Llano vs Sandy Bridge: Which $500 PC is Right For You?

Dan Scharff

Can AMD's Llano offer decent gaming with integrated graphics? We aim to find out

Ever since Intel’s 810 “Whitney” chipset hit the streets in the late ’90s, integrated graphics have been synonymous with suckage. This year, though, integrated graphics have been making a comeback as Intel and AMD have put their might toward offering game-worthy graphics alongside the CPU.

Intel’s Sandy Bridge kicked off the trend earlier this year, but the best Intel has offered up is still lacking for gamers, even budget-constrained gamers. Enter AMD’s A-series chip. Code-named “Llano,” this chip merges a quad-core CPU with a discrete GPU to make AMD’s second-gen “APU.” To see just how well Llano performs, we took the parts from the $667 PC that we built in our August issue and paved over the Sandy Bridge board and processor with an AMD A8 X4 3850 CPU and A75 motherboard.

AMD's Llano Exposed


The A8 X4 3850 spends more than half of its transistors on graphics, while Intel uses less than a quarter on graphics.

The A-series is AMD's second part to sport the Fusion moniker. In this case, Fusion means the fusing of graphics and compute power into the CPU. The first product was AMD’s E-Series, the basis of our $340 rig in last September’s Build It. That part sips power and is extremely low-cost, but it’s also a bit soft on both compute and graphics. By using what’s essentially an Athlon II X4 core and Radeon HD 6550D in the A8 Llano chip, AMD believes it has the antidote to Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips on the low-end. While both chips feature integrated graphics, the vast majority of Intel’s Sandy Bridge chip is dedicated to x86 while AMD devotes more than half of its core to graphics. The x86 side of the chip uses the well-known K10 cores. For graphics, the top-end part features 400 cores, 20 texture units, and a core clock running at 600MHz. Llano is also AMD’s first chip built at a 32nm process, which helps keep the thermals to manageable levels. Overall, Llano may truly be the first CPU with integrated graphics that will satiate gamers—gamers on a tight budget, that is.

The Same but Different

For our build, we took our $667 PC and removed two parts: the Gigabyte GA-H67M-D2-B3 motherboard and the Intel 3.1GHz Core i3-2100. To ensure maximum comparability, we opted for a Gigabyte AMD motherboard, the A75M-S2V. Like the GA-H67M-D2-B3, the Socket FM1–based A75M-S2V is micro-ATX, sports but two DIMM slots, and costs just $90. For the CPU, we used the 2.9GHz A8 X4 3850. At $139, it’s slightly more expensive than we expected, but you get better graphics and a quad-core processor versus the dual-core in the Sandy Bridge, so it’s worth it—right? We’re also deleting the discrete Radeon HD 6790 card from our $667 rig. Because this box is aimed at entry-level gaming, we wanted to see which platform yields better integrated graphics results; we figured that a person going this route would eventually upgrade to discrete graphics. The rest of the components are identical to our build from August. For comparison, we’re showing both configs in the ingredients list.

Ingredients

Llano
Sandy Bridge
GPU Integrated
Integrated
CPU
2.9GHz A8 X4 3850
$139 3.1GHz Core i3-2100
$126
Motherboard
Gigabyte A75M-S2V
$90 Gigabyte GA-H67M-D2-B3
$90
PSU
Rosewill RG530-S12
$50 Rosewill RG530-S12 $50
RAM
Patriot 4GB DDR3/1333
$40 Patriot 4GB DDR3/1333 $40
Case Rosewill R218 $30 Rosewill R218 $30
HDD 1TB WD Caviar Blue $60 1TB WD Caviar Blue $60
ODD Samsung SH-S223 $22 Samsung SH-S223 $22
OS Windows Home Premium 64-bit $99 Windows Home Premium 64-bit $99
Total $530 $517


Building Tips

LLANO BUILDS AREN'T SO DIFFERENT FROM STANDARD CONFIGS, BUT HERE ARE SOME USEFUL TIPS

With the introduction of Llano, AMD is breaking from the single-socket philosophy it has held since Socket 939 was introduced in 2004. For now, at least, two sockets will be supported: the new Socket FM1 and the newish Socket AM3+. Socket AM3+ will primarily support the existing Phenom II and Athlon II chips, as well as the upcoming FX processors aimed at enthusiasts. Socket FM1 is geared toward entry-level users, all-in-one machines, and home theater PCs. Although the Llano CPUs look exactly the same as an older Phenom II on the heat-spreader side, the newer chip is physically incompatible with the latter’s socket. The good news is that AMD kept the same cooler design, so most Socket AM2+/AM3 coolers will work with FM1 boards. Installing the new FM1 chip is the same as installing a Phenom II or Athlon II, so if you’ve previously built such a rig, FM1 will offer no surprises in CPU or heatsink installation.


Socket FM1 is physically incompatible with Socket AM2/AM3 processors.

AMD has two FM1 chipsets: A75 and A55. The higher-end A75 has six SATA 6Gb/s ports and four native USB 3.0 ports. The lower-cost A55 chipset sheds the USB 3.0 ports, and its SATA ports are limited to 3Gb/s. Both APU/motherboard combos support dual-channel RAM up to DDR3/1866. While we kept the RAM costs low in our build by using DDR3/1333, folks hoping to get the most performance out of Llano’s GPU should consider paying for faster DDR3/1866 as it greatly increases the performance of the chip. That’s because unlike discrete graphics, which have their own local frame buffers, Llano (and Sandy Bridge, too) rely on main system memory. Generally, graphics can use as much bandwidth as you can throw at them, so DDR3/1866 or higher is recommended.

