A closer look at laptops with AMD's Fusion processors

AMD's first Fusion processors--chips that combine both a CPU and graphics--have been finding their way into everything from netbooks to 15-inch budget notebooks. Over the past few weeks, I've been testing out a number of these Fusion laptops including the Acer Aspire One 522, HP Pavilion dm1z and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e.

AMD's first Fusion processors--chips that combine both a CPU and graphics--were initially meant to get the company into the netbook game. But the market has changed and these low-power APUs, or Accelerated Processing Units, are finding their way into everything from tablets to 15-inch laptops.

Later this year, AMD will release its Llano processor, a more powerful APU with a quad- or even eight-core CPU and better graphics that will replace the aging Phenom IIs and Turion IIs in the laptops and desktops you see at Best Buy. But for now the low-power variants are the only Fusion parts that AMD has to offer. This includes both the C-Series (Ontario), which is designed for netbooks, and the E-Series (Zacate), which is employed in everything from ultra-thin laptops to 15-inch budget notebooks.

Over the past few weeks, I've been testing out a number of these Fusion systems. In this post, I'll cover some of the smaller systems including the Acer Aspire One 522 netbook and two ultra-thin laptops, the Lenovo ThinkPad X120e, and the HP Pavilion dm1z. Tomorrow I'll do a follow-up post on several budget laptops with 15-inch displays including the Acer Aspire 5253, Gateway NV51B Series and Toshiba Satellite C650. Some of these systems have already gotten the full reviews treatment from CNET or others (links below).

Before you consider one of these laptops, it's important to understand just what you're getting with these first Fusion chips. In general, these notebooks offer better performance than Atom-based netbooks, but they fall short of the performance of even entry-level laptops with Intel's Celeron, Pentium and Core i3 processors based on last year's microarchitecture. They aren't even in the same ballpark as the second-generation Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, which also combine a multi-core CPU and graphics processor on a single chip. The Llano, or A-Series APUs, will go toe-to-toe with these Sandy Bridge processors.

(The site Xbit Labs posted a roundup that compares the performance of AMD's E-350 to Intel's entire lineup from the dual-core Atom to the Core i3-2100T, an entry-level Sandy Bridge processor.)

Benchmarks are one thing, but what really matters is how systems perform in the real world. In my experience using these Fusion laptops over a few weeks, I found the performance was sufficient for basic productivity tasks, Web browsing, listening to music and watching video, and simple multi-tasking. Much of this is due to the Radeon HD 6310M GPU, which supports DirectX 11 and gives these lightweight laptops better graphics and video performance than some entry-level Intel-based laptops. The AMD graphics also includes a dedicated HD video decoder. None of the Fusion systems had the slightest trouble with Web pages loaded with Adobe Flash content or with 1080p video playback. The Pavilion dm1z I tested even came with an external Blu-ray player (a $129 option), which worked flawlessly.

In addition to decent graphics performance, the Fusion laptops also offer significantly better battery life than their Turion-based brethren. On a torture test, most of these lasted three to four hours, but you could easily get six hours or more from the Pavilion dm1z in real-world usage--a big improvement for AMD laptops though it comes at the expense of application performance.

Acer Aspire One 522 Acer rode the netbook wave all the way to a No. 2 ranking in the world by PC shipments. Lately that strategy has come under pressure and Acer has lost some ground, but it continues to crank out inexpensive netbooks. The Aspire One 522 looks a lot like Acer's other 10.1-inch netbooks, which are typically based on Atom processors. It is about an inch thick (and only 10.2 inches wide by 7.3 inches deep), weighs less than 3 pounds and has a compact Chiclet-style keyboard (which is a bit tougher to type on than a standard, full-size keyboard), and a decent multi-touch touchpad with separate buttons. The difference is that this Aspire One does not use Atom. Instead, it has AMD's 1.0GHz C-50 dual-core processor with Radeon HD 6250 integrated graphics driving a 1280-by-720 display.

