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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  • fynamo - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    Tried all of the driver tweaks, forced browsers hw accel, all to no avail. Firefox and Chrome both will use only IGP despite forcing them in NVIDIA control panel.

    In reality, most people aren't going to notice CSS3 sluggishness because very few sites actually employ CSS3 currently. But as a developer of bleeding-edge apps that are indeed using CSS3, and which we are also developing for mobile, I am HIGHLY sensitive to performance.

    As stated - on Optimus, css3 performance sucks. On AMD, css3 performance is orders of magnitude better.

    The other issue is with resizing and dragging windows. I noticed that the "SYSTEM" process in Task Manager (Windows 7 64) spikes to use a single full CPU core while resizing or dragging a window, and the drag / move animation slows to ~10 FPS or less. I did NOT have this problem on my "old" Radeon 3670 machine.

    The same tests on a desktop, also with Windows 7 64 and with a Radeon 6850 (no IGP), show liquid-smooth and no CPU spike.

    I've tested multiple Optimus systems and all have this problem, but my tests with AMD systems have yielded good results each time.
    Reply
  • Spazweasel - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    When people ask why I stick with nVidia graphics cards, this article sums up all my reasons well:

    1. nVidia for many years has done a much better job of delivering timely driver updates, better driver stability, and multi-GPU scaling. SLI "just works". Crossfire is a crapshoot.
    2. I have never had a problem with a game that was related to an nVidia driver. I cannot say the same of AMD.
    3. AMD certainly has somewhat faster hardware at a given price point, but that doesn't matter if the games crash, if the driver UI sucks, or they can't get their partners to deliver what few driver updates there are.
    4. I have many friends and acquaintances in the gaming industry. Without exception, they have reported that nVidia is much, much easier to deal with and is more responsive to the concerns of game developers than AMD. nVidia will often give you some of their own engineer-time to help you work through a problem, while AMD's response is "RTFM, go away, stop bothering us". This is likely why games have fewer driver-related issues upon initial release with nVidia than AMD; nVidia will help you before your game is on the market (and include the necessary changes to their drivers in advance of the game's release), while AMD is unresponsive during development, and often well into retail.

    Secondarily, never buy a Sony computing product. You'd better be happy with the drivers that come with it, because you're not going to see new ones. Over the years I've had two laptops made by Sony, and both were orphaned within 18 months of purchase (driver updates on OSs which were current when the product was new stopped, and newer OSs never got a driver at all). Sony is terrible at ongoing driver support, regardless of what the hardware category (video, audio, input device, peripheral connection hardware) is. I've come to the conclusion that there is nothing software-related which Sony can get right, on either a technical nor ethical basis, and that planned obsolescence through early termination of software support is explicitly part of their business strategy.

    My most recent AMD experience is a 4870, which was (and is) fast, loud, and unstable. I've thought about a 6570 for an HTPC, mostly for thermal reasons and packaging reasons (if you want a quiet, cool video card capable of moderate detail-level gaming to feed a 720p TV that is low-profile, you're pretty much limited to AMD), so it's about time for me to see if anything's changed. In the meantime, for my heavy-duty gaming machine, it's nVidia and will remain so until AMD's driver team gets its act together, regardless of how nice AMD's hardware is. Seriously, the hardware team at AMD needs to put the beat-down on the Catalyst guys; the driver team is making everyone look bad.
    Reply
  • tecknurd - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    I completely agree. ATI never wrote reliable and stable drivers. Also they gave me a run-around by saying to update to the latest drivers which I did at the time, but the graphic drivers still crashed my setup. Now AMD owns ATI and they have the same faults as ATI. People say that Radeon graphics is good, but this article shows they do not care for reliability and stability which are require for GUI.

    I switched to nVidia because of poor driver support from ATI. Also poor driver support in Linux for Radeon graphics. IMHO, the open source community does a better job writing drivers for Radeon graphics compared to AMD.

    I would buy AMD for their CPU but not for their graphics.
    Reply
  • chinedooo - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    haha the dv6t with a 6770m would kill all these other laptops. And it switches perfectly too. I get like 6-7 hrs web browsing on mine. Reply
  • chinedooo - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    Another difference between the two is the vram. the 6700 series uses gddr5. makes a world of difference. Reply
  • Hrel - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    "and the user can add their own custom apps". Does this mean we can pick and choose if the dgpu is on or off on a per app basis? I spoke to Nvidia and they said you CAN do that in the Nvidia control panel. I just don't know how. I have the Clevo P151HM laptop, so maybe the option isn't even there on mine. I'd still like you guys to tell us how to do this, assuming it's possible.

    Side note, I'm annoyed this laptop only accepts drivers from Clevo, and not from Nvidia.
    Reply
  • tanjo - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    3 years and it's still not working properly???

    The best solution is to add ultra low power 2D power state on dGPUs.
    Reply
  • orangpelupa - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    actually you can install GENERIC driver from ATi to update the laptop with switchable graphic.

    just dont use the auto detect app from ATi. it useless. always decline to download the driver....

    i have been long time using Acer with Intel + Radeon HD 5650. i can always update the ATi driver using generic from ati website.
    for acer i just install the 11-8_mobility_vista_win7_64_dd_ccc.exe

    but if the installer decline to install, you can update while using modded inf
    http://game.bramantya.org/modded-inf-ati-mobility-... (sorry have not uploaded the 11.8 modded inf)

    if still failed, can update manually from device manager.

    just make sure before doing any update with "generic" driver is graphic switched to dGPU mode from the shortcut in right click menu in desktop.

    that updating generic, work old laptop with "screen flicker when switch graphic". so i dont know if its work with the new dynamic switching ATi.
    Anyone with this new DYNAMIC switching want to try?
    Reply
  • my2cents - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    Just my 2 cents. I was searching around web and found site, some blog, where some dude is creating ATI + Intel switchable graphics. I own myself a Vaio VPC-SA2S9R. Just google "leshcat_dot_blogspot_dot_com". Works good so far. Reply
  • RenderB - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    Sadly the nvidia tool isn't doing much better. Have the same optimus config as tested, but from asus. The auto detect will always tell me to go get drivers from clearcube. Reply

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