Switchable Graphics - Meet the Contenders

Before we get to the actual meat of this review, we have a disclaimer to make: both laptops we’re comparing came to us via NVIDIA. Now, before anyone cries “foul!”, let me explain. First, we asked AMD for just such a laptop back in May, and they haven’t been able to get us one yet (though it’s likely as much the fault of OEMs as AMD). We also only just received our first Sony laptop (from Sony) in a long while, and we received the VAIO C from NVIDIA first. Finally, the laptops came boxed up, unopened, with all the standard fluff you’d expect from retail notebooks.

After unboxing, we did our usual thing: create a new user account, and then commence uninstalling the bloatware—and yes, the Sony VAIO C and Acer TimelineX 3830TG both have a lot of it!—and when all that is done and we’ve shut off any unnecessary applications and utilities, we start installing our benchmark suite. After that’s done, we do a full defrag (using Defraggler) and then we can start testing. Despite the source of the laptops, then, we are confident that both are reasonable representations of what you’ll get—actually, the TimelineX 3830TG has some issues with throttling in games, so if anything NVIDIA’s choice for their own platform wasn’t the best, though the Sony VAIO C may not be the greatest AMD offering either.

In terms of other alternatives, while there are dozens of currently shipping Optimus laptops (ASUS, Clevo, Dell, HP, MSI, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and others are all onboard with the platform), finding laptops with Intel CPUs and AMD dynamic switchable graphics is a lot more difficult. Sony has the VAIO C—the VAIO S we recently reviewed doesn’t support dynamic switching, instead using the older manual switching—Dell has the Vostro 3450/3550, and HP has it with certain dv6/dv7 series laptops using 6700M GPUs. Meanwhile, 6300M (rebadged 5400M), 6500M (rebadged 5600/5700M) and 6800M (rebadged 5800M) can't support dynamic switching, and no one is trying to do it on 6900M. (Note: I’ve looked around for more details on which laptops support AMD’s Dynamic Switchable Graphics and came up empty, but if anyone can find a comprehensive list I’ll be happy to post it.) There may be a few other laptops out there with Intel CPUs and AMD 6000M GPUs, but there definitely aren’t as many options.

We’ll be running a few benchmarks later, so while we’re on the subject of laptops, let’s go over the full specs. Starting with the AMD Sony VAIO CA laptop, here’s what we have:

Sony VAIO CA (VPCCA290X)
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M (dual-core 2.30-2.90GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333 (CL9)
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB
(480 Cores at 485MHz, 128-bit DDR3 at 1600MHz) Intel HD 3000 Integrated Graphics AMD Dynamic Switchable Graphics
Display 14.0” WLED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)
Hard Drive(s) 320GB 5400RPM HDD
(Western Digital Blue WD3200BPVT-55ZEST0)
Optical Drive 8X Tray-Load DVDRW (Optiarc AD-7710H)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8151)
802.11n WiFi (Intel WiFi Link 1000 BGN)
Audio 2.0 Speakers
Microphone and two headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 11.1V, ~5.3Ah, 59Wh
Front Side Memory Card Reader
Wireless On/Off Switch
Left Side Kensington Lock
1 x USB 2.0
1 x USB 3.0
HDMI
VGA
Exhaust vent
Ethernet
AC Power Connection
Right Side Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
2 x USB 2.0
Optical Drive
Back Side N/A
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 13.43" x 9.26" x 1.10-1.43" (WxDxH)
341 mm x 246 mm x 28-36 mm (WxDxH)
Weight 5.41 lbs / 2.46 kg (6-cell)
Extras HD Webcam
82-Key backlit keyboard
Three Sony quick-access keys
Flash reader (SD, MS HG Duo)
Sony Bloatware! :-)
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
Pricing Starting Price: $730
Price as configured: $930

