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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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  • htwingnut - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Wait wut? Work for Sager? Hardly. That's not a very fair comment. I've owned and used most every major brand laptop under the sun. I just happen to own two Sagers at the moment, and over the years has become my laptop of choice due to cost, performance, configuration, and ease of maintenance/upgrading.

    I don't disagree there could be some things improved, or think that Sager is perfect, but I was countering some issues you brought up that were either incorrect or perfectly personal opinion/bias is all. I even mentioned the keyboard isn't that great, the touchpad is average, and

    Sure I would like a magnesium alloy construction, but I understand the cost implications. And as stated there is nothing wrong with the durability of the materials as it stands.

    Regarding warranty, I don't think 1 year is great, but it's also pretty standard with most laptops. It's like slamming Ford, GM, or Chrysler for only offering 3/36 warranties on their cars when VW offers 4/50. If you want more, buy more, and at a very reasonable cost compared to competition.

    My bad on the battery, it is 79WHr..

    I wouldn't consider Sager a "boutique" laptop, it's really a rebranded Sager that they add the components too. There are some really great "boutique" Clevo based laptops, Mythlogic for one, that offer superb support and and great warranties.

    In any case I digress.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Sorry... I just thought I saw something where you said "our [something]" when discussing Sager. I didn't mean it as an attack which is why I put a question mark. If someone officially works for a company and wants to engage in a dialog, that's more than welcome -- we just appreciate knowing who a person is and whom they work for.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, I believe you do write for Notebookreview -- or is that an unpaid hobby? Anyway, I know my review ruffled some feathers over there, but you know what they say about opinions....

    I have edited/toned down/clarified some of the commentary on the keyboard and other elements. My discussion of the build materials was also perhaps not entirely clear. I note that the highest end in terms of materials quality (though it has drawbacks like weight) is doing a machined aluminum build, and that such a design would likely jack up the price $500. But I do feel the addition of brushed aluminum veneers is still "putting lipstick on a pig" -- you can dress up the exterior all you want, but underneath there's nothing special.

    Incidentally, I personally find the aesthetic of the P150EM far better than the P170EM, even though it's still mostly plastic. The keyboard still feels the same, but at least there it matches the chassis size nearly perfectly. Because the chassis isn't as large, the plastic doesn't feel as flimsy (not that it's flimsy per se, but everything has more give on a larger chassis), and the soft touch coating is nice -- I'm a sucker for that, but I'm not sure how it holds up long-term.

    Finally, regarding boutiques, I basically use that as a somewhat generic label to mean, "They're not a huge OEM and offers more customization options than you can get from a Dell/HP/etc." Some might consider Clevo to be a "large ODM", but for me they're basically a smaller whitebook vendor that targets a market niche, and nearly all of the resellers fall into the "boutique" category. I don't mean this as a bad thing either; I think most boutiques are able to offer a far more personal level of service than what you get from the big guys.
    Reply
  • htwingnut - Saturday, October 06, 2012 - link

    My reviewing is an unpaid hobby, purely. There's no money in reviewing (well you likely know), at least not enough to support a family on unless you get one of the few lucrative positions out there.

    I guess we can agree to disagree. Would I like a solid metal chassis? Sure. Is it necessary or practical strictly imho? No.

    I find Asus and MSI comparable as far as materials. Alienware is one step up in that regard, but I find the rest of the flashy nature a distraction and unnecessary IMHO.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, October 07, 2012 - link

    No, I don't think we disagree too much... that is about how I feel about the various options in terms of build quality. I guess the disagreement is: would you pay more for it? If I could get a Clevo with a mag-alloy frame for $100 more, I'd say that would be worthwhile; $200 more would be questionable, and at $300+ more they'd need to have build quality every bit as good as mobile workstations. It could certainly be done, but you may be right: the target market may simply now be willing to pay for it. Reply
  • TrantaLocked - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Clevo has no issue with battery life management. The W110ER is the BEST performing per watt-hour, and it has the same GT 650m and 45W i7 processor as the Samsung. Simply put, the EM series laptops are designed not to save energy as they are targeted at gamers. It won't clock down as much, and the 7970m still needs a lot more energy to run. The Alienware models are based on the 680m, which is quite a bit better with power than the 7970m. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    W110ER is best according to what, our charts? That's why I mentioned the SECOND W110ER that I tested, which got battery life as follows:

