Farquhar discovers power-sipping AMD Fusion motherboards

AMD just announced its next-generation Fusion CPU/GPU combo. I’m not quite comfortable with AMD’s APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) moniker, because CPU-GPU integration isn’t about speed so much as it’s about reducing price and power consumption. This version of Fusion is intended to compete with mainstream Intel CPUs. Pricing isn’t available yet.

And that reminded me to go look and see what’s going on with first-generation AMD Fusion motherboards. I’m not so much interested in Fusion as a netbook/low-end notebook solution as I am for a power-sipping PC. Looking at the reviews online, it looks like I’m not alone in that. I don’t think I can afford to run multiple 750-watt fire-breathing dragons at home, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Give me a cool, quiet PC that doesn’t get bogged down in Visio, and I’m happy.

Fusion boards are coming in a choice of mini-ITX and Micro ATX form factors. Some take desktop DDR3 memory modules, and some take laptop modules. All offer more expandability than competing Atom boards.

There are offerings available from most of the usual suspects, with pricing around $130:

Looking at the reviews, it seems the people who are looking at them as Atom alternatives for HTPC or home server use are thrilled, and those looking at them as Celeron alternatives are a bit less so.

I see numerous advantages over an Atom here. These boards can take 8 GB of RAM, so it’s actually worth loading a 64-bit operating system on them. Plus they have PCIe slots for expandability, rather than old-fashioned PCI. Almost anything you’d want to plug in to a PCI slot is available in PCIe these days, and will give you better speed. And these boards are clearly designed to be HTPC machines, with at least VGA and DVI ports. Some offer VGA, DVI, and HDMI. Budget boards are using previous-generation USB and SATA, but at the $130 price point, you get USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 (6 Gbit/s). And they give you more USB and SATA connectors than you’re likely to use.

For home server use, the Asus board is ideal since it has a ridiculously generous 5 SATA ports. Install five 3 TB HDDs and RAID5 them, and you still have 12 TB of storage. If that’s not enough for you, you’re probably doing things you shouldn’t be doing. And good luck backing that data up.

The only thing that holds these back as a platform is the CPU clock rate. They’re modern systems in every regard, while Atoms make due with legacy PCI, USB 2.0 and SATA 2.0 (3 Gbit/s). Fusion systems will age better than the Atom, which seems intentionally crippled.

And users are reporting 30 watts of power consumption when the system is in use. Those are the types of power requirements we were used to in the 1980s and most of the 1990s. At current energy prices, it would cost less than $30 per year to keep such a system running 24/7. I’m willing to settle for 2005-era performance with 1985-era power requirements. Some of the Fusion motherboards don’t even need a cooling fan.

If and when I finally spring for a motherboard upgrade later this year, I’ll give Fusion a look. Micro Center is tempting me with some of its $90-$100 CPU/motherboard bundles. Those will give better CPU performance than a Fusion, but worse graphics performance, higher power consumption and previous-generation SATA and USB. I doubt I would notice the difference in graphics, but I’d probably eventually regret not having modern USB and SATA.

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