AMD has long played second fiddle to Intel when it comes to providing the chips that power our laptops. Plain and simply, Intel has nearly always offered a better balance of battery life and performance. Last year AMD unveiled its codenamed-Llano chips, which packed in class leading graphics performance but still trailed when it came to real world battery life and CPU performance. Now the company is back with its latest codenamed-Trinity chips, and the claims as to its abilities are bold indeed. Not only should its Radeon HD 7000 graphics comfortably beat both Intel's existing 'Sandy Bridge' based chips and latest 'Ivy Bridge' mobile range but also it should have great battery life and CPU performance too.
We've spent some time with a test laptop based on the new AMD A10-4600M chip to see just how it stacks up in real world usage. We'll be putting it to the test later on but first a few more details about Trinity.
AMD Trinity Architecture
AMD Trinity is the codename for the company's new range of what it refers to as its APUs (Accelerated Processing Units). AMD uses this terminology because unlike CPUs of old, these new chips don't just house the main processor but the graphics processor (which itself can be used for computing tasks other than graphics), memory controller and a number of dedicated units for speeding up things like video decoding. It's technically still the Central Processing Unit (CPU) of the whole system but it also does so much more.
Intel has done a very similar thing with its chips, which is why we're able to see the sorts of thin, light and powerful laptops that are around today – it just doesn’t refer to them as APUs quite so readily.
The Trinity chips will combine either two or four CPU cores with up to 384 graphics cores on a single piece of silicon, resulting in a 1.303billion transistor chip. This is just a fraction more than Llano (1.170billion) while die size has also gone up a smidgen from 228mm^2 to 246mm^2. In comparison, Intel's Sandy Bridge uses a 216mm^2 die with 1.16billion transistors and Ivy Bridge and has a die size of 160mm^2 with 1.4billion transistors.
Trinity is built using AMD's existing 32nm manufacturing process, just as with its Llano chips but despite this it has managed to double performance-per-watt while both CPU and GPU performance increase is in the double digits. This 32nm is roughly an equivalent generation to Intel's Sandy Bridge but behind its just-about-arriving-now Ivy Bridge chips which use a smaller and more power efficient 22nm process.
The beating heart of Trinity is the Piledriver CPU core, which replaces the Stars based design of Llano. Direct comparison is a little tricky as each Piledriver 'module' contains what is roughly equivalent to two normal cores, though not quite. The chips will come with either one or two modules making for what are essentially either dual or quad core chips.
We won't dive too deep into the architecture here (Anandtech has done a great deep dive of the tech if you'd like to read more) but the key is that it's an almost completely new design, which offers both performance and power saving benefits. However, AMD readily admits it still can't compete with Intel for raw CPU performance for any given Thermal Design Power (TDP – the maximum heat/power the chip is designed to output), and is relying on its chips delivering 'enough' performance in this area while backing it up with excellent graphics and media acceleration performance, and good battery life (low power usage).
It's a sound logic and one that certainly reflects the usage pattern of our times. After all, most people spend the majority of their laptop time performing relatively idle tasks like web browsing, writing and watching video, not performing intense calculations or doing heavy multitasking. It's often only gaming that really calls upon a CPU/graphics chip to pull its weight. We'll talk more on this point a bit later though.
Buried within the silicon there are a whole host of other tweaks and improvements that should result in lower power usage and better performance but one of the more prominent is the new AMD Turbo Core 3.0 technology.
Turbo Core existed on Llano where it dynamically adjusted the clock speed of the CPU depending on workload, to get the most performance when needed without overheating the system. But it only worked on the CPU, not the GPU. With Turbo Clock 3.0 the chip can increase or reduce the clock speed of both as and when required. The algorithm for doing this is also much improved so that the chip really does eek out every last morsal of performance where it can.
On the flip side, in idle moments the chip can also power down almost completely to extend battery life, indeed AMD is claiming superior idle battery life to Intel.