Part I: AVADirect Clevo P170EM Gaming Notebook with Radeon HD 7970M

When AMD and NVIDIA updated their mobile graphics offerings earlier this year, we were quite eager to get our hands on the new hardware to see how it would perform. Our first encounter with NVIDIA’s mobile Kepler came courtesy of Acer’s M3 Ultrabook, but that was a bit of an odd pairing as the ULV CPU and DDR3 VRAM likely didn’t let GK107 really stretch its legs. We then got a second taste of mobile Kepler with the Clevo W110ER in the form of Eurocom’s Monster, and several more options have come and gone with the likes of the Acer V3, Dell XPS 15, and Samsung Chronos 7. So far, we have yet to test any of AMD’s updated 7000M mobile GPUs—particularly the new GCN-based derivatives. That changes today, as we have initial performance results from both GPUs, courtesy of AVADirect.

About six weeks ago, AVADirect shipped us two identically equipped notebooks using their Clevo P170EM chassis: one with an HD 7970M and the second with a GTX 680M. We encountered a few driver issues with the latter but had even greater concerns with the former—so much so that we spent a lot of time in discussions with AMD and eventually received a briefing on their updated Enduro 5.5 driver plans. Throw in some other unexpected events and we’re a bit behind schedule, but over the course of the next week we hope to be able to provide full details on what you can expect from the Clevo P170EM, AMD’s HD 7970M, and how things stack up in an apples-to-apples comparison with NVIDIA’s GTX 680M. Let’s start first with a focus on the core notebook housing the GPUs with the full specs of our test system from AVADirect.

AVADirect Clevo P170EM Gaming Notebook Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3720QM
(Quad-core 2.60-3.60GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 45W)
Prolimatech PK-3 Thermal Compound
Chipset HM77
Memory Kingston 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 (9-9-9-24-1T Timings)
Note: RAM runs at DDR3-1333
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1250MHz)

AMD Radeon HD 7970M 2GB GDDR5 (Enduro)
(1280 cores at 850MHz, 256-bit GDDR5-4800)
Display 17.3” WLED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B173HW01 v4, 90% Gamut)
Storage 256GB SATA 6Gbps SSD (Crucial M4-CT256M4SSD2)
Optical Drive DVDRW (Slimtype DS8A8SH)
Networking 802.11n dual-band 450Mb WiFi (Intel Ultimate-N 6300)
Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI)
Battery/Power 8-cell, 14.8V, 5200mAh, ~77Wh
FSP Group 220W Max AC Adapter (19.0V, 11.57A)
Front Side IR Port
Left Side Memory Card Reader
1 x USB 3.0/eSATA Combo
2 x USB 3.0
Gigabit Ethernet
Mini-FireWire (1394A)
Right Side DVDRW
Headphone
Microphone
Line-Out
Line-In
1 x USB 2.0
Back Side 2 x Exhaust Vents (CPU/Chipset and GPU)
DisplayPort
HDMI
Single-Link DVI-D
AC Power Connection
Kensington Lock
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 16.22" x 10.87" x 1.65-1.79" (WxDxH)
(412mm x 276mm x 41.8-45.4mm)
Weight 8.58 lbs (3.9kg) (DVDRW + Single HDD)
Extras HD Webcam
102-key Keyboard with Standard 10-key
Configurable backlighting for keyboard (7 colors)
Memory Card Reader (MMC/MS Pro/SD)
Warranty Standard 1-year Warranty
$103 for 2-year Clevo Warranty
$211 for 3-year Clevo Warranty
Price Starting at ~$1485 (Oct. 2, 2012)
As configured: $2176 (with 1-year Warranty)

Our review unit isn’t the least expensive way to get into a Clevo P170EM, but it’s pretty close to the configuration I’d want if I were actually doing the shopping. We worked with Misha Troshin, CMO of AVADirect, to make sure we had a system that we wouldn’t have to ding for including questionable component choices, and he delivered. The i7-3720QM is a pretty sizeable jump in price from the i7-3610QM, and we’d probably elect to save the ~$130 in most cases and stick with the 3610QM, but we wanted to make sure that neither the HD 7970M nor the GTX 680M were being held back by the CPU, so the extra 300MHz on the base and max turbo clocks seemed like a reasonable way to go.