Gallery: Sony VAIO CA

The OEM-only i5-2410M is a good entry-level Sandy Bridge processor, and pricing is only slightly higher than the base model i3-2310M (which is clocked at 2.1GHz and lacks Turbo Boost support). 4GB RAM is fine, and the HD 6630M is actually a fairly potent mobile GPU as we’ll see in a moment. The big problems with the VAIO CA are that it comes with a slow and rather outdated 320GB 5400RPM hard drive (Western Digital Blue) and it also has a ton of bloatware. The bloatware can be uninstalled, and we did that as our first priority, but the hard drive tended to be an ongoing concern. AMD’s Catalyst Control Center for instance pops up in a couple seconds on my desktop (Bloomfield + SSD + HD 6950), but on the VAIO C there are times when it can take upwards of 30 seconds (with the HDD activity light a solid orange). Games also tended to take a bit longer to load than we’re used to. Outside of those two areas, the VAIO C is pretty much standard consumer laptop fare: glossy 1366x768 LCD, decent but not exceptional build quality, and average speakers. The keyboard is decent, though I’d still prefer dedicated document navigation keys (rather than the Fn+cursor combinations Sony uses), and it does have nice backlighting.

Acer TimelineX 3830TG-6431
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M (dual-core 2.30-2.90GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333 (CL9)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M
(96 SPs, 672/1344/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks) Intel HD 3000 Integrated Graphics NVIDIA Optimus Technology
280.26 WHQL Drivers
Display 13.3” WLED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 5400RPM HDD
(Western Digital Blue WD5000BPVT-22HXZT1)
Optical Drive N/A
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8151)
802.11n WiFi (Atheros AR5B97)
Audio 2.0 Speakers
Microphone and two headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 11.1V, ~6.0Ah, 66Wh
Front Side Memory Card Reader
Battery Check Button
Left Side 1 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 2.0
HDMI
VGA
Exhaust vent
AC Power Connection
Right Side Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
1 x USB 2.0
Ethernet
Kensington Lock
Back Side N/A
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 12.64" x 9.0" x 1.15" (WxDxH)
321 mm x 229 mm x 29 mm (WxDxH)
Weight 4.08 lbs / 1.85 kg (6-cell)
Extras Webcam
86-Key keyboard
Flash reader (SD, MMC, xD, MS Pro)
Acer Bloatware
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
Pricing MSRP: $780
Online starting at $700

On the other side of the table is Acer’s TimelineX 3830TG-6431, priced over $200 cheaper than the Sony. Acer has a habit of releasing laptops and then discontinuing them not long after, only to replace them with slightly different models, so we can’t guarantee the 3830TG-6431 will always be in stock; however, it appears readily available right now. The AS3830TG-6431 has on serious problem, unfortunately: the CPU tends to throttle down to 1.2GHz when gaming as the CPU and GPU end up creating more heat than the system cooling can handle. That’s a real shame, as if it weren’t for the throttling there would be a lot to like with the 3830TG.

For one, the floating island keyboard I detest so much on other Acer/Gateway laptops is gone, replaced by a chiclet-style keyboard. There’s a bit of flex but I can live with it, and the layout is good (except for the crazy backslash-joined-to-the-enter-key weirdness). This is also a very thin and light laptop, helped by the absence of an optical drive, and the dimensions would be very impressive given the i5-2410M CPU and GT 540M GPU if it weren’t for the thermal throttling problem. Acer gives the TimelineX an aluminum cover and palm rest as well, but the LCD is one of the worst I’ve used (poor viewing angles and weak colors, plus our sample has a red pixel in the middle center of the LCD that’s stuck).

Because of the throttling issue, the 3830TG benchmarks aren’t the best representative of what you can get from NVIDIA’s GT 540M. We’ll include two other laptops with the GT 540M (and Optimus) in most of our benchmarks as alternative reference points: the Alienware M11x R3 (i7-2617M CPU) and the Dell XPS 15 L502x (i7-2630QM). In theory, the i5-2410M should sit somewhere in between these two in terms of performance, but the throttling drops it lower in most tests. However, if you’re willing to play around with a utility like ThrottleStop, you can actually get the CPU to run at a constant 2.1GHz without any throttling (basically using the i5-2410M as an i3-2310M CPU). We tested with ThrottleStop set at 2.1GHz along with running “stock” (e.g. with throttling) to provide a couple more points of reference in our gaming results.

