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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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  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    You are so ignorant of the Sager/Clevo forum, it's rather sad. The BIOS that are posted are not modded, they are the official, vanilla Clevo BIOS. Clevo does no sell direct like HP, Alienware, Dell, etc do. The tech support is provided by the builders, and the BIOS also. The modded BIOS are actually the ones from the OEM, like Sager who ask Clevo for specific changes, like a FN+1 for full fan speed. Emailing Sager sure doesn't take very long to do. So yes, your comments about the lack of BIOS is laughable.

    As for perspective, yeah it is idiotic. You are writing from the perspective of someone who doesn't find Clevo appealing. Your review should be for people who interested in buying a Clevo, not reading your ridiculously biased, opinionated diatribe about Clevo's design. Just stick to what it is. Dimensions, weight, cooling, temps, performance whatever. People who are told about Clevo know what they are getting into. It's not a secret that a Clevo isn't designed for the shallow, fashion obsessed person who must fit in with the hipster crowd. For Clevo owners, a laptop isn't an accessory to our appearance and isn't a expression of vain needs. It's a machine, a gaming machine or for some a work tool. It doesn't need to be pretty.

    You said it yourself, Clevo markets to a small niche. Yup, you would be right on that. So your review should be for that small niche that is interested in buying a machine that caters to that small niche.
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Also for support, and updates, the way Clevo does it, may be unusual, but it sure works awesome. When the 7970M was found to be unable to work with the HM series, because they do not support switchable, Sager stepped in quick and within a month, Clevo sellers were selling Clevo 7970M with modded vBIOS so would work in a HM.

    I've mentioned Mythlogic before, they are full AMI Aptio servicer, and can even unlock Raid 5 for those who request it. Can you get that from Alienware? Can you get that from MSI? Nope, nope and nope.
    Reply
  • xtrophy - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Just wanted to put out there that I have owned a plethora of laptops. Of all the ones I have owned the Clevo feels the most solid of them all.

    I owned an M11x R2 and an M14xR1, both of them had serious hinge issues and both had creaks and issues with build quality.

    I had a second gen MBP and, while light, the over heating was too much of a problem. I was given the laptop by a friend after they upgraded to a desktop. After using it I have decided I would have never spent that much on a Mac.

    I prefer the solid feel of the Clevos. Their build quality far out reaches everything I have touched and, as I have stated before, That is not a small number. I've owned my own repair business in the past (I have since moved on to bigger and better things).

    I can make no comment on the Razer Blade, but I would (just like in the case with Macs) not pay that much money for dated hardware. Sure it has all the gimmicks, but to me there is no way those gimmicks are worth it in the long run.

    And don't get started on Alienware. I made that mistake. Twice. Want to know the sad part? I have to send the M11x in AGAIN to replace the hinges AGAIN because since I have given it to my fiancee, they have begun to crack and pop. Their "build quality" consists of "expensive materials" and a blender to put it all together.
    Reply
  • transphasic - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Jarred, I would like your honest opinion, appraisal, prognosis, and projection based on your experience and what you have seen so far regarding the "newest" comparison between the 680m and the 7970m AFTER the new AMD driver patches for the 7970m are released by the end of the year.
    In your professional estimation and based on what you seen thus far, will the 7970m be on par and and roughly equal to the 680m once the updated drivers are released for it?
    I ask this, because like a lot of other people here (and other forums as well) who own the 7970m were told big things about gaming performance ON PAPER that never translated into real-world results in the games we played due to under-utilization/Enduro problems, and so we are still seriously thinking of swapping out our cards for the much better 680m.
    If you were in this same position as we are, would you still swap out GPU's for the 680m even after the AMD patches are in place regardless of the big initial price difference or later upgrade swap-out cost (which would run about $700-$800 dollars according to what Sager told me)?

    Call me a "Doubting Thomas" here, but I am still very dubious and skeptical at this point of whether or not our 7970m GPU's will ever be on par in gaming or battery life with the 680m at any point regardless of what patch/update AMD puts out in the next 6 months.

    Your thoughts?
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    He already showed on the benchmarks he ran on many games, it's not far behind the Alienware. So with a few more iterations and fixes, hopefully be on par. He also said this isn't the finished hotfix that will be released, it wasn't even packaged properly and had issues installing it.

    As for 680M. C'mon be serious. The 680M costs $900 if you were to buy it separately, and it is about $300 more than 7970M from any Clevo reseller. You can hope, but why forego your brain and common sense? The difference between 7970M on my Clevo and a 680M equipped in many games, is not that far apart right now. Again, you're trying to have paid $50 for a cake but wanting it to be the $150 cake. Can't do both.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    If AMD does everything right, by the end of the year the HD 7970M should be roughly the same level as the GTX 680M -- faster in a few titles, slower in others. My recommendation (and I made it at the bottom of the 7970M conclusion) is that for a $2000 notebook, the better drivers and performance of the GTX 680M make it the better choice: 15% more money ($2300), 15% better performance, and drivers that work today.