We also wanted to get a decent amount of RAM for a modern notebook, with room to grow if we decide in the future that 8GB isn’t enough, so a 2x4GB DDR3-1600 configuration is perfect—and unlike many of the large OEMs, AVADirect doesn’t fleece you on RAM pricing; you can upgrade to 2x8GB DDR3-1600 for just ~$65 more than our base RAM choice, or go whole hog and equip your notebook with 32GB (4x8GB) of DDR3-1600 RAM for ~$175 extra. Newegg sells the same memory for $95 per 16GB kit, so there’s still a small markup, but when you see Dell/Alienware charging $75 to upgrade from 6GB to 8GB RAM, $225 for 16GB, and $425 for 32GB, you’re likely to feel a lot better about the markup from AVADirect. Also remember that if you want to utilize more than 16GB of RAM, you’ll need to go with Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate as Home Premium limits you to “only” 16GB.

Unfortunately, there’s a small snafu with the Kingston memory in our 7970M review unit: the BIOS runs it at DDR3-1333, even though it’s rated for DDR3-1600 speeds. Our GTX 680M notebook came with Corsair DDR3-1600 memory, and it’s running properly at DDR3-1600 9-9-9-24 timings, so keep that in mind when ordering. It shouldn't make much of a difference (I'd guess one or two percent at most), but given the memory is priced the same there's not much reason to opt for DDR3-1333 if you can run at DDR3-1600. Normally I’d just modify the appropriate BIOS setting, but in the stock Clevo BIOS there’s no option to set specific RAM timings. (Note also that even on Clevo’s own product page, there’s currently no option to download the release BIOS, let alone an updated BIOS.)

Storage duties are handled by a dedicated SSD, and in this case we opted for the then-cheapest 240/256GB SSD, the Crucial M4. Since then, we’ve seen pricing plummet on many SSDs, and if you’re willing to take a chance on a SandForce SF-2281 SSD (I haven’t personally experienced any issues with the three drives I’ve been using for several months—knock on wood), you can get a Mushkin Chronos Deluxe 240GB for a bit less these days. Still, you’re looking at 240GB for $195 compared to $205 for 256GB, so the price per GB is nearly the same (and the Crucial M4 is actually slightly ahead). Those who want some mass storage thrown in can add a large 1TB hard drive for an additional $102, but I’d just as soon grab a larger 480/512GB SSD for about $80/$100 more (i.e. Mushkin Chronos Deluxe/Crucial M4).

If you’re really looking for interesting ways of equipping your Clevo P170EM, besides the two hard drive bays, AVADirect also offers mSATA SSDs up to 256GB in capacity, starting at $211 for the Crucial M4. All told, you can install an mSATA drive, two 2.5” drives, and if you so choose you can ditch the optical drive for a third 2.5” drive via a caddy. That means you can do an mSATA boot/OS/Apps SSD with two RAID 0 hard drives (or SSDS) and still keep your optical drive. Note that unlike some previous Clevo notebooks, the P170EM doesn’t appear to support RAID 5 even if you replace the ODD with a third HDD/SSD.

Our remaining options are pretty run-of-the-mill. Some might like having a Blu-ray combo drive, but the additional $75 in this day of HD video streaming services may not be all that compelling. The wireless networking options also give you the choice of several Intel chipsets, or you can use the Killer Wireless-N 1103; we got an Intel Ultimate-N 6300 adapter, which is good enough for most use cases (and I continue to plug in Gigabit Ethernet whenever possible, as it still smokes even the fastest wireless chipsets). Everything else is pretty much self-explanatory, though the inclusion of three USB 3.0 ports with a single USB 2.0 port is a bit odd (perhaps the USB 2.0 port is provided for improved compatibility). Also worthy of note is that Clevo still includes a DVI-D port, which is quite nice for people like me that have older displays with no DisplayPort capability; sadly, it won't support dual-link DVI-D (unlike older Clevo notebooks).

One thing I’d really like to see change with the various Clevo branded notebooks is the default warranty; if the product is good enough to last a couple years (which it should be considering the pricing), a standard 3-year warranty should be par for the course. I can understand why a lot of consumer notebooks only come with a 1-year warranty, but one good way for smaller boutique vendors to stand out from the large OEM crowd is to provide better service and support. Personally, a big part of that is being willing to stand behind your product with a 3-year warranty. Seeing most places offer a “Clevo 3-year warranty” suggests that they are either unwilling or unable to provide internal support for that long, and that’s a shame.

