Whenever we think of value for money desktops, AMD is the first name that pops up and with good reason. The company has churned out efficient and cost effective processors and motherboard chipsets since their Athlon64 series. The first batch of Phenoms was the only major blow that AMD suffered in recent times, but otherwise it has been pretty much smooth sailing. They may not have the fastest of processors when compared to Intel, but they've always been competitive when it came to price.

Earlier this year, AMD launched their 32nm-based Fusion architecture, which married the GPU and CPU on a single die, similar to what Intel did with Clarkdale. The first wave of Fusion chips were designed for netbooks and nettops and while they did wonders for battery life and offered good video encoding/decoding performance, they lacked the raw, number crunching power offered by Intel. Today, Fusion has finally made it to the desktop platform in the form of Llano series of APUs. Let’s take a closer look at the features and the new chipset it will be using.

Features
AMD’s launch lineup is no grand affair. The company has launched just two APUs in the market, the A8-3850 and the A6-3650. Both are quadcore chips with a TDP of 100W, but that’s where the similarities end. The A8-3850 is clocked at 2.9GHz and comes with HD 6550D GPU onboard, which packs 400 shaders running at 600MHz. The A6-3650, on the other hand runs at a slower 2.6GHz and uses HD 6530D for the GPU which packs in a lesser 320 shaders running at 443MHz. None of these two APUs has the Turbo Core feature, which allows the CPU to dynamically overclock one or all of its cores depending on the load. The two other chips, which are yet to arrive (A8-3800 and A6-3600) will have this feature, but at the same time will also be clocked a lot lower and will come with a 65W TDP. 

AMD A8-3850

AMD A8-3850

Along with the new processors, we also have a brand new chipset and socket. The Llano APUs are not compatible with any of the existing AM2+ or AM3 sockets, simply because the architecture is different when compared to the Phenoms. Now, AMD could have done something like Intel did with Sandy Bridge, i.e. make the APUs compatible with existing sockets so, if the user doesn’t care about the onboard GPU and only wanted a low power CPU, he could just upgrade to one of the APUs. Sadly that’s not possible, so if you plan on switching to LIano, you’ll have to buy the motherboard as well, which brings us to the new chipsets.

The new A75 chipset block diagram

The new A75 chipset block diagram

You have a choice between A75 and A55 chipsets. Both are virtually identical feature wise, except that the A55 is a cheaper offering, which lacks the USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps support. A new feature (well, not exactly new, more like a variation) introduced is Asymmetric Crossfire, which lets you combine the power of the onboard GPU with any one of the mainstream cards like the HD 6450, HD 6570 and HD 6670. Previous generation cards from the 5000 or 4000 series are not compatible. AMD has come up with a new naming scheme for each type of combo, which is quite ridiculous to be honest, as it just adds to the confusion. AMD sent us a Llano kit for the platform review, which included an A8-3850 APU and the Asus F1A75-M PRO motherboard. Let’s take a quick look at the motherboard before we jump to the performance.

The Asus FM1A75-M PRO has a good layout ans wide feature set

The Asus FM1A75-M PRO has a good layout and wide feature set

This m-ATX board is based on the A75 chipset and supports A8 and E2 (not announced yet) series APUs. It also features UEFI BIOS, DIGI+ VRM, TPU and EPU toggle switches on the motherboard and a host of standard Asus proprietary softwares and performance tweaks. It also manages to pack in CrossFireX in this small form factor.

Testbench

  • Processor: AMD A8-3850 APU
  • Motherboard: Asus F1A75-M PRO
  • Memory: Kingston HyperX DDR3 @1600MHz (2x 2GB)
  • Hard drive: WD Velociraptor  300 GB
  • GPU: Onboard HD 6550D/ HD 6670 CF
  • PSU: Cooler Master Silent Pro 1000W

Performance
The motherboard was a little unstable at first, but after a quick BIOS update, everything was fine. We left most of the settings in the BIOS at their default settings. I set the UEFI BIOS to ‘Optimal Performance’ and forced the memory to 1600MHz, since it was defaulting to 1333MHz. Apart from the CPU performance, my real interest was the GPU performance and how well it scaled with a discrete card.

Click for a larger picture

Click for a larger picture

The GPU performance of the A8-3850 is greatly dependant on the speed at which your memory runs. When the memory was set at 1333MHz, I got a 3DMark Vantage score of just P2434, but after forcing it to run at 1600MHz, the score shot up to P4334, which is a big jump, to say the least. To put things into perspective, the HIS HD 6670 with 1GB DDR3 memory gave a score of P5897. The HD 6550D on the APU is quite capable of running DX10 games at moderate settings and at low resolutions.

Gaming performace skyrockets with Asymmetric Crossfire

Gaming performace skyrockets with Asymmetric Crossfire

The Asus motherboard has multi-GPU ‘Disabled’ by default, so before you plug your card in, make sure you enable it. After that, simply slip in any compatible card and the drivers will do the rest. With the Asus HD 6670 plugged in, the combined performance is nearly doubled in the synthetic, as well as real world games. These high scores are primarily due to the fast GDDR5 memory used on the Asus card. I did notice, however that the CrossFire drivers for the APU didn't seem very stable. After the 3DMark run, I ran Dirt2, only to get the same score as the onboard, which was a bit weird. A quick restart and everything was back to normal, but it does seem like the Asymmetric Crossfire switches off randomly. A future driver update should fix this.

The CPU performance is also good and is comparable to AMD’s Athlon II X4 series of processors and Intel’s Core i3 range. The higher clock speed is an added advantage along with the four cores.

Verdict
So, you’re probably thinking it’s an APU, so it will be cheap, right? Wrong! The MOP for the A8-3850 is Rs. 6,900. Add to that the cost of a A75 Asus motherboard, which is Rs. 7,350, and you have a grand total of almost 14K, which is a lot. I can build a cheaper rig with an Athlon II X4 and a discrete graphics card for this money. Also, at a 100W TDP, it’s more or less the same as the current Athlon IIs and Phenom IIs in the market, plus you’ll be getting better performance with the latter. If I had to rate them indivually, then I would give 7/10 for the APU, since you're getting a really good GPU bundled along. As for the motherboard, it feels a little expensive and I think 5K is a good enough price, especially since it's an m-ATX board. I would rate the Asus FM1A75-M PRO at 6/10.

In the end, Llano is nothing more than a beefed up version of Zacate and will probably do well in a notebook, but not for the desktop, especially at these prices. If I can buy the kit (CPU+Mobo) for under 7-8K, then it is worth considering. The A8-3850 is a good contender though, and even without Turbo Core manages to deliver good performance, overall. But, if I was out in the market for a new low power budget rig, I’d skip the APU scene for now and go with a simple Athlon II or a Core i3 rig instead.

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