Second-Generation APUs: Playable, If You Compromise Detail
Have we grasped the Holy Grail in our quest to achieve playable performance from integrated graphics at 1920x1080? Yes and no.
If you had asked us one year ago whether we thought it was possible to play current-gen games on an HDTV or 24" monitor's native resolution using AMD's Llano or Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture, we would have shot back a decisive "No." In most of the tests we were running, even 1280x720 was a stretch for those designs. Today, Trinity and Ivy Bridge get us a lot closer to 1920x1080, which is where both AMD and Intel need to be if they hope to convince gamers that their on-die graphics engines are actually viable for gaming. And while both companies cautiously steer customers toward fairly mainstream titles, they're both clearly looking to a day when they can count more demanding games amongst those playable on integrated graphics.
This generation, it's fairly safe to say you won't be playing Crysis 2, Witcher 2, or Battlefield 3 at 1920x1080, even at the lowest detail settings those games offer, and that'll almost certainly remain the case until both AMD and Intel introduce the next generation of hardware. But the other seven titles give us something to look forward to. Intel’s Core i3-3225 can get a foot in the door on three or four of them, and AMD can now transcend the lowest detail settings in a few titles with its fastest Trinity-based APU. This is a huge improvement. For the folks trying to build into compact form factors without room for discrete graphics, this may even come as a revelation. And it probably goes a long way in explaining why so many folks wanted to see what an APU could do in Take That, iMac?: Build Your Own All-In-One PC. We can only hope that AMD is exploring the potential of all-in-ones able to cope with its APU's 100 W thermal ceiling.
As we continue moving forward, we expect AMD and Intel to both take advantage of the fact that their respective processors support OpenCL to empower ISVs. There are many more applications supporting OpenCL today than there were when we first looked at AMD's Llano architecture, but OpenCL-enabled games are proving slower to materialize. It remains to be seen if developers utilize the API to improve performance or add visual effects that might have been too expensive to implement in software previously. Depending on the approach that games take, we may see this latest batch of CPUs with on-die graphics make even deeper inroads to mainstream gaming.
AMD is officially lifting the veil on pricing, overclocking headroom, and application performance of its Trinity-based APUs next week. For now, though, we remain encouraged by what we've seen here today (even more so since we published the first preview of Trinity's performance almost four months ago in AMD Trinity On The Desktop: A10, A8, And A6 Get Benchmarked!).
Both companies are making a concerted effort to shift focus from their components to the experience you get from a total solution built using their respective technologies. In a sense, that’s what we’ve tried to assess here. Can you have a satisfying gaming experience with integrated graphics today? Undoubtedly, some folks will find that the titles they enjoy play well enough to get by without discrete graphics. And that's something we discerning enthusiasts have never felt comfortable admitting before. For others, the idea of dialing settings down as low as they go just to avoid a three-dimensional slide show is going to be enough to spring for the cheap add-in graphics card it'd take to get smooth performance at 1920x1080, form factor be damned. We cannot deny, however, that each generation we progress takes us closer and closer to a place where innovation in hardware enables compelling software. And, even as AMD struggles to catch Intel in more general desktop application performance and efficiency, graphics is one segment where Intel plays follow-the-leader.