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A closer look at AMD’s Richland APU: Just a minor Trinity refresh

HardwareAnalysis
by Joel Hruska, 13 Mar 2013Analysis
A closer look at AMD’s Richland APU: Just a minor Trinity refresh

Yesterday, AMD launched its new Richland APU platform. Richland is a refresh of the Trinity platform AMD debuted last year. Under Rory Read, AMD has moved to a yearly platform refresh cycle for its accelerated processing units and chipsets.

In case you need a refresher, Trinity, which launched last year, was the first chip to use AMD’s second-generation Piledriver core in an accelerated processing unit (APU). Piledriver improved Bulldozer’s power consumption significantly, which allowed Sunnyvale to set higher clock speeds and hit better performance targets. It also integrated a new GPU based on AMD’s Cayman architecture.

Richland makes no substantial changes to either the CPU or GPU. It incorporates some clock speed improvements, better power management, and a few new software features, but the core architecture is identical.

Richland’s hardware

The new Richland processors feature CPU clocks that are about 10 per cent faster than Piledriver at both base speed and in Turbo mode. GPU clocks are 4 to 7 per cent faster in base and Turbo Mode – the exact percentage varies on the processor in question.

These are the type of iterative improvements we’d expect from a CPU on a mature process technology; 7 to 10 per cent is a reasonable improvement considering that the TDP hasn’t changed.

The only parts AMD announced this week are standard power 35 Watts; 17 Watt chips will follow at a later date.

Pay no attention to the “HD 8000” moniker attached to these parts. Richland’s GPU is based on the same Cayman-derived chip that AMD launched in 2011 as the HD 6970, and in 2012 in Trinity-based APUs. AMD, however, isn’t just claiming that Richland is a bit faster than Trinity – it promises that the new platform draws less overall power as well.

According to AMD, Richland’s power management microcontroller models a greater range of scenarios than either Trinity or Llano, and is capable of adjusting total power consumption with significantly improved granularity as a result. In most cases, the improvements are quite modest, but better granularity could pay off in specific workloads by allowing the CPU to run at full Turbo frequency for a longer period of time.

The power consumption figures AMD quotes are incrementally better, save for 720p video playback, where Richland is reportedly far superior to Trinity. AMD declined to shed light on why this workload specifically showed such a drastic improvement – cutting power consumption by 47 per cent in a given workload normally requires a fundamental shift in video offloading or a major design change.

Like Nvidia, AMD has decided to switch its overclocking and Turbo mode capabilities from a TDP-based system to a temperature metric. As we covered in our GTX Titan story, using temperatures instead of TDP should allow the chip to trim power consumption and clock speeds more effectively. This, in turn, could improve real-world performance more than the 7 to 10 per cent clock speed boost would suggest. Generally speaking, a 10 per cent clock speed boost might improve actual performance by 5 to 7 per cent. If these changes allow Richland to spend more time at its maximum clock speed, however, the final improvement could be greater.

Richland’s software and updated branding

Richland’s software stack is a mix of already established features and new capabilities. The top three items on the list below – Gesture Control, Face Login, and Screen Mirror – will be available only on Richland A8/A10 parts. Screen Mirroring is available on A6, A8, and A10 chips. None of these options are officially coming to Trinity hardware, despite the fact that Trinity and Richland are based on identical designs.

It’s hard to comment on the features themselves without more context. AMD’s gesture control is webcam based and 2D for now, but apparently will work with Windows Media Player, Photo Viewer, PowerPoint, and Adobe Reader. Metro application compatibility is limited to Photos, Music, Reader, and Kindle. The company has stated that future versions of the capability could rely on 3D motion capture similar to Kinect. AMD claims Face Login “should not be used to protect your computer and personal information from unwanted access.”

Screen Mirror allows you to play content from a PC to a DLNA-compatible receiver. Protected content won’t be mirrored, and the display device must support both H.264 and AAC. If you have DLNA-compatible equipment, this may win the company some points.

Sunnyvale is also changing its branding practices. The “AMD Vision” program that was previously used to indicate various capabilities and supposedly indicated certain functions has been dropped, in favour of a simpler design.

New products rely on simpler alphanumeric designations (A6, A8, A10, etc). The new A8/A10 chips are known as “Elite” quad-cores, to distinguish them from the older Trinity-based APUs. Is this good? Uh. Sure. The fact is, AMD has launched a number of brand initiatives, model number metrics, and high-profile product names over the past ten years. Some of these, like “Athlon 64” and “Athlon 64 FX” worked well because they incorporated direct product information into the label. Some, like Vision, seemed to be brand initiatives for the sake of having brand initiatives.

Presumably, Rory Read knows something about what OEMs like as far as brand programs are concerned, and AMD’s changes reflect the kind of simplicity AMD’s manufacturing partners are looking for. Calling Richland an “Elite” quad-core seems a bit disingenuous given the core’s modest improvements over Trinity and the enormous performance gap between AMD and Intel, but we suspect branding matters little to the customers buying at these price points.

The reality of Richland

What is Richland? At the end of the day, even after counting the software and hardware changes, Richland is a minor update to a product family that’s far behind Intel in everything but graphics workloads. Real-world performance boosts of 5 to 6 per cent aren’t game-changers, and the battery life improvements aren’t going to sell laptops on their own, even if the 720p claim holds up under independent scrutiny.

What Richland does do is highlight some of AMD’s software-oriented efforts and Read’s concerted attempts to build brand value around something other than the APU. The chips AMD is counting on, Kabini and Temash, are still supposedly launching in the first half of this year, with Kaveri, based on the Steamroller core, ramping at the end of 2013. Richland, and the various software technologies and power improvements AMD is wrapping around the platform are important because they show us what the company is thinking, but Richland, in and of itself, isn’t going to make a dramatic change to AMD’s overall position.

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