Let’s move on to our subjective evaluation of the Clevo P170EM and find out how the P170EM fares as a daily use notebook.

Subjective Evaluation
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  • This_Account - Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - link

    Hi, great article. It is a shame about the dual-link DVI though for sure.

    Quick question for you, does the USB 2.0 charge with the lid closed?

    Cheers
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - link

    I assume you mean with the laptop in sleep mode? As far as I can tell, there is no USB charging mode, so no it will not. Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    No. But on the right side, there are 3 USB 3.0. The first one is charging. It has a battery charge indicator on it to let you know. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    It's actually the left side with three USB 3.0 ports, and the front port does not have a charging symbol; rather, it has a USB symbol along with eSATA -- it's a combo port. Reply
  • MThorne74 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    ... of laptop GPU performance. As pointed out, this thing has a user-upgradable GPU in it which allows you to swap out the graphics board much like you would on a desktop system. All you'd need is the 7970m and a 680m and whatever else you desire to compare. GPU focused performance comparisons would be much more precise then. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    We've got the same laptop with 680M; I'm just running the tests still and did this one first. Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    P150EM

    This may be a shock to Anandtech, but many like myself appreciate the design of the Clevo. Metal = Weight. These machines already weigh plenty, so I personally and many others like me agree, Clevo choosing plastic is good. The plastic does not feel cheap to me and it is thick and robust. There is no flex on it. As for hinges, not sure what else you want. The hinges on mine are covered by the thickest plastic I've seen on any laptop. Nothing thin about it. There is no flex around the hinges on my machine. I don't know why this article exaggerates the build quality, reading this, most will think it's cheap feel. And it's far from that.

    Next: Comparisons are idiotic. This is a gaming machine. This is not a professional workstation, though you can modify to be, but really without a proper professional IPS display, better off getting a Dell/HP/Lenovo. So why bother comparing to those, those machines are military grade certified. As for Apple, those machines are made to look pretty on your coffee table. Clevo aren't make table decorations like Apple is. They aren't selling to moms and women or men who worry more about how thin and pretty their machine is than the hardware it comes with. 650M is not by any stretch impressive. Most gaming machines are plastic. Few have some metal, but very little, sparing on just small details to give it some panache. The laptop that took the mobile gaming industry by surprise was the G73JH, and that was all plastic. But that told manufactures, gamers want understated, black matte cases. And Clevo delivers. Even the latest iterations from MSI have calmed down their appearance significantly since the G73's release.

    I love matte look, I don't want shiny metal. I prefer the rubberized surface, but I could deal with a brushed metal. These notebooks can be configured to have no logos, branding at all, which is awesome. I am not a billboard for Clevo, Apple, Dell, Lenovo.

    Cost: These notebooks are really expensive. People who buy Clevo, buy it for the cost/performance. If you want a sci-fi look, get a Alienware. You want bling, get a MSI. If you want a stealth toy look, get a Asus. You want a Apple clone cause secretly you are envious of Macheads, get a Razer Blade. There are plenty of choices. I'd rather Clevo keep costs low on the case and pack it with hardware, options.

    I've been typing on this machine for a long time and think the keyboard just takes adjusting to. This keyboard you do need to press more in the center or bottom, if you press on the edges or top, chance of missing keys. But since I'm used to it, I have no issues with the keyboard and can type as precisely and quickly as I could with my old IBM Thinkpad.

    Some of your complaints with the keyboard are because you from the perspective of a writer. That's a problem, because this is not a machine designed for writers, it's a gaming machine. Take for example your ire with Windows key. Clevo did that on purpose. They enlarge the CTRL button which is used very often by gamers, whether its CS:GO or SC2. The removed the Windows because gamers complained of hitting unintentionally and sometimes causing to switch to desktop out of the game. I don't use End/Home often, even when using Word Processor or InDesign. I don't think that's a concern for most gamers.

    Going forward you may want to write more in context of gaming and perspective of gamers when it comes to Clevo. I'd bet if you were to budget conscious gamers what they were most concerned about, metal casing and eye catching design would be near the bottom of the list. As long as the machine was well built, robust, and sturdy, they will be satisfied. And the Clevo does that.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    I disagree with most of your assessment of the build quality. ASUS has similar build quality and they charge quite a bit less (though they lack the top-end GPU options as well). Alienware has a combination of metal alloys (magnesium alloy possibly?) with plastic and the rubberized coating. Magnesium alloys are very lightweight, which is why they're used in higher end notebooks -- they're rigid, better than plastic, and about the same weight.

