AMD’s Radeon Dual Graphics: Looking at Laptops

Dual Graphics is finally not a drawback…

AMD Radeon Logo 2013A long time ago just after AMD launched its first Trinity chips a friend of mine purchased an AMD Radeon Dual Graphics enabled laptop. This particular model was branded an “HP Premier Experience” SKU and was about as decked out as you could make 15.6″ DV6 laptop. It had AMD’s top Trinity chip the A10-4600M, a Radeon 7600M discrete GPU, and 1080P screen. At the time it was basically everything you could want in an AMD laptop.

It’s closing in on two years later and I finally have that old DV6 back in S|A’s orbital laboratory again for some in-depth benchmarking of AMD’s Radeon Dual Graphics technology. I should note that this laptop hasn’t been in use for the last six months; rather it’s been collecting dust in the corner while my friend’s been toting around a Haswell-based Macbook Air. Nonetheless I popped in an SSD, installed Windows 8.1, and set about evaluating the current state of the mobile variant of AMD’s Dual Graphics.

Outside of the launch of AMD’s Richland processor and a couple of updates to AMD’s mobile GPU numbering scheme not a whole has changed since AMD launched Trinity in early 2012. The basic dual Piledriver module plus 384 VLIW4 Radeon core makeup of AMD’s mobile offerings remains the same. But then again we’re in the midst of a laptop product launch lull with the mobile version of Kaveri not expected until Q2 along with updates to AMD’s lower end mobile APU stack.

With that in mind it shouldn’t seem that outlandish that we’re benchmarking two-year old hardware. But what should seem rather outlandish is that up until now I’ve considered AMD’s Dual Graphics a handicap rather than a feature of this laptop. Prior to a major marketing campaign by Nvidia to promote their Optimus switchable graphics technology and a series of investigative articles by Anandtech’s Jarred Walton the plight of AMD’s mobile users was largely unknown. But having spent sometime with with this DV6 and having listened the unhappy ramblings of its owner the one thing that became clear to me was that AMD’s drivers needed a lot of work to iron out the many rough edges their mobile Dual Graphics solutions.

With the Catalyst 14.1 Beta release the team at AMD have gone a long way toward fixing Dual Graphics by implementing frame-pacing support. No longer are games stutter-y and unplayable, with the exception of Battlefield 4, but rather game play is now smooth and the benefits of Dual Graphics are more obvious. Speaking of Battlefield 4 we found the game to have some major issues with AMD’s mobility 14.1 Beta

BF4 AMD Dual Graphics Mobile

Each of these spikes would be note worthy on their own, but together they represent a major problem that AMD needs to address. Additionally we had the same issues with Minecraft that we encountered in our review of the desktop variant of Dual Graphics where the in-game terrain would not render.

AMD Dual Graphics Mobile

Dual graphics improved performance by about a third in three of the titles that we tested and had little to no impact in the remaining five titles. Just like we found on that desktop, there is a performance benefit that Dual graphics can offer, but that benefit is highly dependent on what game you’re playing.

None-the-less I think that anyone with a Dual graphics equipped laptop will be absolutely ecstatic about this the addition of frame-pacing with AMD’s 14.1 Beta driver and the stability of said driver which is flawless unlike the desktop version. Of course there are the rough spots that we covered earlier, and I still think you’ll have a really difficult time convincing anyone that owned a Dual graphics laptop prior to this update to ever consider purchasing another. But mobile Dual graphics has a much brighter future than its desktop counterpart due to the constrains of the mobile market. That future will largely depend on AMD’s driver efforts which to the company’s credit have been ramping up over the past year.

The 14.1 Beta driver is a good start but AMD’s drivers need to keep improving if they want perspective laptop buyers to truly consider a Dual Graphics laptop an alternative to buying an Intel-based laptop with a more powerful discrete GPU.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.