Redefining The Basic PC
Well the wait is over the AMD has finally released their long awaited Fusion platform for the basic PC. The principle is simple, take a quad core CPU/FPU and add a DX 11 GPU to it. At least the principle seems that simple when you look at all the reviews around the net. I held off this review for two reasons, first I wanted more time for the testing we where performing and second I wanted a chance to see if the other reviewers would miss the points I expected them too, well they did. Oh they made a great show of breaking down the chip into it’s two base components, the CPU and GPU and testing each but where they failed was accepting this was not a CPU with a GPU onboard, this was an APU, a single chip.
Now I covered this a lot more back at the first of the year in my article “The Future Is Fusion”, however I want to quickly hit a point I made there again. Back in the olden days the CPU was only able to do integer mathematics in hardware. It could do floating point calculations but they where emulated and thus slower to perform. Since a lot of scientific and business software needed solid and fast integer math the FPU was born. For a while this was a separate chip and only used in machines that actually needed the functionality it provided. In the 486 era Intel decided that this could be included on the chip with the CPU and so a combined CPU/FPU processor was born. Now for the users at the time this meant nothing with a few exceptions however it made some nice changes that we have benefited from down the road. You see by making sure every CPU had an FPU the way was opened for programmers to create their software using integer math calls because now most everyone had the FPU to allow this functionality without a performance hit.
End the new era, the era of the GPU. Now while todays article is all about the AMD there needs to be a footnote here giving nVidia credit. You see nVidia paved the way for the use of the GPU as more than a way to throw graphics on the screen, their efforts led to the full realization of the GPU as a parallel processor. THIS is where the future of Fusion comes in. You see standard CPUs work in a very linear manner, take an instruction and move to the next. Programs however can be made to do more than one function at once. The early method of doing this was a time share of sorts with the CPU and each function making a small call and waiting for it’s next chance. This worked okay but limited the way it could be done to performance issues, after all to big a line and to slow a program. The next solution was to use multiple cores on the CPU but there limits exist with heat and power. A GPU uses the multiple core approach but each of these cores are very small and individually very slow and not very powerful. However taken as a whole they can do an amazing number of calculations in a single setting. The A series processors take that potential and add it, much as the FPU before to the CPU to create the APU. The future of this is amazing because programmers will now have the ability to use parallel coding more effectively in the future as more people will now have this capability built into their PC by default.
For our testing AMD and MSI got together and sent us an AMD A8-3850 and MSI’s A75MA-G55 motherboard. The A8-3850 is a quad core linear processor with a 400 core parallel co-processor. The co-processor of course also doubles in duty as a GPU. With full DX11 compliancy this chip is able to run applications that take full advantage of Directcompute and OpenCL as well as the various DX11 3D rendering functions.
Priced at a suggested price retail of around $135 the 3850 is aimed squarely at two specific markets. The first is the mainstream DIYer, someone that wants to build a solid basic system without spending a lot of money. This could be an HTPC or a general use family machine. The second market and the bigger target are the OEMs, the people that build PCs for others. The 3850 is the top of the line for these processors currently with the others due to be released coming in at lower price points. With this in mind these chips offer the lower cost CPUs that the big OEMS use all the time.
For our testing we used the E350N-USB3 from MSI and put on 4 Gigs of Kingston DDR3 (1333 speed), in a NSK case from Antec and used a stock cooler from an AMD Athlon II. The NSK series is a solid OEM choice and offers similar cooling characteristics to most OEM builds. For our comparison we used my daughter as our base test subject. You will recall a while back that I build her a very basic system to enjoy her MMO play time. She is also heavy into digital photography, enjoys her Facebook and email usage as well as Skype with her best friend and loves to play music as well as watch movies on her PC. In other words a great candidate for the versatile family user.
Replacing the guts of the system while she was out for the day was easy and I was able to keep her OS intact so she would have no clue anything was changed. She had not been playing more than about 5 minutes when we got a comment about her system was different. Champions was actually playing better for her. Now in fairness she did move from a dual to a quad core processor and from 2 gig to 4 gig but remember this was using integrated graphics and sharing off some of that memory.
As we delved further we found that at 1440×900 the graphics capabilities that where built in where adequate to play pretty much everything we threw at it with middle of road settings, IMPRESSIVE. We where left with no doubt that for a basic home PC capable from gaming to photo editing and just email this chip delivered.
