AMD’s Brazos vs. Atom Thermals, Revisited

Last week, we met with AMD at their CES location to see some of their upcoming systems and laptops. While they’ve also recently released several new desktop GPUs, there wasn’t anything new to discuss in that area. The same applies to their desktop CPUs—we’re all waiting to see Llano and Bulldozer. So the focus at CES was understandably on Brazos, aka the “first APU” Vision C- and E-series processors.

We’ve been critical of some of the staged platform comparisons we’ve seen in the past—as Anand put it, the onus is on AMD in this case to provide a truly representative comparison between their new product and Intel’s competing offerings. After the demonstration of their Brazos netbooks on Thursday, AMD called us back and said they wanted to let us rerun the tests to make sure we accurately represented the two platforms. See, there was a slight snafu in the initial thermal imaging comparison. Specifically, AMD thought they put out a netbook with a C-50, but the test system was actually a C-30. So, we returned….

The reason for the mix-up was simple: they had both a C-30 and C-50 system from the same OEM, and they’re basically identical (one was dark blue and the other was light blue). Given that the two C-series parts are both 9W TDP, we didn’t expect much to change, and the new testing confirmed this. We did get some better images of both the top and bottom of the three test netbooks—Atom N550 vs. C-30 and C-50. Unfortunately, stupidity on my part resulted in the loss of said images (it’s a long story…), so all we have are the thermal shots from the keyboard area and screenshots showing CPU utilization during playback along with screen captures taken with FRAPS.

The above gallery shows essentially the same thing as our initial testing: Brazos using its GPU uses less power and runs cooler than Atom N550 doing the decoding in software. The difference between the C-30 and C-50 is pretty much non-existent, as expected. The testing environment was not conducive to doing any form of noise comparison, so while the N550 setup was clearly warmer we couldn’t say if it was quieter or not. Battery life is looking to roughly equal Atom, so that’s good to see. Now we’re waiting for final hardware to see if we can shed any more light on the situation, as well as running our full suite of tests.

We also took the opportunity to capture a video showing the 1080p playback comparison, as that’s part of the story. The video in question is Big Buck Bunny, an open movie demo created as part of the Peach movie project. (You can read more about it on their site, though it’s old enough now that if you haven’t heard of it already there’s not much to add. Suffice it to say, the lack of any licensing issues meant BBB was all over the CES floor, and I’m tired of the short now!) This particular version is a stereoscopic rendering, so instead of the normal 24FPS the frame rate is 48FPS according to FRAPS.

I believe during playback Arcsoft TotalMedia Theater 5 is skipping half the frames, as none of the netbooks come equipped with a 3D 120Hz panel. Does that actually matter? Not that we could tell—now that we’re home from CES, I ran the regular 24FPS version of Big Buck Bunny on a different dual-core N550 netbook, and frame rates still frequently dropped into the teens. Actually, it was worse than the netbook at AMD’s demonstration, but that’s probably more to do with lack of optimizations and some bloatware that came preinstalled; but I digress….

You can see during playback that the Atom N550 periodically stutters and drops below 48FPS—and more importantly, it’s far below 24FPS as well at times. In comparison, both the Vision C-30 and C-50 Brazos/Ontario chips manage a consistent 48FPS. The C-30 does flicker between 47 and 48FPS, but again, that may simply be an artifact of using a stereoscopic 3D video on a non-3D panel. Temperatures are in line with what we reported in our earlier coverage, and the two AMD netbooks are virtually identical. CPU utilization on the dual-core C-50 is lower by about half, as expected.

Once More, With Feeling

This is essentially the killer app of Brazos compared to Atom, and it’s important to keep things in perspective. These chips have a much better IGP than Atom, but at least on the nettop side of things the faster AMD E-350 isn’t miles ahead of Atom D510 in the CPU department. When we drop clock speeds down to 1.0GHz (dual-core C-50) from 1.6GHz (E-350) and compare that to the Atom N550 (1.5GHz)… well, 62.5% of the performance of E-350 compared to 90.4% of the performance of D510 means that in some tests the N550 will probably beat the C-50 for raw CPU potential. Yeah, that’s a concern for me. The GPU is the real difference, so naturally a video decoding test is the best-case scenario. I suspect C-50 will be underpowered for most 3D games, even if the DX11 GPU inside Brazos is fast enough—it will just be the AMD equivalent of Atom + NVIDIA ION, only without as many discrete chips.

We also have to consider performance of the next tier of CPUs and IGPs. Atom is the lowest of the low hanging fruit; we have much faster chips and IGPs from both AMD and Intel, and we don’t need to move up to current generation parts like 2nd Gen Core processors. Even the old Core 2 Duo CULV chips are a darn sight faster than Atom (2x-3x faster), and bad as GMA 4500MHD is, it could do an okay job at H.264 offload. It appears that the E-350 will end up delivering performance roughly equal to the old CULV chips (probably a bit slower, to be honest). That means it will also be around the same level as the Athlon II Neo K325, only with a better IGP and apparently improved power characteristics.

