AMD’s Trinity, Intel’s Sandy Bridge Battle for Budget ($600-and-Lower) Space

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) today made the launch of Trinity official.  Branded as new A-series advanced processing units, the new AMD chips are the third major accelerated processing unit (APU), following in the footsteps of Brazos, but particularly June 2011’s Llano.

I. Overview

AMD hints that the chip underwent radical internal changes.  While the die size increase (228 to 246 sq. mm) and transistor count increase (1.178b to 1.303b) from Llano are subtle, AMD slides indicate that 5,500 patents/patent pending innovations were incorporated into the new core.  With APUs increasingly driving AMD’s revenue, this is a money chip, and AMD put a very determined effort into overhauling its products.

Reviews of the new chip have trickled in from various corners of the web:

  • Anandtech
  • PC Perspective
  • VR Zone
  • Hardware Canucks
  • Techware Labs
  • Neoseeker

A Trinity prototype laptop.  Similar models are expected to ship from major manufacturers in June. [Image Source: Anandtech]
Here’s a break-down of the five dual- and quad-core chips in the Trinity family that were announced today:
(Click to enlarge)
II. Battery Life, CPU, and GPU 

All of the reviews, for better or worse, focus on Trinity‘s CPU cores.  AMD has swapped out Llano‘s 2-4 32 nm x86 Stars cores (K10.5 based) for 2-4 32 nm x86 Piledriver cores.  Piledriver shares much Bulldozer‘s computing limitations, compared to Intel Corp.’s (INTC) rival Sandy Bridge (32 nm) and Intel’s latest and greates Ivy Bridge (22 nm).  Bulldozer/Piledriver try to compensate for less decoding units with higher efficiency logic blocks.  The result is that AMD’s lightly thread workloads are often dramatically worse than Intel’s.

Still Piledriver contains some nice refinements that help improvement computing power.  And it swaps leaky soft-edge flip-flops for smaller hard-edge flip-flops, saving between 10 to 20 percent on power consumption.

Trinity‘s biggest gains come on the CPU front. [Image Source: AMD]

In CPU performance Trinity blows away its predecessor’s pre-Bulldozer architecture, offering 20-30 percent gains.  But that still leaves it 25 percent behind Intel’s last generation chip — Sandy Bridge.  And of course Ivy Bridge blows both chips away.

Battery life, according to extensive testing by Anandtech, is generally in the ballpark of the lone Ivy Bridge design tested.  While Trinity offers a noticeable improvement over Llano in these tests, overall whether a Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge laptop performs better or worse than the new AMD chip appears to be inconclusive — likely heavily a product of the laptop build.  

With factors like hard drive selection making a big difference in results, it’s best to make no assumptions about where AMD and Intel land in the battery life war, other than to acknowledge that there’s no clear winner.  Intel appears to enjoy a narrow lead in some tests — like internet browsing, but again, the great unknown is how much of this is the chip and how much of it is the laptop.

Gaming wise, Trinity, equipped with new Northern Islands cores offers small gains over its predecessor.  While not as dramatic as the CPU improvement, it’s enough to keep Trinity far ahead of Sandy Bridge and a bit ahead of Ivy Bridge in integrated GPU (iGPU) performance.  The results are not dramatic, but AMD is the winner when it comes to integrated graphics.

When looking at battery life, CPU performance, and GPU performance, a seeming tie emerges between Intel (CPU victor) and AMD (GPU victor).  But, then is CPU performance all that meaningful to the everday user?  Anandtech argues, “A 25% lead for Intel is pretty big, but what you don’t necessarily get from the charts is that for many users, it just doesn’t matter.”

III. Price Makes This a Two-Chip Race

But those numbers neglect a core third pillar — price.  AMD’s chips are aimed at $600 USD laptop designs.  Ah, so AMD is the winner then?

Well, not quite.  Intel’s Sandy Bridge ironically is increasingly looking like Intel’s best chip.  Best, not because of CPU performance where it is dominated by Ivy Bridge or GPU performance, where it is ravaged even worse.  But best, in terms of price versus value.

Ivy Bridge is estimated to cost $300 USD for the chip alone, plus require a more expensive chipset.  So to those who think it should be the same price as Sandy Bridge, there is some bad news — it’s not.  Ivy Bridge notebooks will have trouble breaking the $900 barrier.  Meanwhile Sandy Bridge designs like the Vostro V131 from Dell, Inc. (DELL) are about the same price as Trinity books — $600.

Curiously Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) is pricing Sandy Bridge notebooks higher than Trinity ones — but Anandtech hints that this may be a discrepancy, as Dell and others are expected to pony up $600 USD.

With battery life and price a tie, Sandy Bridge vs. Trinity is an intriguing dilemma.  If you want sportier GPU performance, Trinity is the clear pick.  If you want slightly sportier CPU performance, Sandy Bridge is the clear pick.  Ultimately, given the average use case — GPU-accelerate browsing, casual gaming, video watching, etc., GPU would seem to be slightly more important, particularly given that Trinity wins bigger GPU-wise than Sandy Bridge wins CPU-wise.  Then again, Sandy Bridge is likely going to be more available than Trinity, thus it may win through ubiquity in this close race.

AMD’s Trinity is primarily competing with Intel’s 32 nm Sandy Bridge, and the competition is surprisingly close. [Image Source: AMD]
But if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that the supposed competition between the premium-priced Ivy Bridge and Trinity is largely a myth — the real race is between AMD’s APU and Intel’s last-generation system on a chip — both 32 nm designs.  And that race is remarkably close, perhaps too close to call without risking cries of bias.  Fortunately the benchmarks have offered up their two sense, so you can be sure to read opinions in both directions and decide for yourself as more Sandy Bridge and Trinity laptops trickle out to the market.

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