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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: Looks like a winner to me
By Gondor on 6/14/2011 11:59:16 AM , Rating: -1
The question that remains is how Llano is going to place in the desktop segment. Will it be just as good as in the mobile segment (where I believe it's going to shine) or not ?

According to Anandtech's preview article on A8-3850 the answer would be: not well, especially considering the price of new platform (new motherboard, APU and possibly higher frequency RAM) to get lower performance than what existing AMD products ($100 Athlon II + AM3 board + $70 discrete Radeon GPU) offer :(

RE: Looks like a winner to me
By Motoman on 6/14/11, Rating: 0
RE: Looks like a winner to me
By Pirks on 6/14/2011 12:20:54 PM , Rating: 2
if you use a real video card, you can easily replace it if it fries - whereas if you're using IGP on your desktop, if that fries you may have to toss the whole motherboard
throw away your mobo when llano GPU fries? why? if llano GPU fries you just throw away the llano chip and keep your mobo, no?

RE: Looks like a winner to me
By Motoman on 6/14/2011 2:02:51 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe. Depends on which bits actually fry I guess.

RE: Looks like a winner to me
By Gondor on 6/14/2011 2:34:26 PM , Rating: 1
You raise an interesting point I haven't thought about before - I'm used to (middle-upper class) graphics cards eventually becoming unreliable and dying after 4 or so years. This hasn't been an issue with existing IGPs due to their modest power dissipation. It will be ionteresting to see how Llano performs long term in this regard.

Then again these boards run at temperatures significantly higher than those reported by Anandtech (less than 50 degrees Celsius under load). Could this be the indicator of APU-GPU's longer lonegitivity ?

As for me not using Llano on desktop: this isn't about me, enthusiasts like myself will go for discrete CPU and HD6770 class graphics or better :-) It's about a product AMD is about to release and this product isn't going to be a success if AMD somehow managed to edge themselves out of a market with their own products.

By Shadowmaster625 on 6/14/2011 3:29:29 PM , Rating: 1
I just recently went over some power consumption numbers. Typically if you are using 40 watts less in the cpu it equates to about 70 watts saved at the wall socket. And I estimate 60 watts of discrete video equals about 90 watts at the wall socket. So you are talking about 160 watts at the wall vs the new llano which gives you the same performance for about 80 watts at the wall. (Not counting hdd, dvd, monitor, ram, etc). 80 watts of savings is nothing to sneeze at.

80w * 4 hrs a day * $0.1 per kwhr/1000 * 365 = 12 bucks a year in saved electricity. Also, 80 watts is like running a 1500 watt space heater for 80/1500 or 3.2 minutes every hour. In my case that is potentially another $5 a year in A/C costs saved. Could be more for others. (To be fair, for some people, llano could increase heating costs.)

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