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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  • Death666Angel - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    "but then why even have dynamic switching in the first place?"
    That is a good question. I myself would prefer a solution that lets me decide what to do. I wouldn't prefer dynamic switching, because I want to be in control of my hardware as much as possible. Reboot switching is of course a pain in the butt, but I see nothing wrong with a short cut manual switch for iGPU/dGPU switching. Would be preferable to me actually.
    But otherwise, thanks for the article.
    Reply
  • mars2k - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    I purchased a Lenovo W520 on the first day of release. Got the Thinkpad and could never get the graphics to perform correctly. Integration with the Intel board was lousy. Lenovo's support team could do nothing. I returned the machine. I'm thinking buggy drivers were the problem.
    My particular problem revolved around using multiple monitors. Connecting disconnecting or configuring multi monitors would often require a reboot. Worse than worthless!
    Reply
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - link

    “With all my talk of switchable graphics, though, let’s make one thing clear: switchable graphics is not necessarily the Holy Grail of mobile GPUs. The true ideal in my opinion is mobile GPUs that can run fast when needed (i.e. playing games), while also being able to power off large portions of the chip and RAM and get down to IGP levels of power consumption.”

    THANK you for that! That's the first time I've heard that said since all this switchable graphics stuff started.

    As far as I'm concerned, the GPU situation on notebooks is a disaster, and right when I thought we were finally moving in the first direction, this switchable stuff came out.

    As it is now, a HUGE percent of notebooks can't use Nvidia or AMD's normal drivers. Sandy Bridge + AMD shouldn't even be on the market, and shouldn't be considered by anyone. As the article mentions-you can't use normal drivers for those, at least not today. (AMD + AMD should work sooner or later, although the A series CPUs aren't listed yet in the driver download box on AMD.com...my little c50 notebook is supported though, so hopefully the A stuff will be soon too.)

    I just bought Asus' G74, which I've really liked-and one of the reasons I bought it was that it DOESN'T use switchable graphics, and it DOES use normal drivers from Nvidia. Some more expensive systems with even better GPUs can't use the normal drivers, which IMO just isn't acceptable in a $1000 purchase, let alone a $2000+ purchase.

    At any rate, Nvidia's current GPUs underclock themselves to a very impressive 50mhz, several times slower even than my Geforce 9650GT from 3 years back. As mentioned, get power gating in there, and just get rid of Optimus and AMD's equivalent. Get rid of that complexity, driver/compatibility weirdness, etc.

    Even once switchable graphics are gone, we're STILL not there yet...as the article mentions, most of Sony and Toshiba's notebooks can't be updated. Sager's stuff apparently can't, etc.

    My Asus N80 from 3 years ago and my G74 both accept Nvidia.com driver updates just like a desktop system, no hacks, nothing weird, it just works. And that's how it should be!
    Reply
  • Anato - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Shouldn't be too difficult to make GPU which can divide resources so that parts of the unit can be shut down. Even CPU's can do that and they are executing same code as compared to GPU which can be more liberal on architecture. Reply
  • JonnyDough - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    "If nothing else, Sony at least knows how to tune their laptops for long battery life."

    Now if they can just make PS3 networking that isn't so hackable, batteries that don't explode, and Blu-Ray discs that don't cost 4X as much as an up-scalable DVD. At least they are smart enough to partner up with AMD.
    Reply
  • pman6 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    AMD's solution definitely seems half assed. Their drivers are always crap.

    ...just like how they rolled out the mobile llano hybrid crossfire with crap performance.

    seems like they can never get the drivers right.

    I have a llano laptop with crossfire, and you would think they would be able to do split frame rendering to improve performance. but 99% of the time, crossfire game performance is worse than discrete alone.

    AMD needs to get their crap together.
    Reply
  • netkcid - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    good job trying to switch and run dx11 apps on a dx10 igp... and then complain about it...dur Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    All of the games should run on the Intel IGP; none of them are DX11 only. Double dur. The point is that they're not switching over to the IGP when the laptop is set to do so. But that's not really the major issue -- if you're running a game, you'll want it on the dGPU 99% of the time. The real issue is that the dynamic switching failed to work properly. When the competition can make it work properly, and when your non-dynamic generally can work properly, then your drivers are not finished and certainly not worthy of WHQL certification (which has apparently become a joke these days). Reply
  • medi01 - Sunday, September 25, 2011 - link

    "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..."

    Let me explain: AMD not sending you whatever you want is not a good enough reason to do hidden ads for nVidia.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - link

    Thanks for speaking for AMD, but I talked to them over four times throughout the course of this review. I've had this hardware since July, if that helps you figure out how much I've been waiting for AMD to step up with something better. In effect, I told AMD when I first got the laptop, "Look guys, I've got a Sony VAIO C with Intel + AMD dynamic switchable graphics, and there are problems. There are also no recent drivers. This review won't be favorable toward your solution if you can't get me something better." If I had given them a week, or even two, sure, but two months is more than enough time to give me something better if such a thing exists.

    Sticking up for AMD's solution just because it's from AMD is not a reason enough to do so. The solution as it currently stands is broken. It can be fixed, but until it actually IS fixed, I cannot recommend buying it. Like I said, I'd rather have AMD discrete GPU without switchable graphics on a laptop, because then at least I can get driver updates. And if you don't need driver updates, you don't really need a discrete GPU in your laptop.
    Reply

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