How AMD’s Dynamic Switchable Graphics Works
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    I can't see any other drivers for that laptop other than the original Sept. 2010 driver and a new Sept. 2011 driver. Got a link for the other previous drivers to confirm? Anyway, AMD says they make a driver build available for switchable graphics on a monthly basis, so it sounds like Acer is actually using that. Kudos to them if that's the case. Reply
  • overseer - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    Perhaps Acer just omitted older versions of drivers they deemed unnecessary. My 4745G was manufactured in Jan. 2010 and the initial CCC was dated late 2009. I can recall I took 2 updates: one in summer 2010 (Catalyst 10.3?) and one in last week (the latest one). So it's safe to say there have been at least 4 traceable versions of AMD GPU drivers for my model.

    While I can't really convince you that it's a bi-monthly or quarterly update cycle from Acer with the limited evidence, this OEM nonetheless has been keeping an eye on new graphics drivers - something I'd never expected in the first place as an early adopter of AMD switchable.
    Reply
  • MJEvans - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    You toyed with several ideas for power throttling graphics chips. The obvious ones like turning off cores and working at a different point of the voltage/frequency curve to slash used power are solid.

    Where things turn silly is suggesting the use of only 64 of 256 bits of memory interface. This simply won't work for a few reasons. However let's assume that for price and performance 4, 64 bit, chips had been selected. Probably, the application assets would be littered across the 4 slabs of memory; either for wider page accesses to the same content (faster transfer) or for parallel access to unrelated content (say for two isolated tasks). In any event the cost of consolidating them; both in time and energy expended for the moves, would only be worthwhile if it were for a long duration.

    Instead a better approach would be to follow a similar voltage/freq curve for medium power modes. For low power modes the obvious solution is to have core assets on one bank of memory and use any other enabled blanks as disposable framebuffers. This would allow you to operate at lower clock speeds without impacting performance. Further, if the display output were disabled you would then be able to de-activate all but the asset bank of memory.

    Probably a patent thicket of somekind exists for this stuff; but really I consider these to be things that must be obvious to someone skilled in the art, or even just of logic and basic knowledge of the physics driving current transistors; since my college degree is getting stale and I've never been employed in this field.
    Reply
  • Old_Fogie_Late_Bloomer - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    This might not be feasible, but perhaps AMD and/or Nvidia could do something like what Nvidia is doing with Kal-El: have low-power circuitry that can do the bare minimum of what's needed for Windows Aero, etc. (basically what the integrated graphics chip does in Optimus) and switch it out for the more powerful circuitry when needed. As with Kal-El, this switch could be more or less invisible to Windows, or it could be handled at the driver level.

    Of course, that basically wastes the cost of the unused integrated graphics. Perhaps AMD's APUs could more take advantage of this idea: basically, put a CPU and two GPUs on one die, flipping between the slow, power-sipping graphics and the fast and powerful graphics.
    Reply
  • MJEvans - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    Actually the Kal-El article explained the key point rather well. The two common options are high speed but a high cost of being 'on' and lower speed but more efficiency per operation at the same speed. Given the highly parallel nature of a graphics solution it makes much more sense to keep the parts that are operating running at faster speed and switch off more of the ones that then aren't needed at all. The main barrier to doing that effectively enough would be the blocks of units used; however if development is occurring with this in mind it might be economically viable. That's a question that would require actual industry experience and knowledge of current design trade-offs to answer. Reply
  • Old_Fogie_Late_Bloomer - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    Well, the thing that I got from the Kal-El article that was really interesting to me, which I think COULD be relevant to mobile GPU applications, is that, apparently, using this other form of transistor--which is low-leakage but cannot run faster than a certain speed (half a GHz or so)--is sufficiently more efficient in terms of power usage that Nvidia engineers felt that the additional cost is worth it, both in terms of silicon area and the increased cost per part of manufacturing, which, of course, trickles down to the price of the tablet or whatever it's used in. That sounds to me like they feel pretty confident about the idea.

