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Battle At $140: Can An APU Beat An Intel CPU And Add-In Graphics?

AMD's APU Appeals To Value, But LGA 1155 Scales Effortlessly

Before we break into analysis, let’s look at the aggregate results. These numbers represent the total average performance of each solution relative the top result in each test:

We can hardly be surprised by the outcome. Intel's Pentium G620 and AMD's Radeon HD 6670 achieve roughly 17% slower application performance than a stock A8-3870K. However, they offer roughly the same margin of advantage over AMD's APU when it comes to minimum frame rates in games. Average frame rates favor the discrete graphics card by nearly 25%. 

Of course, overclocking helps the APU stretch to almost 40% faster than our Pentium processor, and average frame rates pull within 10% of the Intel-based system. That doesn't quite tell the whole story, though. Because the discrete Radeon's advantage was enough to win our game tests, we didn't overclock it. Almost certainly, a little additional tweaking would have pushed the add-in card's performance further in front of the APU's best effort. 

What conclusions can be drawn from this data, then? Clearly, the A8-3870K is a better platform for general productivity, particularly when you run threaded applications (or do a lot of multi-tasking) able to leverage four physical cores. The Pentium G620 and discrete Radeon card combine to form a superior gaming system. We used a $140 budget to create as fair of a comparison as possible, but enthusiasts with a little more money to spend on graphics can get even better performance by dedicating additional funds to that subsystem. Meanwhile, the A8-3870K is already AMD's fastest APU, so there's not much room to scale up.

What about overclocking? If you're a value-seeker, eager to push stock components further, the A8-3870K is a fun toy. Asus' F1A75V-Pro motherboard managed to achieve a 3.3 GHz processor clock and 800 MHz graphics frequency through its automatic overclocking feature, and we managed a 3.6 GHz core clock and 960 MHz graphics setting through our own manual efforts. The result was a notable boost to application performance, along with a gaming speed-up that came closer to matching a stock Radeon HD 6670. Intel simply doesn’t have anything in the same price range able to match the A8-3870K’s blend of graphics performance, capacity for threaded apps, and overclocking headroom. It's just unfortunate that overclocking has such a negative effect on the APU's power consumption.

And how about each platform's upgrade path? This is an especially critical point for gamers. Out of six tested titles, two had to be run at 1024x768 in order for us to present playable performance. It's actually fairly impressive that two low-cost configurations can push 720p in most games at decent frame rates. But if you're serious about entertainment, low resolutions will limit the enjoyment you get out of modern titles. At some point, you'll want to upgrade. The good news is that a $120 graphics card is good enough for a smoother experience at 1080p.

But that's where the A8-3870K loses some of its appeal. As we already established, if you're using a Socket FM1-based motherboard and an A8-3870K, your only upgrade would be to a faster add-in graphics card. In that scenario, the APU basically becomes a $140 Athlon II X4. The upcoming Llano replacement, code-named Trinity, is expected to employ the incompatible Socket FM2 interface, so the -3870K could be as good as it gets on Socket FM1.

Perhaps surprising to critics of Intel's interface evolution, LGA 1155 seemingly has room to grow. Not only can you drop a more powerful multiplier-unlocked Core i5 or i7 into it today, but the upcoming Ivy Bridge-based processors should work with existing motherboards as well. 

There’s no denying the strength or sensibility of an APU in a compact form factor where value and complexity are closely related. But we're talking about full-blown desktops here. If you're building a general-use desktop PC, the A8-3870K works really well as a low-cost jack-of-all-trades. It does everything fairly well right out of the box, but there's not much of an upgrade path. Rather, if you have aspirations of swapping out components in the future, LGA 1155 is the smarter buy for its ability to support much higher-end CPUs (including a refreshed architecture).

  • tristan_b
    Well of course the option with a better gpu will win in gaming. A dual core sandy bridge is enough for almost any game on max these days. If you paired the apu with a 6670, I'm sure we would see different results.
    Reply
  • esrever
    try the i3 2105 vs the g630 and the 6670 and see the results.
    Reply
  • dragonsqrrl
    tristan_bIf you paired the apu with a 6670, I'm sure we would see different results.Ya, that would also cost a lot more then $140.
    Reply
  • iam2thecrowe
    not surprised here.
    Reply
  • jimmysmitty
    tristan_bWell of course the option with a better gpu will win in gaming. A dual core sandy bridge is enough for almost any game on max these days. If you paired the apu with a 6670, I'm sure we would see different results.
    Actually in most games it should act the same if its just the GPU as most games will be bottlenecked by the mid end GPU. If you include the hybrid CFX (If the A8 can work with the 6670) it will be a bit better in some cases.

    The power draw is very interesting. The CPU load on the A8 is almost as much as a mix of CPU and GPU. It could be a sign of the 32nm still not being mature enough. But it does look better than FX by a lot in power draw.

    Still interesting idea. The G620 plus the HD6670 is about $130 vs $140 which means they are about the same in price. The mobos, RAM and other stuff will be about the same. I have said it before, but it still holds true. Llano is great for the modile sector. In laptops it will be the best value for lower end laptops to provide a decent gaming setup. Not maxed but still better than what HD3K can do. But on DT, its mostly pointless as it uses a sub par CPU with a decent IGP.
    Reply
  • Zero_
    Nice. Something I've always debated to include in my blog (my sig). The G620 + HD6670 always won out in my book. Good to see a confirmation from Toms.
    Reply
  • tigrc
    Intel Pentium G620 has TDP of 65W, not 35. G620T has TDP of 35W. :)
    Reply
  • ohim
    And yet Tom`s managed to miss out something ... the CPU + video card might be the same price as the AMD APU but the Intel motherboard is 50+$ more than the one used in the AMD system .. at least in my country.
    Reply
  • saturnus
    ohimAnd yet Tom`s managed to miss out something ... the CPU + video card might be the same price as the AMD APU but the Intel motherboard is 50+$ more than the one used in the AMD system .. at least in my country.
    Here too. And they could have used the difference on better memory which is known to bottleneck the Llanos. That would probably have pulled the Llano ahead in all tests, not just power consumption.
    Reply
  • tlmck
    Would have been interesting to see 1866 ram used with the APU. Other sites such as Anandtech have shown it to noticeably boost performance. Conversely, there is no advantage to 1600 speed on the Intel. Stock 1333 would have worked the same.
    Reply