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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 Motoman on 6/14/2011 11:27:23 AM , Rating: -1
I doubt that the actual user would see much benefit in higher CPU throughput except in very specific circumstances where there's an obvious benefit.

Someone playing a MMORPG or whatever will likely not notice any difference between a SNB and Llano machine at the same price point, anywhere on the scale.

As for "finally...truly usable level" I'll just point out that my own laptop with a 4-core Phenom II and mobility Radeon 5650 plays WoW with high/ultra settings really well. And my last laptop...with a dual-core AMD CPU and Radeon 3650 did pretty darn well too. And it was several years old at the point that I replaced it...there's always been reasonable machines on the market for gaming if you wanted an AMD rig.

RE: My expectations were too high
By Pirks on 6/14/2011 11:40:05 AM , Rating: 3
Someone playing a MMORPG or whatever will likely not notice any difference between a SNB and Llano machine at the same price point
That, or Llano will be faster because of much better GPU, hehe :))
there's always been reasonable machines on the market for gaming if you wanted an AMD rig
Yeah but their battery life was a joke, AMD never even remotely tried to go the way of Optimus (or Intel's power sipping designs), hence everybody knew that AMD used to mean "no battery life". Hopefully they will deliver with their Optimus clone, otherwise ppl who want hybrid laptops (good for gaming AND for long battery life too) will keep buying Intel + Optimus combo.

RE: My expectations were too high
By Motoman on 6/14/11, Rating: -1
RE: My expectations were too high
By Pirks on 6/14/2011 12:15:22 PM , Rating: 2
you never ride buses? maybe Greyhound once in a while? no? wow... and never fly on the planes either? ;) woow... jee lucky bustard :))) heheee

dunno man, you like to bring your power brick with ya always and I love my 14" lighweight Asus with power sipping CULV inside which can stay up to 14 hours on a battery without recharging. no power brick to carry with my Asus, ever! isn't that neat eh?

battery life is a king... unless you never ride a bus or fly a plane, like a real Moto eh :))) just kiddin

RE: My expectations were too high
By Motoman on 6/14/11, Rating: -1
RE: My expectations were too high
By dark matter on 6/14/2011 1:26:48 PM , Rating: 3
Oh, so you don't see a point in it.

Best tell the Internet then.

RE: My expectations were too high
By Motoman on 6/14/11, Rating: -1
RE: My expectations were too high
By therealnickdanger on 6/14/2011 11:48:17 AM , Rating: 2
What's your battery life like? j/k I specifically stated IGP (integrated graphics processor) and wasn't referring to discrete graphics like those found in your notebook.

I totally agree that for someone looking to only play games and consume web content, Llano will be great. The downside is there are a lot of users (like myself) that need the greater CPU power and would like to have it in addition to the gaming capabilities. Llano just falls a bit (and some bytes) short.

RE: My expectations were too high
By Motoman on 6/14/2011 12:04:26 PM , Rating: 1 is it that you think you "need" greater CPU power. I can't think of an awful lot of things someone would typically do on a laptop that will markedly benefit from a faster CPU, granted that sufficient GPU power was already available.

RE: My expectations were too high
By therealnickdanger on 6/14/2011 2:29:23 PM , Rating: 2
Executing large-scale Excel calculations many times per day is extremely demanding. I also use ArcMap's Spatial Analyst frequently. Neither application offers GPU acceleration. For the instances that I also use Adobe Premiere CS5, SNB's Quick Sync only drives the point home further. Until the applications I use support OpenCL for multiple levels of processing, AMD's offerings are too limited at this time. Intel has the brawn and CUDA seems to do everything else.

For a cheap gaming laptop though, AMD has potential with Llano.

RE: My expectations were too high
By karielash on 6/14/2011 5:39:03 PM , Rating: 3

Thanks, I haven't stopped laughing since I read your post, seriously!!!

If your that serious about your modelling programs get a decent machine, not a mid-range average laptop. As for challenging Excel documents...... that really was funny... thanks again :)

RE: My expectations were too high
By vignyan on 6/15/2011 12:51:16 PM , Rating: 2
Your ignorance amuses me...
Tell me if you found that funny because it was Excel and you will prove my point.

By therealnickdanger on 6/15/2011 1:15:07 PM , Rating: 2
Well I'm glad I could provide you with some laughs. Obviously that wasn't my intent.

1. SNB laptops are "decent" machines. Faster than our old Q6600 desktops.
2. Apparently you don't use Excel the way we do.

RE: My expectations were too high
By karielash on 6/14/11, Rating: 0
RE: My expectations were too high
By vignyan on 6/15/2011 12:59:16 PM , Rating: 2
I can't think of a lot of applications that benefit from GPU.. or is it 2015 already?
I dont see the GPU here being such a big deal. I mean, how many of us actually play demanding games like Crysis on a laptop? I think HD3000 is sufficient for most "luxor" or MMPORPG games.
Video acceleration is great in both processors to watch any online or offline video content.
Looking past the marketing, Llano does not seem all that impressive to me, yet.
Also, Lets see the laptop form factors that are built with Llano... Thin is in.. Dang.. I need to hit the gym..

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