The Title Fight
Since the release of the first-gen Core processors, Intel has had a strong hold on the mainstream laptop market. Although some laptops with AMD Athlon and Phenom based parts exist, they’re relatively rare, and have to sell at low prices to justify themselves next to Intel’s faster, more power-efficient processors.
Now, however, there’s a new challenger. The AMD Fusion A-Series of APUs take the K10 processor architecture and pair it with Radeon graphics to create a formidable APU. How does this Intel Core vs. AMD Fusion A-Series fight play out? Let’s have a look by considering different segments of the laptop market.
Budget Laptops - $499 and Below
The budget laptop space is extremely competitive for processors. In this price range you have not only the netbook processors from Intel and AMD but also a number of older processors that are now being re-sold at low prices for budget systems. It’s still in rare cases possible to find laptops under $499 with Intel’s Core 2 Architecture or AMD Turion branding.
For the most part, AMD intends this portion of the market to be addressed by its AMD Fusion E-Series products. However, the AMD A4 processors are intended to fit into this price bracket (just barely) to compete with Core i3 and Pentium branded systems from Intel. The A4 is a dual-core part, and the Radeon GPU integrated into the APU will have 240 Radeon cores clocked at 444 MHz.
The performance of this part will no doubt lag any second-gen Intel Core i3, but from what I’ve seen of the market so far, it’s rare to find laptops with second-gen Core processors at $499 or under. You’ll more likely be looking at first-gen Core i3/i5 processors and other Nehalem architecture parts slapped with the Pentium brand name. These parts will have better processor performance than AMD Fusion A4 components, but the difference is unlikely to be night-and-day.
The Radeon in the A4 is significantly slower than the one in the top-end A8 models, but it’s still respectable and should be on par with the Intel HD 3000 graphics found on second-gen Core i3 processors. But as mentioned, you won’t generally find those in laptops selling under $499. Instead the competition will be older processors most likely using the original Intel HD IGP, which offers about half the performance.
Overall, the A4 looks to be very competitive in this price range. The processor performance will be only slightly worse than Intel competitors, and the GPU performance will be much better.
The Mid-Range - $500 to $699
The mid-range market of $500 to $700 is important, as it’s where most laptops are sold. Over the last five years the average transaction price of a laptop has typically hovered around $600.
AMD will be deploying all three of its A-series lines into this market - the A4, A6 and A8. We already talked about the A4, so let’s address the other two.
The A6 is a quad-core CPU with a GPU that features 320 Radeon cores clocked at 400 MHz, while the A8 is a quad-core CPU with a GPU that features 400 Radeon cores clocked at 444 MHz. The A6 targets the Core i3 and is built for systems with a minimum MSRP of $599, while the A8 is built to match up against the Core i5/i7 and is aimed for systems with a minimum MSRP of $699.
This fight is a tough one for the A-series processors, and becomes tougher as the price increases. At the low end of this bracket we’ll still be seeing the A4 combating older Intel architectures, which it should do well. The A6 will have its work cut out against the second-gen Core i3, however, as the Core i3 has far better processor performance. The A6 will offer a better GPU, but it’s not clear if it will be good enough to make up for the slacking CPU. This is complicated by the fact that some laptops with second-gen Intel Core i5 processors are beginning to filter in just under $599.
Laptops with the A8 will just barely fit into this price range and will compete against Intel’s Core i5. Despite having twice the number of cores, the A8’s processor performance significantly lags the Core i5. However, the 400 Radeon cores provide impressive gaming performance, generally exceeding that of Intel’s HD 3000 by 20% to 40% and sometimes more. The Radeon also has better driver support. Low-end Fusion A8 powered laptops will no doubt be popular among casual gamers.
High-End Laptops: $700 And Above
Once you start to look above $700 you’re entering the realm of high-end laptops that almost always have quad-core processors (with the exception of ultraportables). In this market the AMD will be using the AMD A8 to compete with Intel’s Core i7, as well as those laptops closer to $700 that offer the Intel Core i5.
The performance gap between Intel’s second-gen Core processors only widens as the price gap becomes larger. An Intel Core i7 will thoroughly cream the A8, sometimes 2 or 3 times over. Indeed, the A8 often struggles to keep up with dual-core Intel Core i5 processors. Given this, it’s unlikely we’ll see many A8s in laptops close to $1000. They simply won’t be competitive.
However, the A8’s fully loaded Radeon GPU is quite powerful and perfectly adequate for casual gamers. It will likely be paired frequently with an additional discrete Radeon GPU to provide even better performance. AMD refers to this as “dual graphics” and will be using this strategy to provide excellent GPU performance to high-end laptops without dinging battery life, as the separate discrete GPU can be turned off when it’s unneeded.
Indeed, battery life may end up being the main draw of the AMD A-Series in high-end systems. So long as the battery isn’t skimped on by the laptop manufacturer, most will be capable of 5 hours of battery life in light use. That’s quite good for a quad-core with excellent integrated graphics and potentially discrete graphics as well.
The Big Picture
The Fusion A-Series isn’t going to suddenly spring AMD into dominance, no matter how good it is. The truth is that AMD could sell every processor it makes as soon as it leaves the fabrication facility and still barely put a dent in Intel’s market share.
With that said, however, the A-Series is competitive. The A4 and A6 processors are great choices for laptops under $600 dollars, particularly for buyers who want to do some casual gaming while also enjoying excellent battery life. If choosing between an Intel Core i3 vs AMD’s Fusion A4/A6, you will likely be better with the A4/A6 unless you have a specific need for superior CPU performance.
As prices increase and Intel’s processors become more powerful, the A-series runs up against stiffer competition. The $600-$700 price range is difficult, as the Fusion A6 is put up against the Intel Core i5, which has much better processor performance. The A8 is also at a huge CPU performance disadvantage, but its quick Radeon IGP is a legitimate reason to buy it rather than a Core i5/i7 system. For reference, the AMD A8 offers GPU performance almost on par with the first generation of Alienware M11x laptops, and the battery life is similar as well. The difference, however, is that you can now obtain that same performance in a larger chassis for just $700.
PC Perspective: AMD A-Series Llano APUs Notebook Platform Review
All images are from manufactuer press materials