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Second-Generation Ultrabooks: Faster And Cheaper With Ivy Bridge

Second-Generation Ultrabooks: Faster And Cheaper With Ivy Bridge
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What can you expect from a 17 W processor after benchmarking its 77 W big brother? We get our hands on a reference-class Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabook and quantify how a hard thermal ceiling affects x86, gaming, transcoding, and Blu-ray playback workloads.

I don't think there's a doubt in that Apple's MacBook Air set Intel on its tear to help PC manufactures design and build comparably thin, light, and potent notebooks. At least until now, they've seemingly received a lukewarm reception, though, and it's not hard to understand why. The Ultrabooks we've handled haven't really done anything better than Apple's incumbent. And they're still expensive. We all want to get our hands on unobtrusive mobile hardware, but spending a premium for modest performance crammed into a more attractive package is hardly a compelling compromise. We're still waiting for a contender that does everything right.

Thin-and-light notebooks, the precursors to Intel's Ultrabooks, were characterized by 11 to 13" screens, ultra low-voltage processors, and integrated graphics. They made every effort to cut power consumption in the interest of enabling a sexier form factor with good-enough battery life. As a rule, performance took a backseat to simply making thin-and-lights possible.

Apple built its first MacBook Air more than four years ago using a Core 2 Duo processor and, later, add-in graphics from Nvidia. Not surprisingly, then, last year's Sandy Bridge processor architecture made it possible to build similarly ultra-thin machines with notably more performance and improved battery life. What they didn't do, however, was pull down pricing. The first generation of Ultrabooks explicitly called for 17 W Sandy Bridge-based CPUs able to support at least five hours of battery life. And the very cheapest models started around $800. 

Intel's Ivy Bridge design is unquestionably more evolutionary than Sandy Bridge if you limit your scope to x86 performance. But the 22 nm manufacturing process it employs helps enable substantially better graphics performance inside of the same 17 W processor ceiling. As a result, the company is convinced that its second-generation Ultrabooks are the ones that'll drive smaller, faster machines into the mainstream space. Already, we've seen Lenovo introduce its IdeaPad U310 based on a Core i3-3217U for $750 after an online coupon.

Mobile Ivy Bridge Today: Dual-Core 35 And 17 W CPUs

Last-gen Sandy Bridge CPUs dipped down into the 17, 25, and 35 W thermal design power range. For a device to be called an Ultrabook, however, it had to employ one of the 17 W Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) models. The same holds true for the second-generation Ultrabooks. But because Sandy Bridge was manufactured using 32 nm lithography, while Ivy Bridge is etched at 22 nm, the newer CPUs cram more transistors into the same power budget, mostly dedicated to graphics.

Mobile Third-Gen Core Family: Dual Core Processors
CPU SKU
Cores / Threads
Base Freq.
Max. Turbo
L3 Cache
HD Graphics
Graphics Base Freq.
Graphics Max. Freq.
TDP (W)
Price
Core i7
-3667U2/42.0 GHz3.2 GHz4 MB4000350 MHz1.15 GHz17$346
-3520M
2/4
2.9 GHz
3.6 GHz
4 MB
4000
650 MHz
1.25 GHz
35
$346
-3517U2/41.9 GHz3.0 GHz4 MB4000350 MHz1.15 GHz17?
Core i5
-3427U2/41.8 GHz2.8 GHz
3 MB
4000350 MHz1.15 GHz17$225
-3360M
2/4
2.8 GHz
3.5 GHz
3 MB
4000
650 MHz
1.20 GHz
35
$266
-3320M
2/4
2.6 GHz
3.3 GHz
3 MB
4000
650 MHz
1.20 GHz
35
$225
-3317U2/41.7 GHz2.6 GHz3 MB4000350 MHz1.05 GHz17?
-3210M
2/4
2.5 GHz
3.1 GHz
3 MB
4000
650 MHz
1.10 GHz
35
?