    That being said, I have not the slightest clue what kind of transistors are used in current mobile chips. It might be that GPU manufacturers are already reaping the benefits of low-leakage transistors, in which case there might not be anywhere to go. If they are not, however, why not have just enough low-power cores to run Windows 8's flashy graphical effects, and then switch over to the more powerful, higher-clocked circuitry for gaming or GPGPU applications. I don't know how much it would cost to the consumer, but I'm betting someone would pay $25-$50 more for something that "just works."
    Reply
  • MJEvans - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    It seems that either your comment missed my primary point or I didn't state it clearly enough.

    Likely the engineering trade-off favors powering just a single graphics core (out of the hundreds even mainstream systems how have, relative to merely 4 (vastly more complex) CPU cores on 'mid-high' end systems) rather than increasing hardware and software complexity by adding in an entirely different manufacturing technology and tying up valuable area that could be used for other things with a custom low power version of a thing.

    I find it much more likely that normal use states favor these scenarios:
    a) Display is off,
    a.a) entire gpu is off (Ram might be trickle refreshing).
    b) Display is frozen,
    b.a) entire gpu is off (Ram might be trickle refreshing).
    c) Display is on,
    c.a) gpu has one core active at medium or higher speed
    (This would not be /as/ efficient as an ultra-low power core or two, but I seriously have to wonder if they would even be sufficient; or what fraction of a single core is required for 'basic' features these days).
    c.b) mid-power; some cores are active, possibly dynamically scaled based on load (similar to CPU frequency governing but a bit more basic here)
    c.c) full power; everything is on and cycles are not even wasted on profiling (this would be a special state requested by intensive games/applications).
    Reply
  • danjw - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    When I worked for a small game developer, getting ATI to give you the time of day was pretty much impossible. Where as Nvidia was more then happy to help us out, with some free graphics cards and support. If AMD is continuing on this path, they will not ever be real competition to Nvidia. Reply
  • fynamo - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    The WHOLE POINT of having switchable graphics is to reduce power consumption and thereby extend battery life, and at the same time provide any necessary 2D acceleration capabilities for the OS and Web browsing.

    I'm disappointed that this review totally misses the mark.

    I've been testing numerous Optimus configurations myself lately and have discovered some SERIOUS issues with [at least the Optimus version of] switchable graphics technology: Web browsing.

    Web browsers today increasingly accelerate CSS3, SVG and Flash; however, GPU's have yet to catch up to this trend. As a result rendering performance is abysmal on a Dell XPS 15 with an Intel 2720QM CPU + NVIDIA GeForce 540. Not just with web acceleration. Changing window sizes, basic desktop / Aero UI stuff is like a slideshow. I upgrade from a Dell XPS 16 with the Radeon 3670, and the overall experience has been reduced from a liquid-smooth Windows environment to a slideshow.

    Granted, gaming performance is not bad but that's not the issue.

    Running the latest drivers for everything.

    I was hoping to see this topic researched better in this article.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    There's really not much to say in regards to power and battery life, assuming the switchable graphics works right. When the dGPU isn't needed, both AMD and NVIDIA let the IGP do all the work, so then we're looking at Sony vs. Acer using Intel i5-2410M. BIOS and power optimizations come into play, but the two are close enough that it doesn't make much of a difference. (I posted the battery life results above if you're interested, and I still plan on doing a full review of the individual laptops.)

    I'm curious what sites/tests/content you're using that create problems with CSS3/SVG/Flash. My experience on an Intel IGP only is fine for everything I've done outside of running games, but admittedly I might not be pushing things too hard in my regular use. Even so, the latest NVIDIA drivers should allow you to run your browser on dGPU if you need to -- have you tried that? Maybe your global setting has the laptop set to default to IGP everywhere, which might cause some issues. But like I said, specific sites and interactions that cause the sluggishness would be useful, since I can't rule out other software interactions from being the culprit otherwise.
    Reply

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