same 80 core graphics configuration as the E-Series too. Importantly, Bobcat is an Out Of Order compatible processor, and, even though it runs at lower clock speeds than the Intel Atom, it's more efficient with the way it processes its instructions.
Adding the graphics core unloads some of the work from the CPU segment of the chip, when the software supports it. In this case, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 and HTML5 content can take advantage of the graphics core using DirectCompute. Both IE9 and HTML5 are more in the beta or proof-of-concept stage, but, without trying to sound too 'crystal ball', it's where the web is going to be in a very short amount of time.
AMD's vision for the C-Series APUs are primarily for this netbook and tablet market. The C-Series APUs consume a staggeringly small 9 watts of power at peak, so the physical and power designs available to system builders are extremely favourable. We can expect to see some very thin, light and perhaps unusual form factors using these APUs.
Most importantly, we need to put the C-Series in perspective. Just like Atom before it, the beauty of this processor is not in how much heavy lifting it can do, but how relatively inexpensive and easy to integrate into a real product it can be. Unlike Atom, it's not going to spawn a huge wave of new products, but what it will do is find its way into those existing products and make them almost infinitely more usable.
A-350 APUs have been integrated into mini-ITX solutions from ASUS, GIGABYTE and MSI.
Just like its little brother, the E-Series will be more of a game changer than a whole new game, and it's even got a tougher fight to get that. The C-Series is markedly better than its competition, but the E-Series is staring up at products from both AMD and Intel that do the same job as it, but faster.
In this situation, E-Series is going to be competitive mainly on price, and the cost savings that can be had by avoiding the purchase of a discrete graphics card. Though the E-Series shows more than enough performance for most users (we're talking mainstream here, remember – YouTube is as high-end as it gets for the most part) it's positioned against the Pentium and Celeron processors by AMD. The problem there is that Pentium and Celeron are not widely used processors here in the Australian market, and our “budget” level notebooks tend to skip right to the Core i3 and Athlon processor models.
There is a possibility that the E-Series chips will spawn new interest in this lower end of the market, as people will definitely notice the lower price tags.
Where it will find a niche is in all-in-one systems that we've been seeing more and more of over the past year. The APU's low power and heat, 18 watt design, and its inexpensive price is a good match for those systems.
So we know the what, how and why of it, but, like Top Gear watchers, we also want to know HOW FAST? The answer is, in real terms, not very. But it's also not a performance platform, so that's not a problem. It's like a snail race; it's not quick, but as long as you're faster than the snail behind you, you'll win.
Many of our usual benchmarks refused to run on the platforms, either not meeting resolution requirements or general performance levels on our test notebooks, so it was hard to get meaningful results. We did manage to get a few more targeted apps running to give us an idea of performance levels.
As you can see from the results in the table, the C-50 is performing roughly in line with one of the newest Intel Atom processors, the N550 in general compute areas, while stepping in front in the graphics-accelerated jobs. The E-350 system was quite comfortably beating both the others – and even encroaching on Core i5 661 (Clarkdale era) CPUs with integrated graphics.
What's that A?
The E and C series aren't the end of the APU line. The next APUs to hit the market will be the A Series notebook APU platform dubbed “Llano”. Llano will use an APU based on a 2 or 4 core Stars CPU design (the same found in AMD Phenom processors), plus a higher-end graphics component than the E and C series models. We'll be covering Llano in depth when it comes out, as it's looking like a solid competitor in the mainstream (and even performance!) notebook market.