AMD A10-7870K processor review

AMD's A10-7870K is the only chip a budget gaming PC needs

The A10-7870K is a budget gaming bombshell, but still struggles with the most demanding modern games.
The A10-7870K is a budget gaming bombshell, but still struggles with the most demanding modern games.
The A10-7870K is a budget gaming bombshell, but still struggles with the most demanding modern games.

Highs

  • Affordable
  • Easy to overclock
  • Easily beats Intel HD Graphics in games

Lows

  • Lackluster computer performance
  • GPU isn’t quick enough for demanding titles

DT Editors' Rating

AMD’s fight against Intel hasn’t been much of a fight in recent years. Try as it might, the plucky underdog has been thwarted at almost every turn in its attempts to outmaneuver its gigantic opponent. A look at each company’s finances makes the reason plain. Intel’s revenue is ten times greater, and its income was $15 billion more in 2014 (AMD, meanwhile, a few hundred million). It’d be lovely if sheer brilliance was enough to earn success in the world of silicon, but that hasn’t been true for at least a decade in a half.

Still, AMD does what it can, using its advantages to defend itself. The biggest gun in this arsenal is, of course, Radeon – the company’s GPUs remain competitive at a variety of price points. And so the A-Series APUs soldier on, combining compute cores with Radeon hardware in hopes of crafting a balanced, low-cost, multi-purpose platform.

The APU’s Radeon offers all the software advantages AMD’s discrete video cards.

That brings us to the A10-7870K, the latest APU in the company’s lineup. It offers four processor cores at a base clock speed of 3.9GHz (with a Turbo maximum of 4.1GHz). They’re joined by eight GPU compute units (for a total of 512 Stream Processors) clocked at 866MHz.

Sound good, right? It sounds better when the price is considered; at $140, the A10-7870K is in line with Intel’s most expensive Core i3 dual-core desktop chips, and about $40 less than the least expensive Intel Core i5. There’s no disputing that the A10 is inexpensive – but is it really a sensible alternative to the incredibly popular i5 quad?

Features

The A10-7870K is the latest in a long line of processors sharing a common platform, called FM2+, which first appeared on the desktop in 2013. The architectural lineage in fact extends back to 2011, but those earlier processors were compatible with platforms such as FM1, which are not compatible with these new processors. Still, AMD says that anyone with an FM2 or FM2+ motherboard should be able to slot in the A10-7870K (or other new APUs), provided the motherboard manufacturer issues a BIOS update.

AMD A10 7870K
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

That’s nice, though in practice it isn’t much of an advantage over Intel. LGA 1150 appeared in 2013 as well, after all, and there are in fact new Broadwell processors – albeit a limited number – that will drop into that socket. Besides, any AMD or Intel system built two years ago is not in need of an upgrade, so long as the owner’s needs haven’t changed in the meantime.

A more concrete advantage over Intel is the 7870K’s overclocking potential. The chip has an unlocked multiplier, which means increasing the clock speed is rather simple, and some users have reported base clock speed increases as high as 4.7GHz. It’d be wrong to call it “free” performance, as overclocking can be frustrating, and a better-than-stock cooler may be need. Still, Intel has only one unlocked budget processor, the G3258. While it’s a steal at $70, it’s a dual-core without hyper-threading – a major handicap in many intense workloads, including most modern games.

Graphics is AMD’s other big advantage, of course. We’ll talk about performance soon, but there’s more to it than that. The A10’s Radeon GPU offers all the software advantages of a standard Radeon video card. That includes easy multi-monitor support, FreeSync, and CrossFire, which allows simultaneous use of the APU’s graphics hardware with a discrete Radeon graphics card for boosted performance. The chip also enjoys better overall driver support. Intel’s driver releases remain sparse and lackluster. Radeon releases are frequent, and bring with them new features, bug fixes and performance improvements.

Geekbench

The A10 boasts a high clock speed and many cores, but it’s also disadvantaged by the company’s processor architecture, which hasn’t been on par with Intel’s in recent years. Geekbench makes the consequence of that obvious.

Battlefield 4 swung wildly in favor of AMD’s APU.

Intel doesn’t send out many samples of its mid-range chips that might compete against the AMD A10-7870K directly, so we don’t have a desktop Core i3 to go up against it. We do, however, have the company’s Next Unit of Computing. These offer a Core mobile processor and, when total system price is considered, they fall right in line with what an AMD A10 system might cost – which is to say, somewhere between $400 and $600. They also, like the AMD option, cater to smaller systems likely to be used as a do-it-all family PC.

The fact this comparison isn’t a blow-out in favor of the A10 clarifies how far its architecture has fallen behind Intel. Both mobile Core chips win in single-core performance, and the i7 also wins in multi-core performance, despite that fact it’s a mobile version with two physical processing cores (and Hyper-Threading, for four logic cores).

Geekbench

Does this mean the A10-7870K is slow? Not exactly. The level of performance it delivers is right in line with a typical modern Core i5 laptop, with slightly better multi-core results. Few would call such a system slow, or even merely adequate. Modern chips, including AMD’s, are more than capable of handling day-to-day tasks.

Yet Intel does have a clear edge, and CPU performance is black-and-white. Features differences are few, and generally not enough to sway buyers, so the quickest chip is always preferable. The CPU performance story remains the same as always – if you want the best compute performance for your dollar, Intel wins.

3D Mark

FutureMark’s synthetic test, 3D Mark, has an excellent reputation as the go-to benchmark. It has consistently proven to offer an at-a-glance gauge of performance in numerous laptop and video card reviews.

