A few weeks ago, we took a look at the AMD A-10 7850K APU, one of two APUs released at the beginning of the year. If you did not get a chance to read the article, have a look, briefly however we can tell you that we have been impressed with the APU’s capabilities as a main processor for your PC and flat out surprised by the performance of the graphics. In this article we take a look at Dual Graphics, or using a Dedicated GPU with the on board APU graphics processor.
Before we get further along, I have to state quite plainly that the APU onboard graphics, or even Dual Graphics is not a substitute for a high end gaming system. No, you will not get the performance of an eight core CPU running multiple graphics cards and featuring the latest and greatest components. If you can afford a three thousand dollar system, by all means splurge away, this article is not for you. If on the other hand, you are looking to stretch your money, upgrade slowly while still playing the latest titles on at least medium settings, then read on. AMD’s APU line, and line of budget graphics cards are aimed at the gamer who is either just starting to build his or her system, or who is financially constrained. I’ve built my own system piecemeal over the span of 4 years; I am the target audience, myself and every other gamer who has ever needed to choose which bill they need to put on the backburner so that they could afford groceries.
When multiple GPUs became a reality, AMD struck upon the idea of utilizing the integrated GPU present on some motherboards in conjunction with the dedicated main video card. This was called Hybrid Crossfire and worked well when one was trying to squeeze a little bit of performance out of a lower end card or extend its life just a bit. Dual Graphics is essentially the same idea, only it utilizes the GPU that is embedded on the APU itself. Options include setting the APU as the main graphics processor, or utilizing the dedicated card, as the user sees fit.
So after testing the APU rig against various titles and running a few benchmarks, AMD decided to throw us for a loop and have us test Dual Graphics utilizing their recently launched R7 250 2 GB GPU; the one we were provided was manufactured by MSI. One thiing we noticed right away was that the MSI R7 250 was equipped only with GDDR3, rather than the GDDR5 that is standard on most graphics cards at this time. Yes, GDDR5 is faster, but the GDDR3 is less expensive, and given that the system RAM on the FM2+ socket is DDR3, it may be more compatible when using Dual Graphics.
One thing I remember from my early foray into Crossfire was that there were several games that it simply did not work well with at all. In particular, I noticed that Skyrim and Crysis 2 flickered horribly. The effects and reasons for this are well documented so I won’t bother to delve into it here, needless to say I was concerned that I would encounter some of the same issues with Dual Graphics.
First, I ran benchmark tests using 3D Mark’s Ice Storm, Cloud Gate, and Fire Strike Benchmarks on the test rig, using only the APU. I ran into the same issue that prevented me from willingly posting the results in our final review, that being that the Graphics Driver was showing as not approved. I’ve finally been able to determine that the Beta Drivers I am using are the likely reason for the discrepancy, so I have elected to include the results here.
As you can see, these results are not much better than you would expect of an off the shelf OEM machine, a little improvement in that respect, but not much. With this setup alone however, I was able to play some of the most graphics demanding games on the market with reasonable settings and still enjoy myself.
I was a bit shocked to see that the R7 actually performed a little worse in some tests than the onboard graphics of the APU. While the difference is rather negligible, I was expecting some better results; I began to worry here.
Now this was surprising…In the literature and presentations about the A-10 Kaveri, I have seen AMD claim a 40% boost, but was skeptical that it I would see the same results without overclocking. Well, I was wrong, all of these results were on a factory standard system, nothing was tweaked. The Fire Strike test alone shows a 70.6% increase with Dual Graphics over the APU graphics by itself.
Numbers and graphs only tell part of the story, so I decided to fire up the same titles I tested with the APU plus a few others, grabbing screenshots along the way. Every image below was captured on the APU rig running Dual Graphics with the MSI R7 250. I used FRAPS to measure both the frames per second, and to capture images as I gamed. The rig itself is sitting in my Living Room, hooked up to a 32 inch LED TV and controlled with a wireless keyboard and mouse. I sat down on my couch with some egg rolls, a couple bottles of beer, and commenced.
On thing I have to say here on Battlefield 4 is that I was able to reach up to 60 frames per second, i wasn’t using the new Mantle API and left all settings at default levels. Of course things may change with the amount of eye candy you enable or disable, but as I was heavily impressed.
For the most part, I found the games to run a little smoother, with a higher FPS that I first experienced and was better looking. One thing I did run into was some flickering issues while playing Titanfalll Beta. The screen captures were unaffected, but the on screen display showed a tremendous amount of tearing, flickering, and quite of bit of what I can only describe as jumbled up images. While I am positive that drivers will progress, and AMD continues to strive towards improvement, it is worth noting that not every game will be friendly to Dual Graphics, you may have to disable it from time to time.
In Hawken, I managed a steady FPS, Crysis 2 ran between 40 and 60 with some dips, and Metro Last Light seemed seemed to hover between 35 and 45, with some spikes. Again, these results were all on standard clock settings and the default video options for each title. While not the eye bleeding, graphics intensive experience I normally strive for, the games were still enjoyable, and very playable.
Just to test how this thing stacks up against my main rig, I decided to run Fire Strike testing the FX 8350 Eight Core CPU, overlclocked to 4.3 Ghz and R9 280X GPU. I knew the FX would blow the APU out of the water, but given the relative power of each machine, I was still surprised that the 8350 and 280X only scored 3646 vs the APU’s Dual Graphics score of 1136, while ODG6 Actual’s R9 290 scored 4336. Here is where it gets interesting, both of us may have high end rigs, but we spent years building them up, the APU runs right out of the gate at a respectable level of performance, coupled with Dual Graphics, it makes it noteworthy for anyone.
Since release, I have felt that the strongest role for an APU will be as a Media Center or HTPC. The low power requirements and decent graphics make it ideal for streaming videos from the Internet or from your Home Network. With Dual Graphics enabled, I was able to stream videos between 115 and 120 frames per second, with the only drop in quality experienced due to potential throttling that my ISP has been reported as possibly enforcing; after enabling my VPN and connecting to a server outside my local area, I experienced smooth playback in full High Definition on my television. Suck it, Comcast.
Dual Graphics is not the perfect solution, but if you are a gamer on a budget, it is one possible solution that will allow you to experience higher end graphics without all of the high price you can expect of larger, more expensive systems. Like I said, AMD is not aiming Dual Graphics or a standalone APU to the hardcore enthusiasts that have four hundred dollars, or more, to drop on an upgrade. If I were tight on funds and needed to build a new system, I would definitely work with the APU platform. Dual Graphics adds an impressive performance boost, but with the understanding that not every title is made to work with it. You have to balance what you want, with what you can get, with the amount of money you are able to spend. AMD wants you to go all out, but they give you an option to take your time getting there.