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AMD's new "Llano" Fusion chip, branded the A-Series, is seen here next to its smaller sibling "Brazos".  (Source: Engadget)

The A-Series (die; top) competes with Sandy Bridge i3, i5, and i7 (die; bottom) notebooks. It has a weaker CPU, but a stronger GPU, which is thanks in part to simply more die-space devoted to GPU stream processors.  (Source: Anandtech)

Llano-based laptops should be about $100 cheaper than similar Sandy Bridge laptops.  (Source: Google Images)
Llano-based laptops start at $500, $600, and $700 for A4 (dual-core), A6 (quad-core), and A8 (quad-core) chips

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) recently revealed that it had shipped 5 million AMD Fusion "advanced processing units" (APUs) and was temporarily out of stock.  Demand for the chips is tremendous, as they represent a more powerful alternative to Intel Corp.'s (INTC) Atom microprocessors at a similar price.  Now AMD is preparing to let the hammer strike once more, unleashing [press release] a more powerful Fusion lineup, codenamed Llano and branded the A-Series.

I. Same Concept, More Power

AMD's original "Fusion" APUs (Brazos) were designed to compete with Atom in budget notebooks and netbooks.  The idea of Llano is to give users a Fusion option that can serve as a direct competitor to low-end Sandy Bridge chips.  AMD's chip seems to fill that niche very nicely.  While it can't beat Sandy Bridge on an architectural basis, AMD has essentially out-planned Intel.

The concept with the A-Series (Llano) is pretty much the same as with Brazos.  AMD made a very simple gamble, that's appearing very wise.  It gambled that most customers' workloads can survive and thrive on a lighter, less powerful CPU.  It reasoned that the real issue was with the GPU.  The average user's most graphically demanding tasks -- Flash, video playback, and gaming -- all heavily rely on the GPU.  So AMD reduced the CPU and beefed up the GPU.

To make Llano a suitable competitor to Sandy Bridge, it ditched the lightweight 40 nm Bobcat core to go with a slightly modified 32 nm die-shrink of the well-tread K10-core, found in AMD's Phenom II and Athlon II processors.  The modified version is known as K10.5 as is codenamed Stars

AMD also beefed up the GPU substantially, with the "high-end" A8 models having six times the stream processing units as the Brazos E-Series' on-die integrated graphics processor.

The net result is a chip that AMD claims promises a 10.5 hour battery life, thanks to a low 35W to 45W power envelope and aggressive power saving technologies.  According to AnandTech, which extensively benchmarked the chip, the actual result is slightly less impressive -- around 8 hours of battery life.  

The site writes:
Overall, for the first time in a long time, AMD is able to offer battery life that competes with and even exceeds what Intel offers with their current mainstream offerings.
AMD's previous mid-range platform, Danube, offered abysmal battery life.  According to AnandTech the real-world battery life of a Llano notebook nearly triples that of a Danube notebook.  Thus AMD might not be that far ahead of Intel in battery life, but it's come a tremendous ways in a short time.

II. Specs -- Finer Details

The A-Series also adds a number of nice perks to the table.  The chips support USB 3.0 natively, something Intel still hasn't yet added.  They also bumped the memory controller to dual-channel for faster access speeds and support up to DDR3/DDR3L 1333 MHz.

Clock speeds vary from 1.4-2.1 GHz in the "default" mode, but much like Intel's "TurboBoost" technology, AMD has cooked up a temporary overclock called "TurboCore", which can bump the chips up to between 2.3-2.6 GHz when higher performance is demanded.

The L2 cache has been bumped up to 2 MB in the dual-core chips and 4 MB in the quad-core chips.

AMD also packs some other perks of marginal interest such as stereoscopic 3D support, AMD Wireless Display, and OpenCL/OpenGL support.  To be honest, most users won't probably ever needs these technologies, but the OpenGL support will at least be important if AMD is used to power Linux notebooks, such as notebooks with Google's new Chrome OS.

The chip die measures 228 square millimeters and the package is significantly larger than Brazos.

III. "Dual Graphics"

AMD's graphics rival NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) has long been carrying on about "Optimus".  The idea here is to tie a dedicated laptop graphics chips with the IGP for harmonious performance.  In low-demand scenarios, only the IGP is active; in high demand scenarios the GPU chip switches on.  The scheme greatly saves power.

AMD has a similar scheme dubbed "Dual Graphics" where it will offer notebooks with a Llano chip and a Radeon HD Mobility discrete GPU.  The discrete GPU will switch off when not needed to extend the battery life.

