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At this year’s Computex, AMD announced that Trinity-based APUs for the desktop are already shipping in machines from Acer, Asus, HP, and Lenovo. The chips just aren’t available in the channel yet. And as a result, we don’t yet know what any of these processors are going to cost. Not that it matters—this is a preview and we’re not here to pass judgment. Motherboard BIOS bugs are still being worked out and drivers are still not quite complete.
What we’re left with, then, are initial impressions.
Let’s start with the Piledriver architecture, which everyone is hoping will show up in a desktop-class CPU sooner than later. Our per-clock cycle testing suggests that the revised design, as it’s implemented on Trinity, is as much as 15% faster than Bulldozer. A quad-core Trinity-based chip will still trail a quad-core Llano APU if you hit it with a floating-point-heavy workload—but that’s to be expected, given that each of two Piledriver modules shares a floating-point unit. Fortunately for AMD, most of what we use to test taxes the architecture’s four integer cores.
A majority of our benchmarks favor Trinity over Llano thanks to IPC improvements and significantly higher clock rates. Piledriver still gives up significant instruction per cycle throughput compared to the older Stars design, but is better able to compensate than Bulldozer. The result, then, is modest x86 performance. It’s better than Bulldozer, but only a slight step up from what you get Llano. And that’s if we ignore the competition entirely. I didn’t have a appropriately-priced Intel chip to test, but just received a Core i3-2100 from Newegg that comes close to matching an A8-3870K’s price tag. Tests commence on that tonight.
How about Trinity’s built-in graphics component? Clearly, this is one of AMD’s greatest strengths. We know from our Core i7-3770K review that HD Graphics 4000 can’t even keep up with Llano. Pile on frame rates that are 20 to 25% higher than the first-gen APU and you have the prelude to a blowout favoring AMD's Trinity. Of course, there aren’t any Intel processors with HD Graphics 4000 selling where we’d expect to find these upcoming APUs, making HD Graphics 2000 or 3000 a more realistic comparison. We’ll see how that Core i3-2100 sizes up, but the results of our benchmarks are foregone.
Finally, how do CPU and GPU come together to enhance this second-generation effort in the way AMD suggests they should, if they do at all? That’s a question driven less by hardware implementation and more by execution in the ecosystem. Are there more applications available today able to leverage graphics processing power? Decidedly, yes. Is the number large enough that we’re able to pepper our suite with optimized titles? Unfortunately not. There are other titles out there, but benchmarking them isn’t always easy, though that’s something we’re working to address.
One of the most notable names in our list of metrics, WinZip, does benefit from acceleration by virtue of OpenCL, and we are able to gauge its performance. The speed-up seen in that benchmark is profound, particularly (and somewhat ironically) on the Llano-based APU.
I was around reviewing CPUs back when single-core processors started giving way to dual-core chips. Back then, nothing was optimized for threading aside from server-oriented apps. Software developers had to reorient themselves before multi-core desktop CPUs made sense. But it happened. Just look at how much of our suite favors the quad-core APUs over A6-5400K. Scaling clock rate indefinitely proved impossible, so AMD and Intel went wide instead.
The same re-orientation has to happen before the idea that you buy a graphics card for more than gaming is really true (I don’t think it is yet, despite AMD’s claims). That process is happening right now, though, and you can see the momentum building. We expect to see companies like CyberLink on the bleeding edge of technology because it gives them a competitive advantage amongst early adopters. Corel and Adobe aren’t there until it’s ready for prime time. And yet, here they are.
By the time AMD’s third-generation APU, Kaveri, is ready (2013, the company says), we’ll be looking at x86 cores based on Steamroller, the Graphics Core Next architecture, and HSA enhancements that allow the GPU to access CPU memory. Look at the difference between the software infrastructure between Llano’s introduction on the desktop one year ago and today’s preview. If that was just the tip of the iceberg, I can only imagine what top-tier developers will be doing with our graphics processors in another year’s time.
That’s a particularly long ways off for a channel looking at old stock of Llano and still unable to buy Trinity, though. We’ll just have to defer final judgment until AMD sees fit to start offering Trinity-based APUs to do-it-yourselfers. A few more months, we're hearing.