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A Prelude to Our AMD Llano Notebook Roundup

AMD's second Fusion processor, the quad-core 'Llano' APU, received an enthusiastic response for its feature set and balanced CPU & GPU performance. Llano's integrated graphics also reaches new performance levels that remove the need for a discrete GPU except for heavy 3-D gaming or workstation use. Llano's relatively low power usage  also results in reasonably good battery life.

AMD's second Fusion processor, the quad-core 'Llano' APU, received quite enthusiastic response for its feature set and balanced CPU & GPU performance. Even though its per-core performance is still quite a bit behind Intel's Sandy Bridge offering, the integrated graphics is sufficently faster to remove the need for discrete GPU add-on except for heavy 3-D gaming or workstation use. And, the relatively low power usage results in beyond 5 hour real battery life in many cases – still less than AMD's claimed 8+ hour 'whole day' use, but not bad on its own.

The A8M and A6M 'Llano' processor series, covering the top and mainstream segments of this CPU's mobile market, also provide fast dual channel DDR3 memory support, where – due to the GPU integration – faster memory bandwidth and lower latency do benefit the overall performance by a higher percentage compared to the systems with discrete GPUs where the graphics load on main memory is way lower. Some of Llano notebooks, those at the upper end of the spectrum, also have provisions for dual GPU operation, where an additional PCIe GPU – must be AMD one, though – works in tandem with the integrated APU, a sort of asymmetrical 'Crossfire'. AMD has a complex naming scheme of the resulting 'combined GPU performance marking'.

For instance, the standard top of the range A8M-3530MX processor has four CPU cores at 1.9 GHz base clock, and 400 Radeon cores at 444 MHz.  That graphics level is then branded as 'Radeon HD6620G'. However, if you add an external HD6600M or HD6700M series GPU, then the combined GPU will be also called HD66XX or HD67XX, depending on how powerful the second GPU is, but with the total marking number slightly higher. So, an addition of an extra Radeon HD6630M in tandem with the integrated HD6620G, creates a 'Radeon HD6690G2', or, if you add a HD6770M instead, you'd get a combined 'Radeon HD6775G2'. The latter, with a minor number adjustment, actually may be a more realistic naming modification, as in that case the integrated APU has little to add to the power of the several times faster external GPU. Either way, maybe it's an unnecessary complication – let's simply go with things as they are: two GPUs are two GPUs, each with its own model and features – full stop.

No 16:9 Displays, Thank You Very Much

One side benefit of a supposedly much better integrated base GPU within the CPU would be willingness of the notebook vendors to include a higher resolution display in the system. The increasingly irritating 16:9 proportioned 1366×768 displays, which are in fact less useful than the older 1280×800 screens due to lesser viewability of mostly vertical documents and web pages, should at very least be replaced by 1600×900 screens, if not 1920×1080 FullHD models. Even the lowest end Llano APUs have enough horsepower to handle a FullHD resolution display, and the higher end models' price brackets should allow better display to be provided.

An alternative, of course, is to follow Apple's example and insist on the more appropriate formats like 16:10 'golden ratio' one still used on the 13-inch MacBook Air for 1440×900 resolution, or 17-inch MacBook Pro for 1920×1200 setting, my preferred one. Any PC vendors to show some guts and actually force down the panel vendors' movie form factor blackmail? Computers are not TV sets, after all…

Other interesting features include impact of the system memory performance on the overall scores, since both CPU and GPU share it, without any L3 cache in between. AMD may have been right in not including a L3 cache shared between CPU (requiring short low latency data bursts) and GPU (asking for long streams of high bandwidth data, and thrashing the cache). However, it somewhat increases the sensitivity to the main memory's bandwidth and latency.

Since many of the just announced Llano notebook models haven't yet reached Singapore shores – early September is a more likely time for wider product launches – here we have several selected models from HP and Toshiba, covering both top and mainstream segments. We look at both performance and power usage, as well as comparison vs major Core i5 Sandy Bridge competitive reference.

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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