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Less than two months ago, we published a sub-$100 CPU roundup that was largely centered on AMD's incredibly affordable processors – namely the Athlon II. For the money, the Athlon II X4 630 was found to be unbeatable, with a special exception made for the unlockable Phenom II X2 processors.
The X4 630 provides ample horsepower for general usage, and it doesn't have much trouble tackling modern games either. That said, most of today's games are GPU hogs and less dependent on CPU performance (as seen in Dirt 3), which is why almost all integrated GPUs have failed to-date.
In January, Intel's Sandy Bridge processors earned some serious respect for achieving significant improvements over its long-mocked embedded solutions. Despite making great strides in the graphics department, Sandy Bridge still had some ground to cover before marginalizing entry-level video cards.
Now halfway through 2011, AMD seems to have traveled that distance with its A8-3850, consistently outperforming discrete cards such as the GeForce GT 520 and Radeon HD 6450. Meanwhile, it's not even fair to compare the A8-3850 and Core i7 2600K – its GPU performance simply on another level.
AMD has told us that the A8-3850's suggested retail price is $135, while the lower end A6-3650 will cost $115. This effectively situates the Llano flagship between Intel's Core i3-2100 ($125) and Core i3-2105 ($140). Unfortunately, we couldn't include either Intel processor in this review because of time constraints, but rest assured that we'll update our results to include these processors in the near future.
At $135, the A8-3850 seems to be the new budget king. Although it ranks well behind the Sandy Bridge chips in terms of sheer CPU performance, it offers a much better balance between CPU and GPU power. To accomplish this, AMD had to allocate half of the A8-3850's transistors to the Radeon HD 6550D.
Although some users would benefit from Sandy Bridge's extra CPU muscle, we believe the average budget machine would be better served by the A8-3850 as it can run the latest games using modest quality settings without a discrete graphics card, something Sandy Bridge users could only dream of.
While it can handle modern games with modest visual settings, we still consider the A8-3850 to be the bare minimum, performing similarly to the GT 430 when using DDR3-1866 memory. Any discrete card slower than the GT 430 or HD 5570 is simply incapable of providing ideal performance in modern titles.
Before wrapping up, we should note that Llano users should definitely spring for the faster DDR3-1866 RAM as it dramatically improved both game and general system performance. Likewise, overclocking the A8-3850 by 25% yielded performance gains ranging from 13% to 31% in games and applications.
We're happy to report that the A8-3850 looks like it's going to be a real winner for AMD. The company has been catching some flak lately over its stagnating product line, and although Llano doesn't bring much to the table for well-funded PC enthusiasts, budget system builders have a lot to be excited about.