    But if you already have the 7970M, would I try to buy the upgraded 680M? Unless you can return the 7970M for $600 and only pay the $300 difference, no I wouldn't. Maybe if you can return the whole notebook and get it with 680M that would work? Also, by the end of the year (or early next year), we'll probably be seeing another generation of high-end mobile GPUs. By the time AMD has 7970M fully fixed in terms of drivers, it will be their "last year's best AMD option". Anyway, wait for the Hotfix, test it in the games you want to play, and then decide if it's good enough or not.

    Also, testing several games on the P170EM with Optimus GTX 680M, the GTX 680M also has "underutilization" problems. Now, they may be to a lesser degree than the 7970M, and so far it's mostly at our Medium and High detail testing (e.g. not at Ultra). I'll be discussing this in part 2 of the P170EM review. It's possible that the root issue is simply the copying of frames, particularly at higher frame rates (lower settings). Whether you're at max detail or minimum detail, copying a 1920x1080 frame over the PCIe bus will use the same amount of bandwidth. I wouldn't think it's much of a problem (especially at PCIe 3.0 speeds), but it's still overhead. A 5-10% drop in some cases might be the cost of Optimus/Enduro.
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    I think this should also be put in perspective. Dell, Samsung and others make LOTS of laptops for the battery conscience and very good at it. Clevo in their current lineup, I don't see any thin and light. Even their slimmed down have GTX 660M, more powerful than the best Apple can offer. And even their 11" machine has a 650M. I agree, the battery life on Clevo pales compared to Alienware, but I think it should be stated differently. This is what you get from a company that doesn't make ANY thin and light notebooks made primarily for on the go battery efficiency. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Alienware proves that you can still get reasonable battery life without being "thin and light" -- at least if you want to. Clevo is also the company that for years fought off the trend of Optimus and only started supporting it with Sandy Bridge. I know people that hate the idea of Optimus, and I think there's still a place for discrete-only systems. Alienware covers both with their BIOS option to disable the iGPU, and Clevo could have done the same. Anyway, battery life is just one item on my list of things Clevo hasn't done as well as they could. Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    FYI Alienware are unlikely to do that in the future. MS, Nvidia, Intel and AMD all have concluded muxless switchable graphics is the best method and will be the standard.

    Alienware is designed for the mainstream crowd who are more interested in being able to brag about a brand name than being able to customize their laptop and paying a premium for it. And you forget, Clevo is the pioneer when it comes to laptop gaming. They were the first company to use MXM, the first to have SLI and CFX laptops. They are the industry leader, and standard setter for mobile gaming. Much of the cooling design, dual fan design and customization and upgradability is pioneered by Clevo. And this is what they are good at.

    Also I highly doubt that someone who buys a 17" Alienware will be using it for 4+ hours at a time on the battery. You can't game on it on battery still, so why bother using a 17" monster for 4+ hours browsing on Chrome? Sure it's just on aspect of your review, but you sure hammered it in, Clevo are inept at battery life. I think for many Clevo owners, we're just happy we even have battery life.
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    I think this review was great. I just believe the audience for a Clevo is not the same as perspective this review was written from. The people who buy Clevo are not the same crowd who are looking for a brand name notebook so they can proudly show off their billboard fashion sense. It's not the crowd that is going to be focused on the aesthetics or even how amazing the keyboard is. I find the keyboard to be lacking also, but it's exaggerated. It's functional and it works. I've used the keyboard for work for months now and I haven't had issues with it, whether I'm working on the database, data entry or working on marketing material.

    I think your preference in notebooks shows clearly. Obviously the Samsung Series 7 is your cup of tea. I'm quite the opposite, I don't want a silver notebook, I want a beast matte finished, uninteresting notebook. I don't want attention or stares. I don't want to advertise that I have a $2000 laptop to the world. Alienware, MSI, Asus with their eye catching design, scream, I'm expensive, I'm worth a pretty penny, steal me, touch me. No one wants to look at my laptop or touch it, they don't care, and that's just dandy with me.

    Also I differ on your opinion on the display ports. I like em in the back and appreciate that. When I connect a display to my machine, I don't have the display to the right or left of me, it's behind my laptop. So for me, personally, it makes perfect sense. This way I don't have a cable jutting out from the side and jerked backwards. Just me I guess, but makes a whole lot of sense to me.
    Reply

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