Mobile Ivy Bridge and ASUS N56VM Previewby Jarred Walton on April 23, 2012 12:02 PM EST
Ivy Bridge Intro: Putting Intel’s Mobile CPUs in Perspective
Last year in retrospect looks like it was a phenomenal year for Intel: other than stumbling out of the gate with a chipset bug, Sandy Bridge (2nd Generation Core i-Series Processor) proved to be amazingly capable, particularly on the mobile front. Sandy Bridge processors provided excellent performance, great battery life, and reasonable graphics for most uses outside of gaming. Pair a Sandy Bridge CPU with NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology and you could get everything you’d want from a laptop: mobility, performance, gaming…well, everything except a budget price. But as the adage goes, you get what you pay for, and many people were more than happy to pay for Sandy Bridge laptops.
The real reason for Sandy Bridge’s success is that it finally merged Intel’s mobile strategy into one line, along with delivering in spades on the performance front. Prior to Sandy Bridge, Intel had two different architectures that were wildly different servicing the mobile sector. At the high performance end of the spectrum was Clarksfield, a mobile variant of desktop Lynnfield CPU. Clarksfield/Lynnfield were in essence the mainstream version of Bloomfield/Nehalem, Intel’s original Core i7 processor, with dual-channel memory and a lower price point. The problem with Clarksfield from the mobile standpoint is that it still used a lot of power, so even with large batteries you were typically limited to three or four hours of battery life at most. Meanwhile, for mainstream users that didn’t need quite as much CPU performance, Intel had the dual-core Arrandale with their newly minted Intel HD Graphics. The result was a substantially lower price, and thanks to the IGP Arrandale could deliver on the battery life front as well—and it really paved the way for the adoption of NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology. With Sandy Bridge, Intel brought the high-end and mainstream mobile CPUs together into one product, with quad-core and dual-core offerings that could work in the same socket.
Sandy Bridge wasn’t just about unifying their mobile product line, however. Late in the Core 2 era, Intel started a push for decent performance with exceptional battery life, at prices that would no longer break the bank. ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) processors have been around for some time, but they typically ended up in business oriented ultraportables that could set you back $2000 or more. With the rise of the netbook, such ultraportables would no longer sell at massive premiums, and Intel recognized this and created their CULV products—Consumer Ultra Low Voltage CPUs. Along with the rebranding came a drop in price, and around the end of 2009 and early 2010, CULV laptops came out en masse. Pricing was about 2-2.5X as high as Atom-based netbooks for most of the CULV laptops, but performance was often three times as high and you got a great business laptop that had a full copy of Windows 7 (rather than the castrated Windows 7 Starter) and enough RAM to make it run properly.
So what does all of this have to do with Sandy Bridge? Well, Arrandale never really could live up to the promises of CULV; Arrandale ULV processors improved performance but at the cost of battery life, and pricing on most models was higher than consumers were willing to pay. With Sandy Bridge, Intel came up with a new way to sell people on ULV processors: the Ultrabook. Sure, on the surface it was little more than a rebranded ultraportable with the requirement that all models include an SSD, and ultrabooks also borrowed heavily from the MacBook Air design document. We’re still waiting for the ultimate ultrabook, but even so there has been quite a bit of talk about these sleek little laptops, and thanks to improved Turbo Boost and HD 3000 graphics, for thin and light users there’s plenty to like.
That brings us up to today’s release of Ivy Bridge. Last year with Sandy Bridge, I posited that Sandy Bridge was actually more important to Intel on the mobile side of the equation. The desktop versions were certainly attractive, but saving a few extra watts of power with an IGP instead of a discrete GPU doesn’t matter so much on the desktop, and performance was only moderately faster than Lynnfield. Even Intel seemed to acknowledge Sandy Bridge was more for laptops by the fact that many of the desktop CPUs shipped with the trimmed down HD 2000 IGP instead of the full HD 3000 IGP—though ironically the high-end K-series SKUs got the full IGP (which often went unused). Ivy Bridge basically follows in the footsteps of Sandy Bridge, which is in line with Intel’s “Tick Tock” cadence.
As a “tick”, Ivy Bridge shifts to a new process technology (22nm tri-gate transistors) but otherwise largely builds off of Sandy Bridge. There will presumably still be dual- and quad-core CPUs that can run in the same socket (Intel is only detailing their quad-core IVB parts right now, though dual-core parts are coming), and what’s more Ivy Bridge can work as a drop-in replacement for Sandy Bridge (at least on the desktop), provided you have an updated BIOS. But then, Intel also decided to make things interesting by doing a “tock” on the GPU side of the equation; Ivy Bridge’s HD 4000 IGP brings Intel into the DX11 playfield, promising a fairly sizeable improvement in IGP performance along with compatibility with DX11 games and applications. The result is that Ivy Bridge is a “tick+”.
Intel’s IGP has been the whipping boy of graphics pretty much since its inception, but with Arrandale’s HD Graphics Intel finally started to address performance and driver concerns. Arrandale wasn’t really fast enough for most games, even at minimum detail settings and a low resolution, but it could handle Blu-ray decoding and represented a healthy ~doubling of performance compared to Intel’s previous generation GMA 4500 IGP. Sandy Bridge basically doubled down again, so in the course of two generations Intel went from a completely anemic DX9 IGP to something that was nipping at the heels of the entry-level AMD and NVIDIA discrete GPUs. If Ivy Bridge continues the trend while adding DX11 features, it would end up firmly in the realm of modern GPUs…but Intel isn’t actually promising that much of an improvement over HD 3000. Instead, we’ve been led to expect performance that’s anywhere from 30-60% better (sometimes more) than HD 3000; that’s still enough of an increase that our “Value” gaming settings (basically targeting medium detail at 1366x768) may finally prove playable on most titles.
It’s not just about graphics performance, naturally. Having the best GPU hardware on the planet won’t do you any good unless your hardware works properly with all the latest games and applications, and that means having good drivers. Intel has been promising better drivers for a few years, and for the most part they’ve delivered. Still, AMD and NVIDIA have been doing high performance graphics for a lot longer, and in general they have larger driver teams and perform compatibility testing with more titles. We can’t provide such testing on our own, but we will run tests on both our 2012 and 2011 gaming suites, along with running some other games we don’t normally benchmark, just to see how many driver problems we do—or don’t—encounter.
We’ve already posted a detailed analysis of the Ivy Bridge architecture elsewhere, and others are covering the desktop aspects of Ivy Bridge, so this article will primarily focus on the mobility side of the equation. Will the shift to a new manufacturing process improve thermals and power requirements, and thus deliver better batter life? How will the new and improved—and larger—HD 4000 IGP affect performance as well as power use? Remember that this is Intel’s first 22nm chip, and early silicon off of a new process node often won’t be as efficient as what we’ll see in six months. Finally, we need to mention that the laptop we’re testing is basically pre-release hardware; the final version that ships should look similar to what we have in our hands, but there are a few indications that this is a not-for-retail product that we’ll discuss more in a moment. What that means is that while our results should be representative of what Ivy Bridge has to offer on a broad scale, firmware tweaks and other differences between laptops may result in slightly higher (or lower) performance on shipping laptops. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at Intel’s mobile Ivy Bridge lineup and then see what the ASUS N56VM has to offer.