Consequently Core i5-3667U, -3517U, -3427U, and -3317U are the most interesting to us, since they're the Ivy Bridge-based CPUs aligned with Intel's sub-20 W TDP Ultrabook specification. Compared to the previously-reviewed Core i7-3720QM, which is a better fit in a full-sized notebook, getting getting Ivy Bridge into a 17 W thermal envelope requires halving that larger CPU's number of cores, stripping at least half of its shared L3 cache, dropping clock rates, and cutting into its base graphics frequency.

Fortunately, though, the chip's peak graphics clock rate doesn't change much. While the higher-end 45 W mobile Ivy Bridge processors spin their HD Graphics 4000 engines up to 1.3 GHz, the 17 W parts go as high as 1.15 GHz, matching the potential of a desktop-oriented Core i7-3770K. Further, Hyper-Threading is enabled on these dual-core parts, allowing them to schedule up to four threads at a time.

Mobile Ivy Bridge Nomenclature

Intel attempts to give each character of its model names some sort of meaning. The first digit, in this case a "3," is indicative of the Ivy Bridge architecture, Intel's third-generation Core design. The "M" suffix represents the standard-voltage (35 W) models. Performance-oriented SKUs are flagged by "XM" or "QM" instead, denoting the company's Extreme and quad-core offerings.

Last generation, Sandy Bridge-based models ending with "9" were the low-voltage (LV) parts. Ultra-low-voltage (ULV) chips, the 17 W ones, were identified with a "7." Now, there are no 25 W Ivy Bridge-based CPUs. Rather, there are additional 17 W processors bearing a xxx7U model name. The breakdown is just a little bit simpler. 

We covered Ivy Bridge as an architecture in Intel Core i7-3770K Review: A Small Step Up For Ivy Bridge, and the details presented there are applicable here as well. However, there is a trio of enhancements that distinguish Intel's 7-series platforms from their predecessors: support for native USB 3.0, provisioning for up to three display outputs, and the option to attach a Thunderbolt controller.

The ability to drive three screens simultaneously is perhaps the most exciting addition, overcoming a limitation of integrated graphics that previously constrained most notebook configurations to one external screen. Ivy Bridge-based CPUs make it possible to use a notebook's panel and up to two attached displays.

Hands-On With Intel's Reference Ivy Bridge-Based Ultrabook

Eager to demonstrate the potential of an Ultrabook in 2012, Intel sent over a reference design, built by its own engineers as a representation of what manufacturers might do with the platform. Although the company was eager to write off any of the system's shortcomings to the fact that it'd never be a retail offering, Intel's concept is thin enough, light enough, and fast enough to be a real, plausible Ultrabook.

The company armed our little sample with a Core i5-3427U dual-core processor running at 1.6 GHz, 4 GB of memory, and a 240 GB SSD. Its purpose wasn't to expose all of the Ivy Bridge design's features. For example, there is just one HDMI output. But it does also expose two of the chipset's integrated USB 3.0 ports, along with a headphone output and card reader slots. A 1600x900 screen also represents a slight improvement over the 1440x900 display you can currently get in Apple's MacBook Air (though not all Ultrabook vendors will offer that higher resolution). 

Putting Intel's Second-Gen Ultrabook To The Test

In an effort to eliminate the variables that can skew our results, we test using an external display rather than our sample's panel. A notebook's LCD can account for more than half of its consumption, and handpicked settings, particularly on a non-retail reference build, throw off power measurements. Driving a separate screen allows us to evaluate the platform's relative power use, allowing us to draw more precise conclusions about the hardware under the hood.

It was no surprise that Intel shipped us its reference second-gen Ultrabook with one of its own SSD 520 drives. However, we chose to standardize on Crucial's 256 GB m4 as the main system drive for our testing, since we had also used it for our higher-end mobile Ivy Bridge coverage and wanted to include those numbers here, too.

Networking benchmarks are run over our Local Area Network to factor out the power differences between wireless solutions.