    The hinges aren't necessarily worse than other consumer laptops, but take a look at the ThinkPad hinges; they're not substantially more expensive to make, but I can tell you from experience that they last forever. I've used ThinkPads that are over seven years old where the hinges still hold up. The plastic covers are just that: covers. Look under them and you'll find a mediocre hinge. For the cost, I want it to have a hinge that I don't think is going to fail in a few years (or at least become very loose).

    The keyboard still sucks, no matter how you want to mince words and try to say it's for gaming. The Windows key can be remapped/disabled easily enough if you want, and Clevo also has resellers that say this is a "mobile workstation" -- not that I really go for that classification, given the build materials and overall quality. Sure, the keyboard works, and yes I'm a writer, which is why I point that out in the text.

    The fact is, a keyboard like the one on the Samsung Series 7 is better in just about every way. If Clevo took the same layout and had a look and feel similar to the Series 7, I wouldn't complain much, but it seriously feels like crap to me. If you don't care about keyboard quality, fine, but it's pathetic that a machine this expensive has such a lousy keyboard. MSI's keyboard has the same layout but feels worlds better. And it's funny you try to slag off my complaints about the lack of dedicated Home and End keys... but how often do you use Insert, Pause, or Scroll Lock? Literally, it's about a ten second fix from a design perspective (and yes, I know you can remap keys, but then the labels are wrong so it's better done by the manufacturer).

    The Clevo is not a bad machine by any stretch; it's just not at the same level as some other gaming notebooks. If I were in the market, I'd wait for one of Dell's frequent sales and buy an Alienware M17x. It's just better in pretty much every way, with better support from the manufacturer as well. Clevo's support (particularly in the form of BIOS updates) is terrible -- they don't trust users to flash a BIOS, so they don't provide them. And yet, they have battery life that's just as bad as if they didn't bother with Enduro/Optimus. It's a half-baked attempt, no matter how you slice it.

    The primary reason to buy a Clevo is because it's less expensive and more customizable than an Alienware, and it has fast hardware. I understand that's enough for most people, and hopefully after reading this review they'll be able to decide that for themselves.

    To say that my comparisons are "idiotic" because I mention Samsung as a slower alternative with a higher build quality, or ASUS, MSI, and Alienware... well, you're entitled to your opinion, but considering you already purchased a Clevo I'd have to say your opinion is more than a little biased. I'm writing from the perspective of someone that has used and tested dozens of laptops just in the last year; I try to put all my reviews into that context and let readers know where a particular notebook ranks. The Clevo is one of the fastest (if not the fastest) gaming notebooks around. For the performance, the pricing is pretty reasonable (but not great). For the pricing the build quality and overall design is about on the level of a midrange consumer notebook, only with a thicker chassis and bigger fans. And the keyboard is still one of the worst I've used. Some people like Acer's old floating island keys too; the general consensus however is that they were terrible.
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Not really biased at all. My previous machine was a Asus G73JH and I like my Clevo more in every way, from the design, cooling, hardware, LCD, and even the keyboard.

    I think you should spend more time in the Clevo/Sager forum where people actually buy and discuss them. Your perspective on these machines and your preferences are pretty off base. I don't think you understand the market that Clevo is going for.

    As for price, Sager beats MSI and Asus handidly. The base price for my machine with a GTX 675M is $1300. Asus can't beat that even with a GTX 670M, inferior hardware. Plus Asus is not upgradeable and can't even access the GPU easily.

    As for Alienware's sales? Please, they can't come close to the price of Sager still. Unlike Allienware, you don't have to barter with a sales rep and Sager's discounts are 24/7 all year round. What discounts did I get with my Sager? $80 off+3% cash discount and free shipping on top of a price that already beat anything offered by MSI/Asus/Alienware for the hardware I specified.

