We are barely into 2011 and on the CPU front, AMD has been making headlines, for both good and bad reasons. The big shocker of course, was the departure of CEO Dirk Meyer, who was rumored to have been forced out due to its lack of an expansion strategy for semiconductors, especially for the mobile devices market. Or simply put, where is AMD on the tablet front? Considering that AMD has been struggling in its CPU business for a while, one would think that entering the competitive mobile space, with its multitude of ARM processors, would be the least of its concerns.
AMD's recent fourth quarter earnings report saw its revenue remain mostly flat, though it did make a profit of US$375 million. It's not bad as a whole, but the good news to follow was the announcement that AMD has shipped 1.3 million APUs so far, just weeks into its official debut (OEMs obviously has had access to the APU for far longer). With big names like Sony, HP and Lenovo releasing Fusion netbooks and ultra-portables in the coming months, AMD's fortunes in the notebook market certainly are rising. However, the desktop front remains highly uncertain, with Bulldozer, its next-gen CPU architecture looking to be delayed again.
Therefore, the positive thing to take away is that AMD's Fusion APUs have found some traction among OEMs, though it's still early days yet whether consumers will embrace this potential Atom 'killer'. From what we have seen, some motherboard vendors too are offering Brazos barebones systems (motherboard and APU) for enthusiasts to configure their own low-power systems. It's a rather niche market, with HTPC enthusiasts the likely buyers; mainstream consumers will go for Fusion powered nettops and mini-desktops from OEMs instead.
These Brazos mini-ITX platforms are decent for HD playback and in some cases, beat Intel's latest HD Graphics, especially if the application is slanted towards the GPU portion. There's no doubt that the GPU performance of Brazos is better than Intel's. The question is whether this can compensate for its limitations in general CPU performance, as Intel's HD Graphics are found on much faster Core i3 processors. At least AMD seems to have solved the issue of power consumption, with the relatively low power draw that we have seen, it's very feasible to see these APUs compete with Intel's Atom and even some Intel CULV processors. Heat too is a non-issue, though this too is more pertinent for the mobile space. It's a promising platform that bodes well for AMD and its upcoming Fusion products like Llano.
As for the three boards reviewed today, they are mostly similar in performance, with the ASRock taking a slight hit due to its lower memory frequency. The Gigabyte and MSI boards also come with more features, from USB 3.0 to their own proprietary ones, and generally have a more expensive feel to them (read solid capacitors). ASRock has informed us that there is a USB 3.0 model available, the E350M1/USB3 that will go for around S$218. That's a bit more than the S$185 for the reviewed model. For a processor and motherboard combo, this price is definitely affordable and with some DRAM, a hard drive, a chassis and one is good to go.
Even though they cost more, we are inclined to go with the Gigabyte and MSI, just for the sake of ensuring that our systems are mostly future-proof (USB 3.0) and importantly, will last long enough to see the mass adoption of USB 3.0. Their marginally better performance also tilts the advantage in their favor, though those who have an urge to tweak may find the Gigabyte the better of the two, thanks to options that allow some sort of overclocking for the APU's clock and graphics core.
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(S$218 for USB3 model)