Test Hardware: Mobile Systems
Processors
Intel Core i5-2467M (Dual-Core, 1.8 GHz)Intel Core i5-3427U (Dual-Core, 1.6 GHz)Intel Core i7-2820QM (Quad-Core, 2.3 GHz)Intel Core i7-3720QM (Quad-Core, 2.6 GHz)
Memory
4 GB DDR3-13334 GB DDR3-16008 GB DDR3-13338 GB DDR3-1600
Graphics
HD Graphics 3000
HD Graphics 4000HD Graphics 3000HD Graphics 4000
 GeForce GT 630M
Notebook
Acer S3-951-6828
Intel Reference Design
Unknown Clevo modelAsus N56Vm
Hard Drive
Crucial m4 256 GB SATA 6Gb/s
DirectX
DirectX 11
Operating System
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Graphics Driver
Intel 8.15.10.2725Intel 8.15.10.2725
Intel 8.15.10.2725Intel 8.15.10.2725
Nvidia 301.24
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Top Comments
  • 12 Hide
    sam_fisher , June 27, 2012 7:17 AM
    It seems that Ivy Bridge's lower TDP and its HD 4000 comes into its own in the notebook/ultrabook market more so than the PC/gaming one.
  • 10 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , June 27, 2012 7:44 AM
    crisan_tiberiuthey should use HD 4000 on every intel CPU, i dont get it why they dont ...


    Pricing, TDP, segmentation and PROFIT
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    sam_fisher , June 27, 2012 7:17 AM
    It seems that Ivy Bridge's lower TDP and its HD 4000 comes into its own in the notebook/ultrabook market more so than the PC/gaming one.
  • 6 Hide
    acku , June 27, 2012 7:22 AM
    ^agreed

    Andrew Ku
    Tom's Hardware
  • -3 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , June 27, 2012 7:35 AM
    they should use HD 4000 on every intel CPU, i dont get it why they dont ...
  • 3 Hide
    sam_fisher , June 27, 2012 7:38 AM
    crisan_tiberiuthey should use HD 4000 on every intel CPU, i dont get it why they dont ...


    The integrated graphics is built into the processor die and the changes between the HD 3000 and 4000 are physical changes, so they can't just change them without changing the whole CPU.
  • 10 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , June 27, 2012 7:44 AM
    crisan_tiberiuthey should use HD 4000 on every intel CPU, i dont get it why they dont ...


    Pricing, TDP, segmentation and PROFIT
  • 7 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , June 27, 2012 7:49 AM
    sam_fisherThe integrated graphics is built into the processor die and the changes between the HD 3000 and 4000 are physical changes, so they can't just change them without changing the whole CPU.

    Yes, i know that :) ) but when they designed IVY they should have designed every chip with the HD 4000. The HD 4000 is still outperformed by Liano iGPU if you remember...
  • -2 Hide
    acku , June 27, 2012 7:53 AM
    On the desktop side yes. Not on the mobile side.
  • 8 Hide
    tomfreak , June 27, 2012 8:55 AM
    Cant u put an older/previous generation desktop and benchmark against it? I cant or couldnt get how a fast a 2.0GHz Ivy vs a similar Nehelem Desktop CPU vs desktop core 2 duo CPU. Many of us buy notebook to replace desktop for casual use, we would like to know what it can do vs our old desktop.

    Besides get some older AAA games to bench, nobody play BF3 at Ultra books with HD4000. We wanna see what old games we can max out @ full resolution.
  • -2 Hide
    silverblue , June 27, 2012 10:15 AM
    I think AMD missed a trick with Llano. Instead of throwing four lowly clocked cores at a mobile processor, perhaps two higher clocked cores would've made much more sense. That way, they could possibly sport a higher clock GPU as well within the same TDP.

