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.

Mobile Ivy Bridge Lineup and New Chipsets
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, May 01, 2012 - link

    Ivy Bridge is technically capable of supporting three displays, but it needs three TMDS transceivers in the laptop (or on the desktop motherboard) to drive the displays simultaneously. Some laptop makers will likely save $0.25 or whatever by only including two, but others will certainly include the full triple head support. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    Just a quick correction, in case anyone is wondering:

    For triple displays, Ivy Bridge needs to run TWO of the displays off of DisplayPort, and the other can be LVDS/VGA/HDMI/DVI. I can tell you exactly how many laptops I've seen with dual DP outputs: zero. Anyway, it's an OEM decision, and I'm skeptical we'll see 2xDP any time soon.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - link

    "I'm not sure what your point is, at all"? You cannot be serious. Either you have no understanding of thermodynamics, or you're just an anonymous Internet troll. I don't know what your problem is, rarson, but your comments on all the Ivy Bridge articles today are the same FUD with nothing to back it up.

    Ivy Bridge specifications allow for internal temperatures of up to 100C, just like most other Intel chips. At maximum load the chip in the N56VM hits 89C, but it's doing that with the fan hardly running at all and generating almost no noise compared to other laptops. Is that so hard to understand? A dual-core Sandy Bridge i7-2640M in the VAIO SE hits higher temperatures while generating more noise. I guess that means Sandy Bridge is a hot chip in your distorted world view? But that would be wrong as well. The reality is that the VAIO SE runs hot and loud because of the way Sony designed the laptop, and the N56VM runs hot and quiet because of the way ASUS designed the laptop.

    The simple fact is Ivy Bridge in this laptop runs faster than Sandy Bridge in other laptops, even at higher temperatures than some laptops that we've seen. There was a conscious decision to let internal CPU temperatures get higher instead of running the fans faster and creating more noise. If the fan were generating 40dB of noise, I can guarantee that the chip temperature wouldn't be 89C under load. Again, this is simple thermodynamics. Is that so difficult to understand?

    How do we determine what Ivy Bridge temperatures are like "in general"? How do you know that it's a "hot chip"? You don't, so you're just pulling stuff out of the air and making blanket statements that have no substance. It seems you either work for AMD and think you're doing them a favor with these comments (you're not), or you have a vendetta against Intel and you're hoping to make people in general think Ivy Bridge is bad just because you say so (it's not).
    Reply
  • mtoma - Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - link

    I really don't want to play dumb - but if I get an honest answer I'll be pleased: Jarred said that the panel used in Asus N56VM is an LG LP156WF1. OK - how can I find the display type in a specific laptop? I have a Lenovo T61 and... I need help. I want to know the manufacturer, display type, viewing angles. Thanks! Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - link

    I use Astra32 (www.astra32.com), a free utility that will usually report the monitor type. However, if the OEM chooses to overwrite the information in the LCD firmware, you'll get basically a meaningless code. You can also look at LaptopScreen.com and see if they have the information/screen you need (http://www.laptopscreen.com/English/model/IBM-Leno... Reply
  • leovande321 - Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - link

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  • Spunjji - Thursday, April 26, 2012 - link

    Calm down there. His comment is pointing out that measuring the temperatures of this laptop will tell you nothing about how hot mobile Ivy Bridge is as a platform. We need more information. It looks like it's not as cool as Intel marketing want everyone to believe, but we just don't know yet. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 26, 2012 - link

    The real heart of the matter is that more performance (IVB) just got stuffed into less space. 22nm probably wasn't enough to dramatically reduce voltages and thus power, so the internal core temperatures are likely higher than SNB in many cases, even though maximum power draw may have gone down.

    For the desktop, that's more of a concern, especially if you want to overclock. For a laptop, as long as the laptop doesn't get noisy and runs stable, I have no problem with the tradeoff being made, and I suspect it's only a temporary issue. By the time ULV and dual-core IVB ship, 22nm will be a bit more mature and have a few more kinks ironed out.
    Reply
  • leovande321 - Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - link

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  • raghu78 - Wednesday, May 02, 2012 - link

    Even though you have mentioned that 45w Llano would have improved the gaming performance it would have been better to include such a configuration in your testing. Given that you were testing a 45w high end next gen core i7 product which itself skews the balance in Intel's favour given the vast difference in CPU processing capability the least you could have done was put a similar wattage AMD Llano SKU. The result would be that other than Batman and Skyrim the rest would all be better on HD 6620G. As they say "a picture is worth a thousand words ". All your charts cannot be undone by a small note at the end of the charts. The damage has been done.
    This is my opinion that objective comparisons can only be made under similar parameters. Its even more critical in the notebook market which have strict thermal restrictions. The desktop market is slightly less restrictive except for HTPCs which need 65w or lesser processors. When the comparisons for Trinity 35w are made it should be against 35w Ivybridge core i3 and core i5. By benching a ivybridge core i7 with a 45w rating and comparing with a Trinity 35w we aren't making a fair and objective comparison. Also the fact that the ivybridge core i7 and trinity are not in the same price segment makes things worse. I hope my comments are not taken negatively.
    Reply

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