Equally impressive to use was the MSI A75MA-G55 motherboard. With an all solid capacitors and a feature rich design it made the perfect compliment to the 3850. Six USB ports on the back (2 of them USB3) gives a lot of connection options. There are two USB headers for front panel USB connections as well as a USB3 header for a case with the appropriate front panel connectivity or using the included USB3 rear slot expansion. This is a nice addition of the type usually found on more expensive boards. (The G55 is suggested retailing for $99) However this little detailing does not stop there. Rather than generic SATA cables, they included some attractive black SATA cables with white heads. These are much nicer looking than the stock red or blue most companies put with lower cost boards. They nicely compliment the black board and white SATA headers. Finally we also get front panel connection pieces. These allow you to easily attach the front panel cables and then just slide the whole unit on the header.
This motherboard also has a hybrid BIOS or sorts. While not graphical as others have done it does allow you to use the mouse to move around. It has solid feature selections and the overclocking options are in one easy to find place.
With this information under our belt and our impressions for an initial blind comparison we set out to find out how the new crossfire options worked. AMD has tried a crossfire option with integrated graphics before without stellar results so I was curious to see if they could pull it off this time. For those that do not know what I mean the crossfire option is designed to allow you to use a discrete graphics card and use the integrated graphics to boost performance. For this chip a HD6570 or HD6670 are the two cards designed to work well in crossfire with the integrated graphics. While our normal subjective testing would serve just fine we where a bit curious at how much of a horsepower difference this would deliver so for statistic information we relied on 3DMark11 at the Performance preset.
We began our testing with the baseline of the integrated graphics alone and then added a 6570 to the mix to see what would happen. I had to run the test three times before I would accept the results. The 6570 in crossfire with the integrated graphics achieved a performance increase of 92% over our baseline, it almost doubled the potential graphical power. We next pulled the 6570 and put in a 6670. Armed with our earlier test I was more prepared for these results but still ran them 3 times to verify, an increase of 126% over baseline. We needed some more numbers to get a feel for what we where talking about so we turned off crossfire and ran the 6670 without the integrated graphics and achieved a score that was only 54% above the baseline scores we had set. This means even the lowly 6570 was outrunning the 6670.
As for gaming we started our testing at 1440×900. Remember we are not talking high end stuff here and while 1080 is the current mainstream resolution I wanted to see if this setup could max out detail at 1440×900. Every game we sent at this from Civilization to Crysis was playable in various detail levels with just the integrated graphics, add the 6570 and most would play at full detail and with the 6670 everything looked awesome and was smooth. With the addition of just an inexpensive 6570 the system was able to game decent at 1080 resolutions and with the 6670 the detail levels began to rise.
For our competition comparative we choose the i5 2440. Yes I know most people are comparing it to the i3 but if you have a Microcenter near you the i5 is priced close enough I felt it was worth a look. When it came to stock performance on both using the integrated graphics of each the difference was noticeable right away. Intel’s integrated graphics just could not keep up. Throwing the 6570 and 6670 on and the AMD system was able to run a little higher detail level and keep the same level of playability.
While everyone else on the net looked at this chip from a DIY perspective I am going to change the ending here and look at it from the perspective of the OEM. This chip is a great idea for the OEMs as it allows them to create some really solid low cost, think $500 to $650, PCs that will be more versatile than anything Intel current offers. In fact as someone the builds PCs and is always looking for the best value for my customers in the parts I select I can tell you that in my opinion if the OEMs do not jump on this and make the A series the backbone of their budget and mainstream lineups they are STUPID!
Out of the box the A series is able to create a more versatile computer than anything Intel has in the price point. This means to create the same level of versatility with an Intel system the consumer must spend more. In this economy it makes no sense to spend more for the same experience. It’s just good marketing on the part of the EOMs to make heavy use of this chip.
If you are a consumer looking for a new system in the next few months I would make sure than an AMD A series build was the first choice on your list. If you are a DIYer building for family and want a low cost versatile system or building an HTPC then this is the platform of choice. AMD was likely hoping for a solid hit with this platform rerelease and what they got was a triple with two runs batted in. It is not the perfect chip and could use a little more CPU power but it is a great starting point and shows the future is bright at AMD.
As for the MSI A75MA-G55, I have not yet had a chance to see other boards on this platform but I can say MSI has set the mark high for other companies trying to impress me.
The future is fusion, the FUTURE is NOW!
AMD A8-3850 Review Aired 3 July 2011
MSI A75MA-G55 Review Aired 3 July 2011