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ASRock's E350M1: AMD's Brazos Platform Hits The Desktop First
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So, there’s a lot of talk about what Fusion is and how APUs are going to change the face of computing. AMD’s own Rick Bergman, senior vice president and general manager of AMD’s products group, went out on a fairly long limb at this year’s CES by saying:

“We believe that AMD Fusion processors are, quite simply, the greatest advancement in processing since the introduction of the x86 architecture more than forty years ago. In one major step, we enable users to experience HD everywhere as well as personal supercomputing capabilities in notebooks that can deliver all-day battery life. It's a new category, a new approach, and opens up exciting new experiences for consumers.”

The greatest advancement in processing since x86 was introduced? While we undoubtedly haven't seen as many top-secret projects as Rick, the Zacate APU we have on hand definitely doesn't deserve that sort of pat on the back. Now, according to AMD’s numbers, its “all-day” result is actually 11 hours of runtime on an E-350-based notebook with a 62 Wh battery sitting idle. Active, running 3DMark06, the platform purportedly achieves four and a half hours.

Those certainly aren’t bad figures if they carry over to shipping products later this quarter. But in the context of nettops based on ASRock’s E350M1 and boards like it, we’re still dealing with a fairly basic concept here: Zacate is the combination of processor cores and graphics elements sharing a memory controller, similar to Intel’s Atom-based Pine Trail platform, and indeed the Sandy Bridge processors that just launched a couple of weeks ago. Dress the technology up with new acronyms and sweeping initiatives, but the basic tenets distill down to this: integration is the key to higher performance, lower power consumption, and lower bill of materials in the mobile and mainstream desktop spaces. This is less about an earth-shattering vision and more about smart business.

We’re already seeing companies like CyberLink make focused optimizations based on the fact that graphics and execution cores now live on the same die, but we have to imagine AMD is hoping to see much more impactful development efforts in its Fusion-based products that pack more in the way of GPU muscle. We can only assume that’s still in the works. For now, the ramifications of Fusion-as-an-initiative are limited.

What we do have are the benefits of integration and a new processor architecture from AMD. The company clearly looks to be going after Intel’s Atom processor. It’s an easy target, given its “good-enough” approach to computing. And indeed, the Brazos platform decimates Atom in single-threaded apps, still manages to beat it decisively in more parallelized programs, and embarrasses it in anything having to do with graphics. Once we start getting our hands on netbooks featuring Zacate and Ontario APUs, we’ll get a better picture of how they’ll compare in price and longevity.

On the desktop, Brazos goes up against more formidable competition (albeit pricier competition, too). The experience of using a Brazos-based machine is night-and-day better than a desktop with Intel’s Atom. The Celeron SU2300 is an impressive little CPU, matched to Nvidia’s Ion chipset, and we’d have to call it comparable. AMD’s Athlon II X2 is significantly faster, but you also incur completely dissimilar power consumption, too.

Unfortunately, this slide, which AMD presented back when it previewed Brazos, is entirely too optimistic. Zacate can go head-to-head against Intel's lowest-wattage Core 2-based Celeron processor, but I can't imagine it faring well against the Arrandale-based U3600, which runs at the same 1.2 GHz and costs the same $134. Even less likely is an even match-up against a Pentium-branded chip. In reality, I think AMD needs to shift the Intel column of the above slide up a notch to more accurately reflect its performance.

Where Brazos cannot be beaten is price. ASRock anticipates selling its E350M1 for $110, and we hear that competing boards will go for $100. Buy a case, power supply, 4 GB memory module, and a mobile hard drive if you’re on a budget. Factor in a Blu-ray drive if you want it in the living room. That’s a platform I’d like to have as an HTPC or commons-area kiosk in the house.

Had AMD been given a choice, I don’t think it would have decided to use Zacate and Ontario as the springboards for heralding the arrival of Fusion. As fate would have it, though, we’ll have to wait for the Sabine platform’s 32 nm Llano APU (expected in Q2’11) for a better look inside AMD’s plans for the future.

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