AMD APU: A little processor with a lot of bang

I have always detested netbooks. Yes the size was cool, but as soon as you started using it you could not but feel cheated. At the source of this was the processor powering it, Atom. Now I fully understand what Intel set out to do with the Atom, and in a way you have to be impressed with their efforts. It is remarkable little CPU and little is the appropriate word here. Low power consumption does come at a price. It was severely underpowered against the desktop processors of the day.

This however did not stop OEM’s from being creative. They stuck these little processors into everything from NAS’s to all-in-one computers, even created a new segment, the Nettop. These were off coarse initially against Intel’s wishes. These computers did offer some appeal, especially for size, but the overall experience from using it was just lacking.

Now I am a fine one to say the experience was lacking, considering that I was using a Pentium 3 833MHz as my internet download machine. So sometimes you need to put things into perspective. I have looked several times into building a Nettop myself to replace the old HP workhorse. Every time however I stopped halfway through the costing of the project. Why, because the Atom solutions available was just severely underwhelming.

The initial desktop boards used out-dated chipsets, lacking key features. This was primarily self-induced by Intel, they did not want a cheaper than chips CPU to cannibalise their medium and lower spec markets powered by Pentium and Celeron processors.

Atom over time has evolved as all products do. The desktop processors have opened a substantial lead with performance and price and power efficiency, leaving Atom a niche market. Intel has embraced this market by offering support for desktops, NAS and embedded solutions. Their manufacturing advantage has allowed them to add a second core and to ramp up the clock speed. Netbooks today is a far better experience than what they were when they were introduced.

AMD traditionally have been weak in the mobile market. Their notebook processors were dismal compare to that of Intel. So when they announce their first APU was designed for netbooks I was rather sceptical, but after reading about the specifications and design, I was intrigue. AMD has a bit of a hit and miss track record and I was hoping that this one was a hit.

The AMD E-350 CPU is a dual core design at 1.6 Ghz, with a Radeon HD 6310 Graphics core on-die (DirectX 11 class) at 500Mhz with a maximum thermal output of 18W. This is a serious combination, with serious potential, so I have been looking at the local price list for some time to see when these machines arrive and more importantly at what price.

What is clear is that AMD embraced this design whole heartily. The board I have bought (Sapphire PURE Fusion Mini E350) offer SATA III, USB3.0, gigabit LAN, PCI Express 16X, UEFI BIOS, e-SATA, HDMI out, Bluetooth, maximum of 8 GB DDR3 800/1066 in a mini-ITX form factor to name just some of its specifications. That is a whole lot of machine.

The goal with this build was to replace my internet machine. So I bolted the components in a CFI A6719 case. The case is best described as the size of a standard DVD / Blu-ray player with the height of two of those. The black gloss design with smoked plastic port covers is rather stylish.  It does have down sides, it only support a slim optical drive and the case does not come with a spacer to fill the gap if you decided not to fit a optical drive like myself. A further point to consider is that although this board does have expansion slots, the case does not allow for them at the back. This for me is not an issue as size was my primary driver in selecting this case.

The build was straight forward but extremely tight. I had to reconfigure several cables multiple times to get them to my liking. The case is very compact, I opted for the 150W internal power supply, but the case does come with a 60W external power supply option as well, so make the right choice.

Installing Windows 7 was a breeze, although different. I installed it from a USB flash drive, which was a first. I would seriously recommend it, especially if you have a fast flash drive available. I used one of my older 360Gb Western digital drives that came out of my main desktop machine a couple of weeks ago when I upgraded the storage system.

The resulted build was perfect for my primary goal, to replace the old Pentium 3. However, this is where things took a turn. Once the machine was completely assembled and functional, I was simply blown away. It is fast, it is capable, it was quiet but, it was underutilised. This got me thinking, reading and experimenting. I hooked up the machine to my HDTV via the HDMI and tested a few things. First of all, high definition media was not a problem, neither was the sound pass-through to my amplifier. It worked also great for playing the music downstairs in the living room.

It was never my intention to build a multimedia pc. I have looked into them over time and have always dismissed them as unnecessary, considering devices like modern TV’s, Blu-ray players and dedicated multimedia players like the excellent Western Digital HD Live which I used to own offer great support for playing multimedia files at a fraction of the price. In fact, my current Sony Blu-ray player was so good at playing media that I sold my Western Digital player.

After completing my successful tests I was rather intrigue by the whole computer in the living room concept. The idea was appealing, but there was a nagging problem, controlling the pc from the couch. I needed to be able to remote desktop into the machine, which meant the account had to be password protected. So some form of keyboard / mouse was needed. Well, to cut a long story short, I ordered a Lenovo mini keyboard with build-in trackball online and it works fantastic.

This was a rather long write-up for a rather simple change in my current setup. What I wanted to say is that AMD APU’s are fantastic and offer a lot for rather little money. Yes you can build more powerful machines at the same price, but not at this power consumption or size. It is truly a great platform and should be your first choice if you want to buy a netbook / light internet machine. (I have failed to mention that the GPU is powerful enough for most casual games, even some not so casual games…do check it out.)


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