Don't confuse the Aspire One 522 with a notebook, it is pure netbook and comes with some limitations. The Fusion APU provides better graphics, but the application performance of the C-50 isn't much better than a dual-core Atom and well below Intel's entry-level dual-core processors for laptops. For example, a Monte Carlo simulation in an Excel spreadsheet that finished in 22 seconds on a laptop with a 2.13GHz Core i3-330M dual-core took nearly 2 minutes on the Aspire One 522. An image editing task in Google's Picasa and a test involving transcoding audio files in iTunes each took about four times as long with the Aspire One 522.

The battery life was better. The 6-cell battery lasted 3 hours 20 minutes on a tough test of continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi with the display set to full brightness. I got around five to six hours in real-world use, which is about what you'd expect from a 10-inch netbook.

The Aspire One 522 is also stuck with the Starter Edition of Windows 7, which means it is missing some features such as the Aero interface, Windows Media Center and Windows XP compatibility mode. Out of the box it couldn't complete a video encoding test because it was missing the codecs that come with full versions of Windows 7 (though you can always download codecs).

The model I tested, the Aspire One 522-BZ897, costs $329.99 with 1GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive. That puts it in a very particular niche. It isn't the cheapest netbook out there. The Aspire One 255, for example, has the same basic design but starts at $249.99 with the Atom N455 single-core, 1GB and a 250GB hard drive. On the other hand, the Aspire One 522 still falls short of the performance and features of an entry-level laptop. Essentially what you're buying here is better graphics performance. The Aspire One 522 is worth a look if you want a netbook with features such as a 720p display, HDMI-out and the ability to smoothly handle HD video.

HP Pavilion dm1z The first Fusion laptop, the HP Pavilion dm1z is neither netbook nor notebook. Rather it falls somewhere in between in terms of its price, size and weight, features and performance. Most "tweener" products are not very successful, but the dm1z has defied the odds. It has generally received very good reviews (here's CNET's take) and both Computer Shopper and LaptopMag gave it an Editors' Choice.

Based on an 11.6-inch display (133x768) the dm1z weighs about 3.5 pounds and measures 11.4 inches wide by 8.4 inches deep. The tapered case is 1.2 inches thick at the back but only 0.8 inches at the front making it appear even smaller and lighter than it is. While the cylindrical 6-cell battery sticks out from the back, it is integrated into the display hinge so it feels like part of the design. The tapered design and rounded hinge make the dm1z comfortable to carry in your hand with the display closed. The design and materials are not in the same class as pricier ultraportables such as the Apple MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9, but the dm1z has a clean, professional look and feels reasonably solid and sturdy.

The dm1z officially starts at $449.99 direct with the 1.6GHz E-350 dual-core processor with Radeon HD 6310M graphics, 3GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive, but you can easily find that configuration online for as low as $429. There aren't a whole lot of configuration options, but you can get it with a larger hard drive or a 128GB solid-state disk. As you'd expect in a laptop this small, there's no internal optical drive though as I mentioned above you can get an external Blu-ray player/DVD writer for $129.

Though I generally prefer traditional keyboards, the dm1z has one of the better island-style Chiclet keyboards. The soft, rubberized keys are full-size and have lots of space between them. (One minor annoyance: the Page Up, Page Down, Home and End function keys are not labeled, but you eventually get used to the Function key combinations.) Overall I prefer the ThinkPad X120e's keyboard, which has slightly curved keys for better tactile feedback, but I could easily live with the dm1z's design.

The performance of laptops with the E-350 is certainly better than that of netbooks saddled with the C-Series, but it is still well short of notebooks with Intel dual-cores. The Monte Carlo simulation in Excel that took 22 seconds on a laptop with a Core i3-330M dual-core processor took nearly a minute more on the dm1z. The Fusion laptop took more than twice as long to convert a batch of MP3s to the AAC format in iTunes and it took nearly 41 minutes to transcode a video in Windows Movie Maker into a format for use on a smartphone. The same video transcoding task took 10 minutes 35 seconds on the Core i3-based mainstream laptop. The ThinkPad X120e, which has virtually identical specs, posted similar scores. These are certainly a step up from netbooks using either Atom or AMD's own C-Series, but not in the same class as larger laptops.

