AMD’s New Athlon: The First System on a Socket

Kabini gets a socket on the desktop...

Kabini Header AMDs New Athlon: The First System on a Socket

Last month AMD announced that it was going to begin selling a socketed desktop version of it’s Kabini system on chip. We’ve had the last week to run our review sample through its paces and have come away with a pretty positive impression of socketed Kabini. When I started hearing rumors that AMD was bringing a socketed version of Kabini to the desktop I was initially pretty skeptical that it was a worthwhile use of AMD’s resources and that consumers would actually be interested in such a part. But that was before I had seen how well AMD’s team understands the entry-level desktop market.

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Like most of the desktop market performance per dollar is an important metric for entry-level buyers. But it’s also important to remember that absolute price above all else is the biggest factor for this kind of system. AMD has nailed both of these metrics by keeping the total cost of a motherboard and an APU at or under $100.

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All of the major Taiwanese motherboard vendors have lined up behind AMD’s AM1 and will be offering a variety of designs in the mATX and mITX form factors rather than just the mATX form factor most budget builds use. ¬†AMD’s promotion of the mITX form factor is another clue that leads me to believe that socketed Kabini will be a successful entry into this market because AMD’s chips don’t have any direct competition from Intel in the mITX form factor at or below the $100 price-point. Intel has traditionally prided itself on charging consumer a premium for using its chips in non ATX form factors. Intel’s NUC is a great example of the company jacking up its prices for parts aimed at SFF PC builds.

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Here’s the sample mITX board that AMD sent us next to a standard kitchen sponge for reference. This is a small form factor, not the smallest, but certainly quite small. We’re also using AMD stock heatsink. At the moment there aren’t aftermarket options for the FS1b socket, but AMD assured us that their partners will be rolling out more robust cooling solutions soon.

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AMD keeps touting the fact that Kabini is the first socket based system on a chip product. Or as they call it a system in a socket. There are a few advantages to this; for example Kabini motherboards are cheap because they don’t have a north or south bridge to add cost, eat up physical area, and require additional cooling. Having a socket also means that the end-user has the ability to buy a Sempron because their budget is tight and then later go back and buy an Athlon as a mid cycle upgrade. Continuing on that same line of thought AMD is keeping quiet about any plans the company may or may not have to add its next generation Beema chips to its low-end socketed lineup. Although there are rumors that they will be launching more AM1 compatible chips in the futures.

Hopefully AMD will continue to understand how important keeping socket compatibly between generations is and will begin to offer Beema in a socketed form-factor to customers before the end of the year.

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The Athlon and Sempron brands are well known to enthusiast that have been around since AMD’s heyday in 2003. AMD’s had a pattern of reviving and then quietly killing these two brands since the launch of the original Phenom CPUs in 2008. Over the past few years the Athlon brand has been used for APUs with deactivated GPUs and the Sempron brand has been used to sell single core chips. As of now AMD has seen fit to revive these brands as the upper and lower tiers of its entry-level APU offerings.

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Let’s look for a moment at the four SKUs that AMD’s offering initially for its AM1 platform. At the high-end we have the $55 Athlon 5350 which is a fully enabled Kabini chip running at 2 GHz with a TDP of 25 Watts. Moving down the stack we have the Athlon 5150 which loses a bit of clock-speed but keeps everything else. Then we get to the Sempron 3850 which loses both CPU and GPU clock speed. The final chip in the stack is the Sempron 2650 which looks to be the ultimate salvage chip with two cores, a slight bump in clock speed, a slower GPU, slower memory controller, and half the L2 cache. It’s a solid lineup, but with a 25 Watt TDP for all of the chips its clear that while absolute power is low for all of these chips, power consumption alone isn’t a big deal to entry-level customers.

