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AMD A8-3850 and A6-3650: staking it on the APU
by Guillaume Louel
Published on August 28, 2011

We’re circumspect about the release of the A8-3850 and A6-3650 APUs on several points. Naturally, there’s some good news. Firstly, the arrival of 32nm processors from AMD, finally, and also the new memory controller, which is far more efficient and able to use fast DDR3 memory correctly. The very low energy consumption levels on the FM1 platform at idle, lower than on the equivalent Intel platform, is also something to be happy about.

In spite of this, when it comes to pure processor performance, the APUs have a relatively low clock (2.9 and 2.6 GHz), no Turbo and a K10.5 architecture which is on its last legs. Opposite the Intel offer, AMD can compete in very highly multithreaded applications where the four ‘real’ cores generally do better than Intel’s dual core chips with HyperThreading. When more power on less cores is required however, in gaming for example, the Intel offer dominates.

Of course these APUs aren’t only CPUs and in terms of integrated graphics AMD now has a big advantage as the HD 6550D often does twice as well as the HD 3000 used on the Core i3-2105, currently the best Intel graphics offer. This is good of course, but for many titles isn’t necessarily enough for playing at native resolution on a 1920x1080 screen (the resolution of most screens on sale today), or even at 1280x720 with some, even with your options turned right down. The HD 6530D used for the A6-3650 is between 15% and 20% down on the A8 in performance terms and this is often significant for gaming, limiting smoothness to less than what is acceptable on the A6. So, while there has been some clear progress and anything that hastens the death of entry level graphics cards with their often shameful levels of performance is to be praised (what with the NVIDIA and AMD partners sacrificing the already modest specs to bring prices down as low as possible), the levels of performance given by the new APUs don’t really justify the "discrete class graphics" label yet and will continue to limit anyone who wants to use them for gaming.

The lack of OpenCL applications, nevertheless called for by AMD at AFDS, doesn’t work in favour of these APUs which, although delayed, are still in advance of the software ecosystem which is for the moment confined to some rather lightweight applications (see our report on accelerated video encoding).

The yield of Dual Graphics, or Hybrid Crossfire, for its part, very much depends on the games used and as always the updates of drivers for profiles (the CAP profiles are thankfully the same as those used for standard Crossfire). It’s no surprise to see that the bigger the difference in performance between the IGP and the graphics card, the lower the yield can be, even sometimes going into negative. The complexity entailed in plugging the screen correctly into the graphics card is something AMD simply has to correct, and quickly.

It's worth asking what the target group for these new APUs, in particular these two models (the A8-3850 and A6-3650) is. While we can see how an A4 (the dual-core models not yet launched) will be perfectly suited to use in an entry level or home cinema PC, the A8-3850 target looks to be less well defined. With a price tag announced at 130 euros, it’s faced with competition from AMD itself in the form of the much faster Phenom II X4 965 (3.4 GHz, L3 cache). Certainly, this CPU has no integrated graphics, but it can be linked up to an 890GX motherboard if you’re not looking to do any gaming with it. Because for gaming, even modest gaming, you still need to invest in a discrete card. The A6-3650 is in a similar quandary, competing with the Phenom II 955, whose price has been slashed by AMD over the last few months. Because of being priced slightly too high and the processor and graphics compromises made, the A8-3850 and A6-3650 are somewhat jacks of all trades but should nevertheless be attractive to OEMs. We’re impatient to see how the rest of the Llano APU range will be rolled out.

What about the longer term future? AMD has taken quite a risk with this APU in pioneering the combination of such a powerful GPU with a CPU and, as such, we salute the development. As things stand, these APUs look more convincing for the PC laptop market than desktops, however the range is likely to develop rapidly. As of 2012, we should see the arrival of Trinity, which will include Bulldozer cores on the CPU side as well as a GPU that has been announced as 50% more powerful. Combined with what we hope are more numerous OpenCL applications, will Trinity make 2012 the year of the APU?

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