As we said earlier, the A75 chipset features all SATA 6Gb/s ports, so you don’t have to spend five minutes flipping through the manual to find the correct SATA ports. That’s a big improvement over Intel’s weak-sauce implementation of just two 6Gb/s ports.

A75 and A55 also support UEFI underpinnings to support booting from drives larger than 2.1TB. Not all boards will sport fancy UEFI interfaces, though; many will continue to support BIOS interfaces despite the UEFI underneath.


The A75 chipset in this Gigabyte board is the first to sport native USB 3.0.

Overclockers hoping to get a free gigahertz of performance should prepare to be disappointed. Despite the new 32nm process, AMD has clock-blocked you by locking the multipliers. The only option for overclocking is bumping up the reference clock (AMD’s equivalent of Intel’s base clock.) Overclocking by raising the reference clock, however, will goose other components, which may cause instability. It’s not great, but it’s slightly better than the Intel Sandy Bridge side, where B-clock overclocks are extremely difficult and the chipsets themselves can limit your overclocking capability.


The A8 X4 3850 spends half of its transistors on graphics and it shows.

Llano vs. Sandy Bridge

After we built our Llano rig, we benchmarked it using a subset of our standard system benchmark suite, as well as a few additional benchmarks to stress the capabilities of Llano and Sandy Bridge. For gaming, we threw out our standard über-tests, which are made to stress $5,000 PCs with multiple GPUs. Instead, we ran 3DMark Vantage at the Performance setting. We also ran vReveal, which leverages the GPU to enhance video. It’s one of the showcase apps used to illustrate the power of the GPU. We took a 1080p video shot on a Canon Rebel T1i, applied image enhancements and corrected the orientation. We also used the APU/GPU/CPU-dependent CyberLink MediaEspresso 6.5 and converted a large MPEG-2 file to a portable format for use in a tablet device. The benchmark is one of the tests that taps Intel’s hardware transcoding QuickSync circuits in Sandy Bridge.

The results speak for themselves. Where the benchmarks rely on the x86 side of the equation, the state-of-the-art dual-core Sandy Bridge processor easily spanks the antiquated quad-core Athlon II X4 processor. Even in benchmarks where multithreading is a heavy influencer, the Core i3-2100 smokes the A8 X4 3850 despite the A8 having double the cores of the Core i3-2100. That speaks to the efficiency of the Sandy Bridge cores and Intel’s Hyper-Threading. In graphics, the roles are reversed: AMD’s A8 X4 3850 absolutely destroys the Sandy Bridge integrated graphics across the board. For VReveal and MediaEspresso, it’s really about choosing your poison.


The A8 X4 3850 easily eclipses Core i3 in graphics chores but takes a back seat in compute chores.

We also tried a few games—Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, and The Sims 3—at small-panel resolutions of 1680x1050. The Sandy Bridge part was disappointing in all but Team Fortress 2. Llano was the opposite, with satisfactory performance across the board. In other words, it’s a mission accomplished for Llano. If you’re looking to build a low-cost machine that’ll give you reasonable gaming on your small panel, the A8 X4 3850 is a pretty damn good chip.

But that’s not the whole story. The weakness of the compute side can’t be overlooked. That a dual-core can badly trounce a quad-core in some multithreaded tasks tells you how creaky the K10 core is. What’s worse, upgraders looking forward may see the Sandy Bridge as a better part if they plan to drop in a midrange GPU. After all, with Sandy Bridge, you retain the better x86 performance, while on AMD you lose the strong integrated graphics but retain the weaker K10 cores. One setup, albeit limited, does favor Llano, though: A-series chips feature a hybrid CrossFire mode where the integrated GPU can work in CrossFire with a low-end card such as the Radeon HD 6670.

The upshot is that it really depends on where you hope to take your ultra-budget rig. Llano’s strength is in entry-level gaming for folks with modest aspirations for discrete graphics. CPU upgrades will continue to be supported, as AMD is committed to its new FM1 platform. Sandy Bridge is weaker in graphics, but it has far stronger x86 performance. It also has the stronger upgrade path, as the LGA1155 boards will support the über-fast Core i7-2600K and next year’s Ivy Bridge chips. We do have to question if that’s a realistic goal, though. Will anyone building a $500 PC today ever consider installing a $300 CPU next year? Probably not.

Overall, we like the Llano platform. The gaming performance you can get from a $500 PC these days is truly impressive. We’re not entirely sure Llano makes sense for desktop duties at this point, but in HTPCs, all-in-ones, and notebooks, AMD seems to have a winner.

Benchmarks: Core i3-2100 vs. A8 X4 3850

Core i3-2100
A8 X4 3850
Vegas Pro 9
6,007
5,770
Lightroom 2.6
435 757 (-43%)
ProShow 4
1,749
2,152 (-19%)
Reference 1.6
3,840 3,767
3DMark Vantage
1,073
3,702 (245%)
3DMark Vantage GPU
827 3,066 (271%)
3DMark Vantage CPU
9,954 9,810 (-1%)
VReveal 3.0 151 76
MediaEspresso 6.5 311 411 (-24%)

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