    Idle: 217 minutes
    Internet: 209 minutes
    H.264: 187 minutes

    Notice the similarity to the P170EM numbers? And I ran those tests myself (twice on each test, listing the higher result for each). I even tried with two different drives, one an SSD and one a Momentus XT. I couldn't figure out why the battery life was so much worse than what Vivek got with the Eurocom Monster 1.0, though we talked about it later and it's possible the improvement was because he did a clean install of Windows whereas I used the supplied install from Clevo.

    Speaking of which, that's an interesting idea: maybe I need to try a clean install of Win7 on the P170EM and see if battery life is the same, better, or worse?
    Reply
  • htwingnut - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    No, battery life using stock Clevo BIOS sucks, period. Latest EC/BIOS helps, getting about 5 hours with basic wi-fi use on W110ER though. So there are improvements being made.

    The Monster 1.0 battery life is curious at best. But I guess with proper tuning in the BIOS and settings I guess it's possible to exceed 5 hours.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Realistically, with a properly tuned BIOS and a 62Wh battery, the W110ER ought to be able to last 8+ hours. Look at the Samsung Series 7: 77Wh battery and a 17.3" LCD and it manages over seven hours idle and six hours Internet. There's no reason an Intel-based laptop can't come close to the numbers put up by AMD's Trinity, especially in light use scenarios. I've actually got a dual-core IVB laptop in now, so I'm going to be interested in seeing what sort of battery life that gets (Dell Latitude E6430s if you're curious). My bet is it will be about equal to Trinity in efficiency. Reply
  • htwingnut - Saturday, October 06, 2012 - link

    Part of the issue in the W110ER is how it handles Optimus. Until recent drivers the GPU never fully shut down (so we think based on some anecdotal evidence). 305.53 and latest driver seem to do it properly. Where system was draining 14-15W with wi-fi on, 40% brightness, it now draws 11-12W. For a 45W CPU, I find that about normal. The latest ME, EC, BIOS updates do help quite a bit. I am getting over 5 hours just casual use with a dual core i5-3360m that I'm testing at the moment. Will compare against the i7-3610QM when done.

    For 8 hours battery the W110ER would have to consume no more than 7.5W. That means 7.5W total for wi-fi, lcd, CPU, RAM, HDD/SSD. Not very realistic. That's about the power drain of the M11x R1 with a 10W ULV CPU. The LCD in the W110ER also has a high power draw for such a small screen.

    The Samsung Series 7 is quite spectacular for sure. I'm curious however if Samsung employed some voltage reduction measures and dropped CPU speed to achieve that power draw. Can you check voltage and CPU speed at idle unplugged on that machine? Using Throttlestop I can drop speed to 800MHz, but voltage is same so it doesn't really matter. Samsung are also masters a optimization. Not an excuse for Clevo or any other manufacturer, but in the end, it also does affect cost. A 17" with low end quad core and GT 650m for $1350 compared with laptops for $400-$500 cheaper with similar specs.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, October 07, 2012 - link

    With an 11.6" LCD, I think 8W idle is perfectly realistic with Ivy Bridge. M11x actually isn't that awesome on power savings either; I've seen quad-core Sandy Bridge draw only 10W idle with a 17.3" LCD, though.

    As for the Samsung Series 7, idle clocks are 1.2GHz, just like they should be. Voltage on the CPU is apparently 0.826 to 0.846 at those clocks; I assume there's some "luck of the draw" there, but I don't know what normal is supposed to be.

    Anyway, you're probably right: with the latest drivers and firmware updates, the W110ER should be doing much better than the second unit I tested, and hopefully close to what we measured on the initial Monster 1.0 review.
    Reply

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