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There are a number of ways you could compare Intel's and AMD's hardware, labeling one elegant and the other brutish.
On one hand, AMD tackles x86 workloads using a quad-core APU rated at 100 W, while Intel holds its own with a dual-core 65 W part. In this context, AMD is brute-forcing performance as Intel operates efficiently. On the other, software developers are increasingly harnessing AMD's on-die graphics resources to accelerate optimized applications, while Intel is left to plod through everything in software. Increasingly, the mantle of elegance is being shifted toward AMD's approach.
Now, Intel does enable OpenCL support on its HD Graphics 4000- and 2500-equipped Ivy Bridge-based chips. However, the entry-level is where performance is needed most, and the company's lower-end parts don't include support for this yet. Moreover, certain applications still only support OpenCL on AMD's graphics hardware.
Today's story involved an APU that was available one year ago and a CPU that came around this time last year. Back then, we had older versions of many of these apps and very few examples of OpenCL-enabled software. Now, we can go back, maintain the same hardware platforms, and compare how the software side has evolved. In many cases, both AMD and Intel are enjoying big speed-ups as developers write more threaded code. But as we incorporate Open CL-based testing, AMD is clearly enjoying the most drastic improvements.
Don't misunderstand: Intel is downright surgical when it comes to refining, improving, and evolving its x86 architectures. Performance continues along on an upward slope, even as the company cuts into power consumption. For this reason, unbiased enthusiasts gravitate toward Core i5 and Core i7 processors.
Not everyone is an enthusiast, though, and Intel's story gets less compelling as you slide down its heavily differentiated product stack.
AMD has to battle more fiercely in that mainstream space, where 10 or 15% separating benchmark results doesn't mean much at the end of the day to someone using a PC casually. Really, any modern machine with a couple of cores is fast enough for office-oriented applications. By giving you four cores for the same price as Intel's two, AMD virtually assures victory in threaded applications, even as it's forced to concede to Intel in other less-optimized titles.
Again, though, those x86-based victories almost seem inconsequential. The real action is happening in GPU-based acceleration. That's where we just saw the potential to double performance (or halve a task's time to complete).
Part of today's story also revolved around updating drivers and upgrading the software we use in our benchmark suite. Typically, you expect successive versions of the same application to (ideally) improve performance, particularly if a developer puts time into utilizing processing resources or some other hardware-based feature. We saw several examples of performance boosts that affect AMD and Intel alike in our new suite, WinRAR being the best example.
Intel’s price structure forces you to spend a lot more money if you want a quad-core CPU. So, our comparison comes down to AMD's four-core A8 against Intel's Pentium or Core i3 with two cores. We know from experience (and just saw again) that AMD wins almost every time if the Llano architecture's cores can all be utilized. Intel's advantage kicks in when you start testing more legacy titles, or a lot of the unoptimized benchmarks we were using back in 2011. The Pentium also has a big advantage when it comes to power consumption. Up until this point, the platform right for you (or the one you recommend to family and friends) depends mostly on what you're using it for.
But then there's the graphics variable to consider. AMD's Radeon HD 6550D engine is much faster than Intel's HD Graphics logic. In fact, the Radeon is good enough for occasional lightweight gaming. Of course, if you're any sort of enthusiast, you already know that discrete graphics are still a requisite. Neither Intel nor AMD yet offer a compelling-enough experience to give up our graphics cards in games. So, it's more probable that an APU-equipped machine is most useful for accelerating applications like Adobe Photoshop CS6, Musemage, vReveal, and the latest version of WinZip. One year ago, AMD didn't have that value proposition. In 2012, a more mature software ecosystem makes this a point to consider before making a purchase. Consequently, the APU is more attractive now than it was back when we published AMD A8-3850 Review: Llano Rocks Entry-Level Desktops.
More than anything, we're excited to see that comparing two systems after the passage of one year can yield substantial improvements just by upgrading software versions and drivers. Moving forward, as developers figure out whether OpenCL has any application to their software, we expect performance to jump up, in some cases, more than any evolution of x86 would be able to achieve on its own.