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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

AMD Trinity: Cheap Desktop Gaming

Last Thursday, AMD lifted the NDA covering their Trinity desktop APUs... sort of. Review sites were allowed to discuss GPU performance of the chips but weren't allowed to disclose much of anything else. Today the curtain gets pulled back fully.

Source: AnandTech

For the uninitiated, an accelerated processing unit (APU) is "a processing system that includes additional processing capability designed to accelerate one or more types of computations outside of a CPU" (Wikipedia). Basically, both AMD and Intel are taking the approach of throwing GPU cores onto their mobile and desktop CPUs. In general, Intel has the edge when it comes to processing power while AMD maintains a pretty sizable lead in the graphics department.

Here are some of the more interesting previews that were released last week covering GPU performance:

To round things out, here are follow-up reviews posted today by the same sites:

Desktop APUs are a decidedly budget part and the low-end market has traditionally been square in AMD's wheelhouse. Looking through the reviews, it seems like the A10-5800K holds its own in most games (at reduced settings) at 1920x1080. The major exceptions to this statement are Metro 2033, The Witcher 2, Crysis 2, and Battlefield 3, though it looks like those would be playable at lower resolutions. While you're not going to be able to play much of anything released in the last 2-3 years without reducing settings in some way, it's pretty amazing that a combined CPU/GPU budget of $125 doesn't really lock you out of anything.

Gaming on the Cheap

To investigate further I threw together a few theoretical builds. Everything below links to Newegg for simplicity's sake, though it's always a good idea to shop around.

AMD  APU  Build
CPU AMD A10-5800K Trinity 3.8GHz Quad-Core APU $130
Motherboard ASRock FM2A75M-DGS Micro ATX FM2 $60
RAM Patriot IEM 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 ($31)
HDD Seagate Barracuda 500GB 3.5" 7200RPM $75
GPU (integrated) --
Power Supply Corsair Builder CX430 V2 ($35)
Optical Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD/CD Writer $18
TOTAL   $349

Note that a couple of items include mail-in rebates, denoted by parentheses around the price.

For comparison's sake, here's a budget Intel build:

Intel  CPU+GPU  Build
CPU Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz Dual-Core CPU $130
Motherboard ASRock B75M-DGS Micro ATX LGA1155 $55
RAM Patriot IEM 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 ($31)
HDD Seagate Barracuda 500GB 3.5" 7200RPM $75
GPU XFX Radeon HD 6570 1GB ($45)
Power Supply Corsair Builder CX430 V2 ($35)
Optical Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD/CD Writer $18
TOTAL   $389

And finally to round things out, here's another AMD build using an FX-6100 and a discrete GPU:

CPU AMD FX-6100 Zambezi 3.3GHz Six-Core CPU $120
Motherboard ASRock 960GM/U3S3 FX AM3+ Micro ATX $55
RAM Patriot IEM 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 ($31)
HDD Seagate Barracuda 500GB 3.5" 7200RPM $75
GPU XFX Radeon HD 6570 1GB ($45)
Power Supply Corsair Builder CX430 V2 ($35)
Optical Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD/CD Writer $18
TOTAL   $379

Looking through part one of the AnandTech review, it seemed like gaming performance of the A10-5800K was in line with the HD 5570 or GT 440 discrete cards depending on the game being tested. Radeon 5000-series cards are disappearing rapidly at this point, so I substituted an HD 6570 instead.

I used the same RAM, HDD, PSU, and DVD drive in each build to eliminate variations based on those parts. Rather than go with a bottom-of-the-barrel $45 motherboard, in each case I picked a middle-of-the-road AsRock board for around 60 bucks. This isn't meant to be a seminar on choosing the correct parts and/or correct vendors for your next PC build, so keep in mind that these builds are meant to serve as discussion-starters.

Examining the Budget Builds

AnandTech basically hit the nail on the head in their conclusion:

As I mentioned earlier, Trinity's CPU performance puts the buying decision squarely in the tradeoff evaluation zone. Once again what matters the most is how important Trinity's GPU is to you. AMD holds a clear advantage there if you're going to use it, otherwise the decision is heavily weighted towards Intel. Intel holds a power consumption advantage and a clear single threaded performance advantage, while there are some specific workloads that will do better on Trinity (e.g. AES-NI accelerated apps, heavily threaded integer applications).

The main difference between the three builds posted above is the combined total spent on CPU and GPU components. AMD's APUs give you a pretty solid package deal for 130 bucks or less, while a traditional build is going to require a $50 discrete card on top of the $120-130 CPU to be able to keep up.

With that being said, the scales tip in favor of a traditional setup once you increase your graphics budget beyond 50 bucks. Browsing through the listings on Newegg's page I was able to find an HD 6670 for $50 after rebate, an HD 6750 for 80 bucks, and an HD 7750 for $95 after rebate. Each of those cards should provide superior performance from a gaming standpoint when compared to an APU.

For the extremely price-conscious, a system based around a Trinity APU is going to offer significant bang for your buck. While the system I picked above uses the top-of-the-line A10-5800K, it's possible to go even cheaper at the cost of GPU performance and CPU clock speed. With a base cost in the $300-350 range you've got room to add a cheap case, a copy of Windows, and maybe even a keyboard and mouse for around $500 total.

That's not too far off from the cost of entry at the beginning of a console generation. Once you consider the higher price of console games (and lack of Steam sales), the presence of services like Xbox Live and the additional fees they require, and the lack of upgrade paths with traditional consoles, a cheap APU-based system starts to look pretty good. If hard drive prices ever come back down to their pre-flood levels, it might be possible to build a complete A10-5800K system (sans monitor) for around $450 with some savvy shopping.

While AMD might be falling behind in the desktop CPU arms race with Intel, the future looks pretty bright on the APU front. For entry-level, cheap, low power gaming or a solid little HTPC, AMD's Trinity looks like a great option. For enthusiast, high-end gaming or applications that require serious power, stick with Intel.


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