Unfortunately, dedicated tests of "Dual Graphics" versus "Optimus" are unavailable at this time (comprehensive Llano benchmarks are a bit rare even).  However, one would guess AMD's solution would work a bit smoother than Optimus, given that it has complete control on all ends of the system, where as NVIDIA has to work with a party it's had a mutually belligerent relationship with -- Intel.

It should be interesting to see exactly how much battery life improves with Dual Graphics models.

IV. Available Models

The full announced lineup is seen below in convenient table form:

IV. Is the Price Right?

According to AMD, the dual-core A4 targets the Intel i3, the A6 targets the Intel i5, and the A8 targets the Intel i7.  In each case, AMD's goal is to price its notebooks at about $100 USD less than their Intel competitor.  

When it comes to pricing, the bottom line is this -- AMD's designs are $100 cheaper than Intel's, offer competitive battery life, better graphics, and slightly worse processing power.  That means that for most customers a Llano notebook makes more sense than a Sandy Bridge notebook.

The exceptions are, of course, customers who need high-CPU performance for certain tasks -- e.g. heavy database access or professional graphics editing -- or customers who want a gaming notebook with the highest possible performance on both the CPU and GPU ends.

AMD claims that it will ship 150 Llano laptop designs this year, starting with some this quarter (by the end of June).  

If this was the money-bleeding AMD of old, we would find that claim questionable -- AMD was notorious for failing to deliver when it came to OEM availability (though to be fair some of this was due to well-documented "dirty" dealings on Intel's part).  With the new profitable AMD, we have no real reason not to believe that it will fulfill its promise -- particularly after it delivered so unexpectedly well on Brazos.

Really the Brazos launch seemed far riskier than the Llano launch.  Llano recycles a pre-existing core design that is already central to AMD's mainstream server/desktop processor lines, so availability shouldn't be a serious issue.

Intel won't have a solid answer to the cheaper Llano until the 22 nm Ivy Bridge lands next year.  Of course, AMD plans to unleash 28 nm "enhanced" Bobcat core Fusion APUs (Deccan) to target Atom and 32 nm "enhanced" Bulldozer core Fusion APUs to target Ivy Bridge/Sandy Bridge next year.

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RE: My expectations were too high
By bug77 on 6/14/2011 11:13:37 AM , Rating: 3
Intel has been running circles around K10 for years now, so the performance gap is not that surprising.
And apparently ACF works only for DX10 and up.

RE: My expectations were too high
By Samus on 6/14/2011 12:13:35 PM , Rating: 2
Right, AMD is bold to say they are going to compete with i3, i5 and i7, because that statement makes it sound like they're competing in performance.

What's really happening is they're competing in battery life. My HP DM1z is a now classic example of how well AMD can do that. It's more powerful than any Atom CPU, and achieves better battery life. What they're going to try to do is lure consumers that don't need Sandy Bridge performance away from i3, i5 and i7 chips and give them A-series at a lower price along with better battery life.

Although Flash 10.3 GPU acceleration is buggy as hell, it is pivotal that consumers have better GPU's in order for the web to continue moving its its evolutionary direction...HTML5.

RE: My expectations were too high
By vignyan on 6/14/2011 2:30:46 PM , Rating: 1
AnandTech's article was ... confusing ... I guess because of their NDA. But, I saw that the comparison was between quad core A8 and dual core sandy bridge - with sandy bridge blowing the competition in application performance. I guess they compared native thread count and still got better results for Intel. Again thanks to the 2.5GHz base frequency of Intel's 2520.

In the testing, a lot of things did not work like CPUz did not detect the frequencies right.. and a lot of proclaimed features did not work. But this article says that the product is shipped. All this looks a bit shady.. But I guess a fortnight will bring us more clarity.

AMD is here with the shiny graphics. Let's see how the Ivy bridge goes with this with it's 24 EU GPU and 3D transistors at 24nm (if they get the yield right)... Right now with 12 EUs intel has half the performance of the 400 core Radeon... So, an interesting match between the dualcore ivy-bridge with quadcore A8... Again, AMD still has a year to boostup its performance

Other matters, TSMC has some difficulty scaling down with Intel to 22 nm ( beyond 28nm) - which is pretty disturbing for AMD to compete with Intel... Although NVidia is also stuck there with TSMC. so no advantage to either company over the other.

"I f***ing cannot play Halo 2 multiplayer. I cannot do it." -- Bungie Technical Lead Chris Butcher

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