    Trinity's lower powered, higher clocked cores already look to have partly made up for this, but until the 17W variant comes along, there's no real indication of how it'll measure up to IB ULV. However, we do know that AMD pairs the slower GPUs with the slower CPUs and vice versa, so there's little chance of a, say, 2C/2T/1M CPU with the 7660G GPU.
  • 4 Hide
    DjEaZy , June 27, 2012 10:19 AM
    ... ok... you compare the Llano to Sandy/Ivy bridge in CPU performance, but not in GPU performance? and why not Sandy/Ivy Bridge to Trinity?
    ... and Adobe Photoshop CS 5? not CS 6?
  • 0 Hide
    msgun98 , June 27, 2012 12:38 PM
    DjEaZy... ok... you compare the Llano to Sandy/Ivy bridge in CPU performance, but not in GPU performance? and why not Sandy/Ivy Bridge to Trinity? ... and Adobe Photoshop CS 5? not CS 6?


    Not sure using CS6 would change that chart in any way as to which processor is faster. Also, Llano's GPU isn't faster than Ivy Bridge though Trinity is. Its margin of performance isn't worth the huge processor hit in performance compared to Ivy though. Trinity will make for a good sub $600 ultrabook though.
  • 4 Hide
    whyso , June 27, 2012 1:33 PM
    Ivy Bridge: Big jump for mobile, basically nothing for desktops.
  • 1 Hide
    teh_chem , June 27, 2012 2:11 PM
    Quote:
    ... ok... you compare the Llano to Sandy/Ivy bridge in CPU performance, but not in GPU performance? and why not Sandy/Ivy Bridge to Trinity?
    ... and Adobe Photoshop CS 5? not CS 6?

    Yeah, an "interesting" choice...

    Regardless, CPU processing power is already overkill for most (if not all) general users in the laptop/ultrabook segment.

    Quote:
    Also, Llano's GPU isn't faster than Ivy Bridge though Trinity is. Its margin of performance isn't worth the huge processor hit in performance compared to Ivy though. Trinity will make for a good sub $600 ultrabook though.

    Llano's HD6550D universally beats HD4K in games by a significant margin. Even the lower-level GPUs beat HD4K in games. HD4K was a significant improvement over the HD3K, but HD4K is nowhere near the graphical performance of AMDs APUs, Llano or Trinity.

    Whether that matters for ultrabooks, I honestly couldn't say... Honestly, even though Llano and Trinity APUs kill Ivy Bridge in graphical performance, it's not like many people buy ultrabooks for gaming. How GPGPU and things like OpenCL begin to affect general processing tasks will tell with time. Not that it matters much. To reiterate my initial statement above, overall CPU performance in general is so much more overkill than a majority of the mass public would ever use, it's almost pointless to even compare one from the other these days.
  • 0 Hide
    kyuuketsuki , June 27, 2012 3:36 PM
    Quote:
    Gigabyte's U2442N, for example, qualifies as an Ultrabook, but comes equipped with Nvidia's GeForce GT 640M GPU. Faster configurations are going to command higher prices, naturally, but the U2442N might be worth consideration if gaming on a compact notebook is important to you.
    Do you have some information on the U2442N actually existing? It's looks really nice and I'd pick one up myself if the price is right, but as far as anyone can tell, the thing is vaporware.
  • 7 Hide
    ojas , June 27, 2012 4:53 PM
    Well, this is my experience with an ivy ultrabook.

    Aspire S3, with the i5 3317U.

    Exact same ports as the reference, average trackpad. Slightly annoying keyboard.

    Ran Sandra on it. Most scores were higher than Dell's XPS13 with an equivalent SB proc, except memory bandwidth due to a single-channel RAM stick, 4GB DDR3-1600 at 11-11-11-28.

    The Acer has a 500GB HDD with a 20GB SSD as a cache.

