AMD Trinity the Chip to Take down Core i3? (Part 1)

11/22/2012 3:24:35 PM

AMD’s Trinity processors are the latest to combine processing cores with a proper graphics core, but can the plucky underdog take on the might of Intel?

It’s been a tough few years for AMD. Its underperforming FX processors have all but conceded the top-end and mid-range market to Intel’s superb Core i5 and i7 parts, and its Radeon graphics processors have battled with NVidia for desktop and mobile supremacy, but neither firm has been able to grab a decisive lead.

One bright spot has been the firm’s range of Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs. They’re parts that were planned from the moment AMD bought ATI back in 2005, and they make plenty of sense in a market that’s packed with processors either saddled with weak integrated graphics chips or lacking a GPU at all. Rather than compromise by taking either of these approaches, AMD has chosen to cram a traditional processing core and a Radeon graphics chip onto the same die.

Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: AMD Trinity the Chip to Take down Core i3?

AMD Trinity the Chip to Take down Core i3?

These so-called ‘Fusion’ APUs debuted in 2011 with Llano, and 2012’s Trinity chips have already appeared in a handful of laptops. While laptops are one of the growth areas when it comes to computing, there’s still a hefty slice of desktop market share to be won, and it’s here AMD hopes its six latest chips will make a big impact.

Processing Boost

The basic blueprint for Trinity APUs remains the same as last year’s chips, but AMD has beefed up the two key areas of its new parts. Llano’s processing cores were based on the architecture behind older Phenom II and Athlon II processors and suffered as a result - but Trinity is based on Piledriver, an updated version of the Bulldozer architecture that’s currently used in AMD’s full-fat FX processors.

Top-end Trinity chips use four of these Piledriver cores, and they’re built using a 32nm manufacturing process. This is less efficient and advanced than the 22nm process used by Intel for its latest Core i3 parts, which have been upgraded with the same Ivy Bridge technology found in its more powerful Core i5 and Core i7 range of processors.

The lack of a die shrink sees AMD falling behind Intel, but it’s worked hard to negate this lack of innovation by making improvements elsewhere. AMD is touting improved power consumption, for starters, which allows the TDPs of Trinity APUs to remain the same as Llano chips, despite higher clock speeds being used throughout the entirety of the range. It’s clear that tweaking of the Bulldozer architecture has made for a more efficient and effective Piledriver core, and it’s these improvements that AMD hopes will see Trinity challenge Intel’s low-end parts.

Trinity is based on Piledriver, an updated version of the Bulldozer architecture


Graphics Core Next?

AMD is making some big claims when it comes to the graphics hardware included in Trinity chips, with Radeon HD 7000-series cores integrated into the firm’s latest APUs. While AMD is making it sound as if the new cores share plenty of attributes with chart-topping chips like the Radeon HD 7970, the situation isn’t that clear-cut.

The Radeon HD 7000-series cores included in Trinity are actually constructed from the architecture (codenamed Cayman) that formed the Radeon HD 6970, 6950 and 6930 cards. The modified Cayman core used in the A10-5800K’s Radeon HD 7660D features 384 stream processors, which is a huge reduction on the 1,536 included in top-end cards and, unusually, also a reduction on the Radeon HD 6550D core included with last year’s A8-3870K, which included 400 stream processors. Those stream processors are divided into six SIMD engines, with 64 stream processors in each, and the texture units and ROPs (Render Output Units) have also been cut back to make the new cores: top-end Cayman cards featured 96 texture units and 32 ROPs, but high-end Trinity GPUs feature 24 texture units and eight ROPs.

The decision to use an older core also means that Trinity GPUs use the VLIW4 instruction set, rather than the VLIW5 set used in top-end Radeon HD 7000-series desktop parts. That, in theory, makes for a less efficient chip - VLIW5 proved itself more adept at handling complex and varied tasks when it was introduced in the Radeon HD 7970.

AMD is keen to stress that, while Trinity’s HD 7000-series parts are based on last year’s architecture, they’ve still been beefed up with some new features. Compatibility with DisplayPort 2 is included, and Eyefinity for up to four displays is now supported. High-quality 7.1 channel surround over HDMI works, too, as well as support for four independent 7.1 channel audio streams.

Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: AMD's Trinity APU, 2 Piledriver modules (4 cores)

AMD's Trinity APU, 2 Piledriver modules (4 cores)

The Trinity Range

Trinity is an enticing-sounding range, then, with improved features across both processing and graphics cores. AMD’s new range is smaller than last year’s offering, though, serving up six parts rather than the 13 that eventually made up its selection of Llano chips.

Top of the heap are two A10-branded chips: the 5800K and 5700. The former is the more powerful of the two parts, running at 3.8GHz and using Turbo Core to dynamically overclock to 4.2GHz, with the latter running at 3.4GHz with a Turbo Core peak of 4GHz. Both are quad-core, both use 4MB of L2 cache, and both include the high-end Radeon HD 7660D GPU, which has 384 stream processors at its disposal and runs at 800MHz.

A8-branded chips were top-end parts last year, but here they’re relegated to the middle of AMD’s stack. The A8-5600K and A8-5500 have base clocks of 3.6GHz and 3.2GHz respectively, with Turbo Core speeds of 3.9GHz and 3.7GHz. They’re quad-core parts with 4MB of L2 cache like the more powerful A10-series chips, but they’re equipped with a less powerful Radeon HD 7560D GPU, which has 256 stream processors running at 760MHz.

There are fewer low-end options this time around, too. The A6-5400K is dual-core, runs at 3.6GHz with a modest Turbo Core clock of 3.8GHz, and its Radeon HD 7540D graphics core runs its 192 stream processors at 760MHz. Bottom of the heap is the A4-5300 - again a dual-core part. It runs at 3.4GHz with a Turbo Core level of 3.7GHz, but its Radeon HD 7480D is the weakest of any included with Trinity: it has just 128 stream processors, and runs at 723MHz.

It’s also worth making a note of the three chips saddled with the ‘K’ suffix, which means they’re unlocked, and can be overclocked by upping its multiplier in the BIOS. AMD claims that its latest chips can hit speeds of up to 5GHz with air cooling, but the amount of extra power you can squeeze out of them will vary depending on each particular chip.

Trinity is an enticing-sounding range, then, with improved features across both processing and graphics cores


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