The biggest point in favor of Brazos isn't performance, though. It's going to be cost. If AMD can get partners to put out $400 netbooks (hopefully without Win7 Starter and with more than 1GB RAM), that will hopefully put the nail in the current iteration of Atom. We've seen the Brazos chips, and they're extremely small—smaller even than Atom—so pricing should be very compelling. AMD also doesn't appear concerned about protecting their more expensive mobile offerings (mostly because there aren't many), so they don't have to castrate Brazos in the same way Atom has been stagnant since the first N270 rolled out. Well equipped Brazos netbooks (and nettops) in the $500 range should also be a more elegant choice than Atom + ION/NG-ION, so again AMD looks set to win several matchups.

We’re working to get Brazos hardware in for testing as soon as possible, but it looks like the biggest beneficiaries will be users that want good H.264 decoding in a 10.1” form factor, or an alternative to ION. If you’re looking for the ultimate HTPC chip, we’ll have to investigate that area in further detail, as bitstreaming support and other features are still a question mark. Right now, Brazos is shaping up to be what we all wanted from Atom last year; whether that will be enough in 2011 remains to be seen.

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  • sebanab - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    Another really importat thing to test:
    - Overall system power consumption during 1 hour of HD playback (the monitor could be turned off to eliminate it as a variable) . In other words will this outlast an Atom netbook during a long flight ?

    Regarding "nitrousoxide"'s suggestion : a value SSD for sure is something which users will definitely want to put in their Brazos systems, so yes test that.
    As for 5400 vs 7200 , i would skip that altogether , HDDs in an ultra portable is so 2010 :) ...
    Anybody can spare 70 $ for a descent SSD and add an external HDD for more space.

  • sebanab - Thursday, January 20, 2011 - link

    yet another important one:
    CPU usage while video chatting in Skype.
    On Atom 450 it's around 75% on both threads and while it works flawlessly , you can't do anything else with the machine without sound/video artifacts in the conversation, plus web browsing is crazy slow.
  • nitrousoxide - Saturday, January 15, 2011 - link

    Seems that not so many people using a netbook need that feature lol. Tomshardware already pointed out that Brazos doesn't haven enough GPU muscle to gain any decent performance boost even with OpenCL. GPU accelerated applications is where Llano should shine, but not Brazos. Anyway I'm also expecting to see if 80 Shaders can make any difference with OpenCL.
  • 789427 - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    I've been in the industry a LONG time and finally, we're in a world that benchmarks are starting to matter very little for most people.
    It's a huge comment and expected to generate a lot of thought at the very least and probably some abuse too.
    So let me qualify this:

    When I replace my Compaq 311c - or buy something similar for my wife, what am I going to be interested in?
    Basically it's the machine's abilities, form factors and PRICE.
    What are the most processor intensive tasks? Photo editing, maybe a bit of video editing (Cut paste before offloading any encoding to a capable desktop).
    Can it handle video at full res?
    My 311c even handles 90% of what I need it to and that's on a N260 platform + ION
    Basically everything except gaming. My old ion did this, and this seems to handle it far better.

    So what does Brazos offer me?
    A glimpse at 3x and 4x core capabilities based on this architecture (Am I foolish to believe that there will be processors supplied with more modules up to 18W?)

    Can it provide me with media playback for over 4 hours on battery? maybe even longer....

    Can it handle HTPC duties? Sure.

    Can it be overclocked / what will the ceiling be on later revisions? Probably around double the mark at 18W and later revisions.

    So what am I interested in? Well, Price. It's better than atom, more efficient than atom, Cheaper than atom...

    Now here's the thing... Bloatware kills these machines. I'm not against installing things that people need but I'm insisting on a pro-choice movement. Can't you just register the product for the warranty and link in to a app store for all the bloatware? Maybe even have a "the way it was meant to be installed" link on the desktop that magically removes all the bloat and restores the registry to Plain vanilla factory settings?

    Anecdotally, on my 311c the machine became unusable after my wife installed some basic photo editing software and had 50Gb of photos and video on the 311c - so I dropped in a 500Gb HDD and scrapped every ounce of bloatware and... it's better than new. I'm now about to create a nLite slipstreamed image for the complete install to test on the old hard drive as well as a macrium reflect image. - Why?? because of the bloatware state that transfers the maintenance and installation of the machine to the user's time account.

    Yes, this is an unrelated rant but the total cost of ownership is reflected also in the use of my time.

    So in summary, Brazos review:

    Benchmarks: how much extra do I get together with cost savings over atom?
    e.g. 10% savings in cost of machine together with 20% increase in performance = 33% more per $ with Brazos. Battery life is as good so there is an all things being equal scenario.

    Is brazos fast enough to convert people over above current netbook expectations? Obviously but to what degree remains to be seen.

    Will it make a difference in the ultraportable market? Sure.

    What are the hurdles? Well, purchasing departments obviously, when it comes to the professional sector that IMHO are notoriously anti-AMD together with PC support that follows in the anti-AMD sentiment.