Battery life is a different story. The dm1z's 6-cell battery lasted more than four hours on my torture test but many reviewers have reported test scores in excess of six hours. In normal usage you can expect to get anywhere from six to seven hours putting it in the same range as netbooks with slower processors and smaller displays. That's pretty impressive.

It's easy to see why the dm1z has received glowing reviews. The performance doesn't come close to premium ultraportables but it is good enough for most, and at $429 you can buy three of them for about the same price as the cheapest 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro. Throw in an attractive design and long battery life and the dm1z is a great budget ultraportable.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e A direct competitor to HP's Pavilion dm1z, the ThinkPad X120e is also based on an 11.6-inch display (1366x768) and AMD's E-Series processor. Not surprisingly the performance and features are very similar, and the ThinkPad X120e has received solid reviews as well (here's CNET's hands-on), though it hasn't quite matched the ratings of the dm1z.

The design of the ThinkPad X120e is identical to the X100e, which used an older AMD processor. It doesn't break any new ground, but if you like the matte-black looks of ThinkPads, you'll like the X120e. At about one inch thick and with a weight of 3.4 pounds, the X120e is highly portable. Some reviewers have complained about how the battery juts out from the back panel, but this is really a matter of aesthetics. The fact is at 8.3 inches deep, the X120e is actually a bit shorter than the dm1z--it's just that the latter's hinge design makes the battery appear to be part of the overall design while the X120e's feels like an afterthought.

ThinkPads are known for their excellent keyboards. The larger--and much higher-priced--X220 and T-Series have what I consider to be the best keyboards in the business. The one on the X120e isn't nearly as good, but it is still one of the best Chiclet-style keyboards around with large, well-spaced keys that have plenty of travel. I also prefer the red TrackPoint to a touchpad--the multi-touch gestures don't do much for me--and there aren't many laptops at this size and price range that offer a pointing stick. If you like working with a touchpad, however, you should be aware that the one on the X120e feels cramped and is recessed below the wrist-rest making it a bit awkward to use.

The ThinkPad X120e starts at $399 but that model comes with the slower 1.5GHz E-240, 2GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive. The one I tested had the faster E-350 processors and 4GB of memory bumping the price up to $529 direct (lenovo.com). That's less than the Sony VAIO Y Series--another 11.6-inch laptop with AMD's Fusion processor--which starts at $549 with the E-350, 4GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive. But it is notably more than the Pavilion dm1z, which is $479.99 direct with the same specs as the X120e I tested, and you can push it down to as low as $429 with 3GB of memory.

The price of the X120e (and Sony VAIO Y Series) bumps up against that of mainstream laptops that offer better performance and features. For example, you can get the ThinkPad Edge with a 14-inch display, Athlon II X2 P340 dual-core, 4GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive for $549.

The X120e's application performance was virtually identical to the dm1z on my tests. Neither one is going to win any races--except when competing against only Atom-based netbooks--but in normal usage the X120e easily handled basic productivity tasks and simple multi-tasking. And thanks to the Radeon HD 6310M graphics, the X120e had no trouble with basic games, Adobe Flash content or HD video. The battery life wasn't as good as that of the dm1z on my tests, but it was still a big step up from the previous version, the X100e. Lenovo rates it at 7.5 hours, but I got anywhere from 5 to 6 hours in general use and it lasted slightly more than 3 hours on my extreme battery test.

Overall I'd give a slight edge to the Pavilion dm1z because it has a more interesting design, longer battery life and lower price tag. But if you are a fan of laptops with a little red TrackPoint--and there are lots of you out there--the X120e is the closest thing to a ThinkPad ultraportable on a netbook budget.

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