    Here are the problems i saw:

    1. Trackpad. Miles away from Apple's stuff; same goes for the gesture support.
    2. Annoying keyboard. Good layout, but annoying.
    3. Heat, damn it. I measured the CPU peaking at 76*C at high GPU and CPU load. Vent's at the back, thankfully, unlike the XPS 13. Still gets too hot over long periods.
    4. If the GPU is under load, heat spreads to the CPU too, and vice versa. obvious consequence of ptting both together.
    5. Couldn't run graphics or GPGPU benchmarks on Sandra. Apparently OpenCL driver support is missing on HD4000.
    6. Can't finish an 8GB HD video conversion (arcsoft, quick sync, general H.246, SimHD) on the battery.
    7. Took 20 mins more than the 1.6GHz SB CPU in the XPS 13 to finish the above stated transcode.
    8. Couldn't play Halo CE at 1366x768 on high without severe stuttering and wildly swinging frame rates. they would swing from 40 to 100 fps continuously in an empty room.
    9. The GPU was pegged at 350MHz irrespective of load. Only saw it spike for a tiny (VERY TINY) interval to 1050 MHz. The Dell went there more frequently, there was just something odd here. Had latest drivers, will recheck soon.
    10. Glossy screen :( 
    11. Average battery life. 5 hours i guess. Didn't time but never felt like an awful lot.
    12. BLOATWARE. 80+ processes on startup! WTF! McAfee is SOOOOO bloated! heck even interferes with benchmarks.

    But the transcode mentioned took only 1hr 10 mins which is great considering that a Core 2 Quad Q8400 and a 9600GT took 5 hours to do the same.

    Andrew, i don't know if you saw any of these flaws in your ref model, but i truly believe these things (keyboard, screen, trackpad, and other "experience" factors) should be given more emphasis than raw benchmarks. After all, when you buy a laptop in this price bracket, you either get performance or luxury. Clearly, ultrabooks don't fall into the performance category. If you don't get luxury either, isn't it a failing on Intel (or its partners') part?

    Looking to review the new Vaio ultrabooks too (T model an E14 A, i think)!

    Cheers!

    p.s. Why can't anyone except apple use a decent trackpad? Can't understand.


    EDIT:
    There was an updated driver, ends with 8.15.??.2761. Intel's driver update util couldn't id that an updated version was available. Anyway, did a manual install. Halo much more steady now, it's finally hitting 1050 MHz, but then after a period starts jumping b/w that and 350 MHz. GPU usage did hit 100%, spent most of its time above 60%. fps was usually around 70 in an empty room, gunfights make it drop to 40, explosions brought it down to the teens for a moment.

    No QuickSync improvement, still no openCL support. QuickSync activity doesn't seem to trigger the GPU's higher clock, so it sits on 350 MHz.

    EDIT 2: Apparently OpenCL 1.1 should be supported, but it doesn't work with sandra. Unless TH does some more digging, i'm not sure i'll get an answer.
  • -1 Hide
    milktea , June 27, 2012 5:45 PM
    ojasWhy can't anyone except apple use a decent trackpad? Can't understand.

    Not a fan of trackpad. I'd use a mouse when available.
    Also, the newer Ultrabooks should have touch capability.

    So don't really care for trackpad.
  • 1 Hide
    ojas , June 27, 2012 10:05 PM
    milkteaNot a fan of trackpad. I'd use a mouse when available.Also, the newer Ultrabooks should have touch capability.So don't really care for trackpad.

    When available. Touch screen ones aren't retailing yet. Even if they were, i'm not going to keep touching the screen for everything, especially not in notebook mode. I'm sure many would agree.
  • -2 Hide
    Wisecracker , June 27, 2012 11:15 PM

    I got one of those $350 APU 15-inch laptops -- popped in a 60GB OCZ Agility3 & 2x4GB GSkill (put the 320GB HDD in a cheap Zantac external case). Blows cold air when it blows any air at all. 2 x 1.6GHz Bobcat cores, single channel 1333mhz RAMs, HD 6310 Graphics, UVD3 ... 18w. I'm like a proud poppa.

    17w Trinity is killer -- 25w quad Trinity will be a monster. Get your nose out of Intel's butt.


  • 1 Hide
    animeman59 , June 28, 2012 1:42 AM
    Seems like a perfect match for the new Microsoft Surface Pro tablets.
  • -3 Hide
    animeman59 , June 28, 2012 1:43 AM
    Seems like a perfect match for the new Microsoft Surface Pro tablets.
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