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Stepping back from the chips themselves AMD has provided a rather interesting comparison between Bobcat and Jaguar cores where the company is showing a 17 percent increase in performance per clock from the last generation. On an SoC level the gains are much greater and AMD says Jaguar offers double the single core performance and quadruple the multicore performance in Cinebench. Basing your opinion on these numbers alone is myopic but it’s clear that AMD’s Jaguar has a lot to offer in addition to being a nice bump up from Bobcat.

Here’s our test bed setup and as always you can find our raw benchmarking data and exact settings on Mega.

Testing System1 AMDs New Athlon: The First System on a Socket

We’ll be using a pretty wide array of benchmarks in our testing with a focus on four major categories of performance: Single-threaded, Multi-threaded, Compute, and Gaming. We’ve added a GPU mining performance benchmark with our Vertcoin mining results and we’ve now using AMD’s JPEG decoding benchmark to compare its chips to one another. We’ve also refocused our gaming benchmarks to look more at free to play games than you’ve seen in the past.

Socketed Kabini Performance2 AMDs New Athlon: The First System on a Socket

Looking at single core results the AMD’s top entry-level chip offers about half the performance of it’s top mainstream chip while consuming a fourth of the power. Although in our Foobar2000 benchmark Jaguar offers 70 percent of the performance of an A10-7850K.

Moving to multi threaded workloads the story is very similar and the Athlon offers half the performance of the A10. Jaguar appears to be especially weak in WinRAR compression performance where it offer just 39 percent of the performance of the Steamroller-based A10.

Moving to compute performance the between Kabini and Kaveri widens as the Athlon 5350 is only able to deliver 40 percent of the performance of the A10-7850K.

This trend continues as we move to gaming performance where Kabini offers only 34 percent of what it’s A10 brethren can provide.

Just for kicks here are those benchmarks again in bar chat form.

Kabini Perf Bar graph1 AMDs New Athlon: The First System on a Socket

The big take away here is that while Kabini CPU performance is surprisingly good, it’s GPU performance relative to AMD’s mainstream APUs leaves a lot to desired. If we were to compare it directly to an Intel IGP it would likely lineup pretty well with the HD 2000. That said it’s a perfectly acceptable solution for casual or free to play gaming.

Of course we had to ask, but will it run Crysis (3)? The answer is a bit muddled. We benchmarked the game and Athlon had no problems rendering those frames, but due to the low framerate I wouldn’t call Crysis 3 playable on the 5350. The same goes for Battlefield 4 which we benchmarked at 25 percent resolution while we had the UI at our monitor’s native 1080P resolution. It ran smoothly, but it looked like someone used an unfocus filter from Instagram on the game. We’ll have a chance in a later article to look more deeply at what games Kabini’s GPU is capable of running. But for now take comfort in the fact that at least the drivers are good.

I should also mention that we were able to get Mantle working in Battlefield 4 on our Athlon 5350. But we’ve opted not to include those numbers, which showed a landslide win for the A10-7850K, in this article because the frame rates that the game was reporting seemed rather suspect when we compared them to our subjective impressions of the game’s performance.

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AMD’s new Athlon and Sempron APU’s are well tailored to low-cost entry-level PCs. They offer respectable performance CPU and GPU performance and a lag-free user experience when couples with an SSD. The upgradable socket-based platform, low-cost to own, and AMD’s new found interest in the mITX form-factor make the Athlon 5350 an excellent choice for budget business, home, and HTPC applications. Had AMD priced these chips $30 higher or required that they be mated to $60 to $100 motherboards it would have been very difficult to recommend them. But with the current pricing structure they are an excellent value proposition.

Congratulations to AMD for turning an otherwise boring product into a compelling value play in the entry-level and small formfactor PC market.S|A

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 AMDs New Athlon: The First System on a Socket
Thomas Ryan is based in Seattle, Washington. Thomas first began to appreciate the wonders of the semiconductor industry while doing research on his previous favorite hobby, PC gaming. Having co- purchased his first computer at the ripe old age of 11, with $150 and the help of Craigslist he's been buying and building computers ever since.