    As for comparisons I think I spelled it out pretty clear how idiotic they were. You were comparing to Dell and Lenovo. For one they build workstations that are military grade certified. And the XPS 15 is not a high end gaming machine, that is a boutique machine competing with other Mac clones. And the Samsung Series 7 is not in the same category with Clevo and Alienware. The only two companies that make sense to compare is Alienware and MSI. When it comes to dependability and having your machine last, no problems. These things are built like tanks, there are users who bought X7200 with HD5870s and now upgrading them to 7970s. That's damn good quality of build to me. 30% of laptops don't even last 3 years and for many expect their Clevo to last 5.

    As for service on a Clevo? Unmatched, no one can beat Clevo. If you go with a Clevo builder Mythlogic, you won't get a more technical proficient, better interaction and service by ANY company. Mythlogic has repeatedly reach out to Clevo owners who weren't even their customers. All it takes is a few minutes to post on a forum and they are ready to help. Sager, yeah I had an issue, and it was free 3 day shipping both ways and laptop fixed in 2 days and returned, I had it back in 1.5 weeks. Give me a break about service. As for BIOS, yeah that's laughable. If you actually spent time on a Clevo/Sager forum you'd see every laptop has had countless BIOS updates. I've only owned this machine for about 4-5 months and I've already updated the BIOS 3 times. No BIOS updates? Who are you kidding. And if I bork the BIOS update? Clevo doesn't care, you get that fixed, no questions asked. That sure doesn't like they don't trust us. Far from it, to the point they will repair your notebook without question if you borked it with a BIOS update.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Where do I "compare" this with the XPS 15? I say there are laptops like XPS 15 and MacBook that do unibody aluminum, that it costs more, and that's it. You're trying to make comparisons that aren't really there, which just shows your bias all the more. And talking to people in the Sager/Clevo forums is again asking for biased feedback; sure, it's important to please those users, but the market for laptops is huge and Clevo targets a very small niche. All I've done is spelled out exactly how this design fails to cater to other desires, and you apparently can't accept that and resort to calling me "idiotic".

    Sure, the base price for your machine is $1300; the base price for an M17x R4 is $1500. That's a 15% difference in price, with better build quality and materials in my book, so yes it's close to the Sager pricing. When Dell runs a 10% off sale on it, it would be basically a wash in terms of pricing. Meanwhile the base price of the MSI from iBUYPOWER is $1371 (5% more), and I'd have no problem suggesting you spend $70 more to get the MSI chassis in place of the Clevo if you want a better keyboard. The ASUS also starts at $1400 (8% more), but with specs on many components that are higher than the base Sager. Clearly, you and I have very different views on what it means to "beat a price handily".

    Sager or one of the other vendors may end up costing less most of the time, especially with upgrades, but spending 20% more on a high-end notebook isn't out of the realm of possibility. Plus if we're looking at features and extras, Alienware has the option in the BIOS to switch off Enduro/Optimus. That requires extra hardware on the motherboard, which costs money, and there are a lot of Clevo owners with 7970M that wish they had that feature right now.

    Are BIOS updates available for Clevo notebooks? Yes. Are they supported by Clevo if they go wrong and you need to get it repaired? Sure, if it's under warranty. Do they provide them on their site to the general public? NO. So you have to go through unofficial channels to get a BIOS update, which may or may not work. Or if you want to prove me wrong, give me a link to the official places where these countless BIOS updates are available.

    Hint: a thread on Notebookreview forums with modded BIOSes does not qualify: http://forum.notebookreview.com/sager-clevo/416916... -- just read the disclaimer: "Before reading this thread, please know that this thread should not exist in the first place. While the option to email your Clevo reseller and ask for the latest BIOS is considered now the official policy of obtaining the latest BIOS, it should be noted that Clevo is the only major notebook manufacturer that has such a policy. My opinion alongside that of other users which have posted in this thread is that a reputable notebook manufacturer like Clevo should make BIOS updates publically available." Yup, my comments about Clevo's lack of BIOS updates is laughable, just like your blindness.

    I'm sorry if my review offended you and your decision to buy a Clevo. That wasn't the purpose, and I still don't think it's a bad system. It's just not great and it's not something I can recommend to people without some caveats. I spelled out my caveats quite clearly, listed things I feel could be improved, and all you've done is said, in essence, that you disagree with the areas I dislike. You can do so (and you already have with your wallet), but I think there are a lot of considerations to make before buying any $1500+ gaming notebook. Then again, I still do my gaming on desktops 95% of the time.
    Reply

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