AMD Llano for laptops review: first look

49144A_Llano_FP1__DualBlack-1-462x369Just when we’ve grown used to Intel being the dominant force in the processor world, AMD has finally begun to mount its Fusion defence. Its Brazos chips have already staged a land-grab in the netbook and ultraportable sector, and now its new addition to the family, codenamed Llano, is making a play for the laptop market.

AMD certainly has its work cut out, and especially as Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors are already on sale, and pretty formidable performers to boot. If Sandy Bridge has one weakness, however, it’s graphics performance, and it’s this that AMD hopes to exploit.

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Dissecting the Llano

Just like Brazos, the Llano Accelerated Processing Unit (APU), combines a CPU, GPU and Northbridge into a single package. The first models to launch will be quad-core variants, with dual-core following soon afterwards. Llano marks AMD’s first foray into 32nm processors, and the quad-core Llanos pack in 1.45 billion transistors – almost twice as many as Sandy Bridge.

There is one basic similarity between the two competing designs. Intel’s Turbo Boost 2.0 technology can dynamically overclock the individual processor cores as and when required, and AMD has unveiled its own version imaginatively called Turbo Core. Individual CPU cores can be turned on and off as required, as can the integrated GPU, in order to reduce heat and power consumption.

But if that sounds familiar, Llano’s integrated GPU shakes things up. DirectX 11 compatibility comes as standard, and it squeezes up to 400 GPU cores into the top-end APUs. It’s also capable of working in CrossFireX mode with a second, discrete AMD graphics processor, and where previous CrossfireX implementations required two largely identical GPUs to function, the asynchronous CrossFireX in Llano marks a crucial evolution. Unlike Nvidia’s Optimus – where you can have one of either integrated or discrete graphics working at any one time – both AMD GPUs can share the load to boost performance.

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Putting Llano to the test

We caught our first glimpse of Llano in one of AMD’s unbranded 14in test laptops. With one of the higher-end AMD A8-3500M APUs, 4GB of DDR3 memory and an extra discrete Radeon HD 6600M graphics chip, it’s the kind of specification which we’d expect to cost around £600 to £700 when finished retail samples arrive.

Desktop performance gets Llano off to a bad start. Considering AMD is positioning its A8 APU as a price competitor to Core i5 and i7, we were unimpressed to find it lagging behind even the entry-level Core i3 processors, with a score of just 0.48 in our benchmarks (click the graph below for an in-depth look at PC Pro’s Real World Benchmark suite).

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As expected, though, the A8-3500M’s integrated Radeon HD 6620G leaves Intel’s HD Graphics 3000 for dust. The latter barely managed a playable framerate in our Low quality Crysis test, and upping the resolution and detail levels sent that plummeting further. By contrast, the Llano’s GPU relished the challenge, easily passing the Low test and stepping up admirably to Medium with a playable 28fps.

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We then enabled CrossFireX mode and brought in the discrete Radeon HD 6630M to join the fun. There are clearly early driver issues – we noted flicker and graphical distortion in the Low quality test – but the two chips together proved 40% faster than the discrete chip alone in our High quality test. That’s a significant boost from the Llano’s feisty GPU.

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The final, and crucial, element to the success of Llano will be battery life.  The 58wh, 5200mAh battery in our test notebook lasted for 6hrs 37mins of light use. While it’s difficult to directly compare that without seeing retail samples and pricing, it’s still a fine result for a laptop with such graphical power.

Does Llano have a chance?

In a word, yes. It can’t match Intel’s CPUs for raw performance, but you could argue that Llano is the better balanced platform, with a proper blend of all-round performance and stamina that may prove attractive to the mainstream. After all, the first time most people encounter performance problems on their notebooks is when they try to fire up a game, not when they try to load Microsoft Word. Ultimately, though, its success or failure lies in the hands of manufacturers: if they can deliver the goods at a competitive price, you may be seeing a lot more of Llano.

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