    Private purchasers are swayed by salesmen that again favour Intel hugely - not without reason in the Notebook market.

    Thus IMHO the success or failure of Brazos will simply be determined - not by the marketing performed by AMD but by the marketing muscle behind the notebook manufacturers.

    More importantly though it will be greatly influenced by the swarming behaviour of consumers in particular segments - or the creation of new segments that will likely determine the success or failure of these new and fickle market segments.

    Likely emerging swarms I can identify with are: Low cost good enough to work on notebooks,
    Forward upgradable (software) simple HTPCs, Linux based, with a downloadable install image. - Although x86 should lose out to ARM in this market.

    In conclusion, Brazos is now the undisputed champ of the cheapest usable and fastest 2 handed machine available for pre-order today that can handle everything but extreme gaming-like workloads and heavy workstation loads with ease. We all know that Intel will match it sometime soon but we also know that there will be a price premium for the intel machine (Basic economics - the market leader can afford to charge a higher price).

    What remains to be seen is of there's a killer application that will phase it out of the market (DX12?) gaming etc. or if this will remain the value champion in terms of basic office productivity and home entertainment needs.

    Hope I haven't bored you ...
  • krumme - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    I am pretty sure it cost on battery time to feed the ooo of the bobcat, especially on the leaking but dense tsmc process. Therefore i predict the reviewers and many lead users will say:
    Ohh wait for 32/28nm version, it will have half the idle power usage, 30% higher clock and 20% lower TDP, all at the same time. And when it arives they will say, ahh- this is what bobcat should have been.

    But that is simply missing the point of the product and its weak side - and not taking the customers perspective. Right now it seems TSMC 40nm process is expensive. It might seem like an idiotic point for a marginal die cost of 6-7 usd, but its the weakest side of this product. If you have to sell the product for say 40usd, its simply difficult to reach the 300usd nettop market.

    Said another way, i think the market for cheaper 40nm bobcat, is far greater than the market for a new more expensive 32nm version, as the 40nm version is just tolerable or "good enough" on all the performance variable for most users - especially the new third world markets. I think thats exactly the lesson from the Atom adoption. It was all about price.

    Therefore what is going to be interesting is not so much the benchmark of the bobcat itselves but more the total performance/cost the nettops/laptops will give. I would fx. like to see a review of the new Lenovo 11 inch thingy, or if there is some 13/14 inch on the way.
  • 789427 - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    Krumme, you made me smile with your prediction (1st paragraph). As far as anybody knows, except in the rare circumstance that the fabs burn down, chip prices always drop (a lose reference to the memory fabs burning down in the 90's).

    Still, the inverse can also be assumed - there's never been a better time to upgrade than the present.

    The economics of it all is really what we're getting into. Does the price/performance for the total cost present a strong enough argument to a significant number of people?

    33% increase in price/performance at a price point 10% lower may not seem to be a tipping point except when you look at the granularity of the decision matrices.

    Big words but an idea that you know:
    e.g. atoms can't youtube at 720p (except for ion and that's rare)
    So if AMD cheapbooks (not a netbook or a notebook but dirt cheap and well sort of capable) on a decent screen for the price - well, that may be it.

    I believe that there are enough applications that people spend enough time with for these to be worthwhile. Facebook, movies on the go, scaled down work machines for travel etc for which these are more favourable than tablets and Monsterbooks (Big notebooks) and the form factor makes sense.

  • krumme - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    I agree that youtube HD might be be the most for a starter.

    What could be a major issue could just be a tipping point in the cognitive interpretation of what is subjective felt as slow (ATOM) in relations to what is not noticed for normal office work (the rest). - the distinction for most user is slow - not noticed. its not slow - fast distinction.

    Fx. for my wife there no such thing as a fast computer. There is a computer, and a computer that is not working. But if i gave her my Atom, i am pretty sure she will ask something like "can it not be faster?". She have my old core duo laptop with a slow ssd, and she doesnt recognice it as slowly. But she notice its got good battery life and low noise :) - the funny thing its basicly a better computer for officework than the core2, core2 penryn, and i5 laptops that i have now.

    So the cognitive tipping point together with the application you list, is the difference. I think its just about the right price. If we in ½ a year see bobcat nettops going to 300 usd i think they are the right way.

    If i was the board of AMD i would use the bobcat to get the brand to the end of the world, and use it to get most for the shares when all the stuff have to go :)
  • sebanab - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    Please , when writing the review of the Brazos platform , make sure to cover the following points:
    - Win 7 boot and shut-down times
    - how much it takes to install apps (Skype/Messanger/Office etc)
    - Starcraft 2 frames while watching a replay of pro players
    - fan noise during idle
    - maybe if it can play a HD live stream

    PS: is it possible for you guys to delete comments?
  • sebanab - Sunday, January 16, 2011 - link

    sebanab you are a total noob!
    (comments are listed on 2 pages you tool :) )
  • ninjaquick - Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - link

    lol +10

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