AMD Llano A8-3500M APU Review - Where to Buy

By on June 21, 2011

Gaming on mainstream laptops becomes a reality.

AMD Llano A8-3500M APU Review


The mobile notebook market is currently dominated by Intel, there’s no denying the power of the Sandy Bridge (and its predecessors). AMD used to struggle to get a hold in this highly competitive, but continuously expanding market before; not anymore. With the introduction of the new AMD Llano APUs we have finally entered the next step in mainstream laptops and notebooks powered by a CPU and GPU on a single die that are good for gaming.



While having integrated graphics on a CPU is nothing new, Intel have been doing this for the past 2 generations on their Core i5 and i7 chips with Intel HD 3000 graphics, gaming was never a realistic option before. The best an onboard Intel HD 3000 chips can offer are barely decent framerates with the lowest settings and a measly resolution of 1024x768 in most cases. The game (no pun intended) is about to change with AMD Llano APUs though, as the split of transistors between CPU and GPU is almost 50% on the die, compared to Sandy Bridge with merely 20% dedicated to GPU..

This may come as a strange turn of events to some as it may indicate lower CPU performance compared to other similarly priced processors from Intel, but as you will see later on in the review, the small decrease in CPU for the huge increase in graphical prowess is more than justified.

The AMD Llano APU will be branded as AMDs new A-Series APU for their new Sabine platform of mobile processors.



As you can see from the specs sheet above, the A8-3500M is at the sweet spot for performance vs power; rated at only 35W TDP for both CPU & onboard GPU with 400 Radeon cores. Price wise the A8 processors will compete with Intel’s Sandy Bridge Core i5 and i7.



The test unit we received from AMD is an unbranded 14” laptop which seems to have all the bells and whistles of a notebook that would carry an A8-3500M APU. Clocked at 1.5GHz, the four cores on the A8-3500M can go up to 2.4GHz in Turbo mode, while the Radeon HD 6620G on board GPU runs at 444MHz and HD 6630M discrete GPU runs at 485MHz on the core. The discrete HD 6630M GPU also comes with its own 1GB DDR3 memory, combined these two cards are called HD 6690G2 under CrossFire. The ram on our test system was 4GB DDR3-1333 plus 250GB internal HDD running at 7,400rpm with Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit installed.



Another brilliant thing about the A-Series APUs is the onboard AMD Fusion Controller Hub that allows for multiples of SATA III (6Gbps), USB 3.0, HDMI, VGA, and dedicated PCIe 2.0 x16 lanes for discrete graphics cards. As such, our test machine came with VGA and HDMI out, plus one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports. Finishing up the system was a memory card reader on the front and a Bluray/DVD-RW combo drive.




I must say I haven’t been this excited about reviewing a piece of hardware since the GTX 590; the results from the Llano were that impressive. On a totally different scale of course! Now let's get on with the actual benchmarks.

For comparisons I have added the similarly priced and specced HP Pavilion dv3 and MSI GE600 laptops. The dv3  costs AED 2,800 (USD 762) and has an Intel Core i5-480M (@2.66GHz), 4GB ram and AMD HD 6370M 512MB graphics card; the GE600 costs AED 4k (USD 1100) supporting Core i5-430M (@2.26GHz), 4GB ram and ATI HD 5730 1GB graphics card.



As you can see from the Passmark’s 3D test and CPU tests, the new A8-3500M is proving to be better that the Core i5s plus discrete graphics card. 7-zip and Winrar are also speed dependant, the Llano topping out at 2.4GHz is obviously slower than the Core i5s. For 3DMark 06, I would like to mention an important issue that despite being in CrossFire mode, only one GPU was being utilized.



Before I go any further, I’d like to state that the current AMD drivers for their new AMD VISISON Engine Control Center is still in its very early stages. As such I saw very erratic results when running the laptop in CrossFire mode (using both HD 6620M & 6630M). Right now it would seem that performance on DX9 titles across the board is abysmal in CrossFire mode as only one GPU is being used, where only DX10 and DX11 titles are taking advantage of two cards. Even then, however, there are certain DX11 titles where CF isn’t being utilized properly.

All the below tests were done at the native resolution of 1366x768 with the following settings:





Scaling on DX11 titles seems to be consistent using dual GPUs, but scaling isn’t good in Metro 2033 and Lost Planet 2. While the developers may have some level of unoptimization for the Llano APUs, AMD obviously needs to put in a lot of effort for many titles with CrossFire support. As you can see, DX9 titles aren’t using the 2nd GPU at all. In fact, below I have given an example of GPU usage between Team Fortress 2 (DX9) using one GPU and Just Cause 2 (DX10) using both GPUs.



This is a huge issue for AMD right now; they need to get the drivers right with proper support for titles across the board. I must say that just the results from the onboard graphics were phenomenal; I haven’t seen performance like this from any Intel HD graphics chip to date, including their latest Sandy Bridge platform. With an included discrete graphics card, we have already glimpsed at how amazing the performance can get.



Now do keep in mind that this is a pre-production model, as such the layout and hardware placement isn’t finalized, but I have to say that the 35W TDP on the A8-3500M worked wonders. At the highest settings available, while running in CrossFire mode, the laptop barely made any loud noise running those heavy benchmarks. While browsing the net, there’s virtually no sound whatsoever. Furthermore, the laptop never got hot, just warm to touch. From all the high-end notebooks to ultra-portables to MacBook Pros and Airs, I haven’t seen a single laptop that could run StarCraft II and not get pretty hot. This AMD Llano powered laptop was mere warm to touch!

The 6-celled lithium Ion battery in our test system isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s just about average, keeping in touch with the rest of the specs in the system. With just browsing and watching SD YouTube videos with 50% brightness, I got almost 6 hours of battery life. While running benchmarks and playing TF2, this time fell down to half that. When I put the laptop in battery saver mode and was just browsing the web, I squeezed out more than 7.5 hours from this Llano powered laptop.



Based on AMD’s pricing scheme for the A-Series APUs, this laptop should be priced above $700, which still works out to about AED 2,800. For a single GPU solution with onboard graphics, absolutely nothing comes close to the AMD A8-3500M in terms of performance at this price point. And once AMD get their act together and release drivers that properly use CrossFire in the majority of games, I can easily see AMD taking the mainstream laptop crown in the near future. Remember that there are two more SKUs which provide the same graphical prowess, but higher CPU speeds for those considering heavy duty CPU work.

Intel had best step up their game, because the AMD Llano seems to be at just the sweet price point and performance factor when it comes to the mainstream and enthusiast laptop crowd who don’t want to spend exorbitantly to get decent gaming on the go. You can expect to see the AMD Llano powered laptops hitting the market from July onwards.
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