3D Mark

These results paint a picture that’s entirely in favor of AMD. The A10-7870K manages to defeat the competing Intel products, and often by a wide margin, leaving little room for doubt about the Radeon GPU’s superiority in graphics. The only question now is how this will translate to real-world gaming. Can Intel gain back some ground?

World of Warcraft

We begin our testing with World of Warcraft. While the headlines surrounding this game have mostly been about its fall from popularity, it still has more players than any other MMO in the western world, and is still fifth on Raptr’s most-played list.

Furthermore, it’s surprisingly demanding, requiring more graphical grunt than most titles on Raptr’s top-ten. That’s especially true if newcomers like The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto V, which will likely slide off within a few months, are excluded. It may not look like much at a glance, but the game’s long draw distances and detailed environments make it far more demanding than its age suggests.

World of Warcraft

These result are strongly in favor of AMD, even more so than 3DMark. Intel’s HD 6000 (paired with a Core i5 mobile chip) comes pretty close to the A10-7870K at 1,366 x 768 and low detail, but upping the resolution to 1080p lets the APU stretch its legs. It delivered framerates 40 percent higher than HD 6000 at 1080p and low detail, and it was the only option to exceed an average of 30 frames per second at 1080p and high detail.

Civilization: Beyond Earth

The latest game in the long-running Civilization franchise isn’t a graphical tour-de-force, but it can be very demanding in late-game scenarios, and it’s easily among the most demanding strategy games on the market. Is the A10’s performance out of this world?

Score another clear win for AMD. Its APU generally manages a 50-to-100-percent performance lead over the Intel HD 6000 solution, and it dominates at high detail settings. At 1080p and high detail, for example, it more than doubles the performance of the HD 6000.

Civilization: Beyond Earth

But it’s not all good news. At 1080p and high detail the AMD chip averages 24 frames per second. Its minimum was as low as 14 frames per second, which is exceedingly choppy. It’s playable, because Beyond Earth is a turn-based franchise that doesn’t require quick, precise input, but it’s not an ideal experience.

Battlefield 4

Our last game in this round-up is DICE’s epic modern military shooter. While it’s now far from the most demanding of games, Battlefield 4 remains a title that separates the men from the boys, and in the past it has really hammered Intel graphics. Let’s see if AMD fairs better.

In a word; yes. AMD runs away with the lead here, doubling the performance of Intel HD 6000 at every resolution and detail preset we tested. There’s really no contest here.

Battlefield 4

Yet that victory is once again bittersweet, as the A10-7870K doesn’t manage to hit an average of 30 frames per second at 1080p and high detail. In a shooter, that really matters – the game is playable, but not enjoyable. You’ll need to settle for medium if you’d like a smooth experience.

AMD beats Intel HD, but is it enough?

The verdict is clear. AMD’s A10-7870K wipes the floor with Intel HD graphics, offering up to double (and sometimes even more) the performance of the Intel alternatives. It’s possible that Intel Iris 6100 could perform better – but our attempts to test it were thwarted by inexplicable performance drops and strange graphical artifacts, particularly in Civilization Beyond Earth. Remember what we said about AMD’s superior driver quality?

The A10-7870K defeats Intel’s graphics, and often by a wide margin

Even so, the APU did not manage to hit 30 frames per second in two of the three games we tested. That’s not great, and its worsened by the fact we used a lighter test suite than normal in this review, as we’d done for our Intel HD graphics round-up. Want to play Grand Theft Auto V, Shadows of Mordor or Crysis 3 at 1080p and high detail? You’re going to need discrete graphics. Keep in mind, too, that the A10-7870K represents the best performance AMD has to offer in its APUs. Some less expensive models have fewer stream processors and, as such, less performance.

That puts the A10 in an awkward position. Alone, it’s quick enough to play some 3D games, but far from all, so it’ll only appeal a very specific sub-set of budget gamers interested in low-impact titles like League of Legends and Diablo 3. To be fair, this isn’t a tiny market. Most of the games on Raptr’s most-played list, or even Steam’s most-played list, can be enjoyed on the A10-7870K at 1080p resolution and mid-to-high detail.

So, there’s an argument that AMD’s APU does make sense. But is it a good value?

Compared to an Intel Core i3, the A10 makes an understandable and obvious trade-off; less processing power for superior graphics performance. Given it’s certainly quick enough to handle everyday use, this is sensible. Word won’t feel any slower on AMD’s APU than on the Core i3, but games, if you play them, will be quicker.

On the other hand, AMD’s inferior processor performance will be a long-time liability. If you spend $40 more on a Core i5-4430, Intel’s 3GHz entry-level desktop quad, you’ll be purchasing a chip that’ll easily last five years in most systems. The same can’t be said for the A10-7870K. Gamers in particular need to exercise caution, because the A10’s processor performance could become a bottleneck in some games.

Pitted against each other, the pros and cons reach a familiar verdict – the A10-7870K can make sense, but only if you’re on an extremely slim budget. It could be the heart of a super-budget gaming PC, or it could lead a family computer with the chops to handle Minecraft or a few rounds of DOTA 2. If your build budget much exceeds $500, though, Intel’s options make more sense.

Available at: Amazon

Highs

  • Affordable
  • Easy to overclock
  • Easily beats Intel HD Graphics in games

Lows

  • Lackluster computer performance
  • GPU isn’t quick enough for demanding titles
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