Dual-Core Sandy Bridge: Moderate Improvements over Arrandale

Since this review is more about dual-core Sandy Bridge than a specific laptop, we’ll start our conclusion looking at the Intel platform. While I was frankly blown away by the improvements that quad-core Sandy Bridge brought to the table, the dual-core variant isn’t quite so impressive. Most of that can be attributed to the fact that Clarksfield was long overdue for replacement, so moving from 45nm and discrete GPUs to 32nm with on-die graphics and better power gating was a real boon. Going from dual-core Arrandale to dual-core Sandy Bridge is more of an incremental improvement. If you consider Intel’s Tick-Tock strategy, that makes sense: Nehalem and by extension Clarksfield are in the “tock” category (e.g. new architecture on a mature process), while Arrandale is a “tick”. Sandy Bridge is the “tock” to Arrandale (and other parts as well), so the big improvement for Arrandale is going to come next year with Ivy Bridge.

While dual-core Sandy Bridge isn’t the homerun that quad-core SNB is, we do have to acknowledge all the areas that it gets right. Power use in light to moderate workloads is down slightly from Arrandale, and video decoding power use is down significantly. Graphics performance on the mobile chips is double what we got with Arrandale, and compatibility in general has improved. Something we didn’t get into in this review is Intel’s Quick Sync technology, which is currently the fastest way to transcode H.264 video content if you want to put up a quick video on YouTube. What really impresses me is that you can get similar battery life (in light workloads) with either the dual-core or quad-core SND parts, so provided your laptop can dissipate the 45W (vs. 35W on dual-core) of heavy workloads there’s no need to compromise. Apple recognized the benefits here and chose to take the quad-core only approach with their new MacBook Pro 15/17 models, though given the thin chassis it looks like they get a bit too hot and loud for my taste.

The major selling points of dual-core Sandy Bridge are straightforward. First is pricing: the i5-2520M carries a 1000 unit price of $225 according to Intel, replacing the previous generation i5-520M. Intel doesn’t disclose pricing for the i5-24xxM parts, but I’d expect OEMs to pay substantially less than $200 for those chips. At the high-end, there are also dual-core i7-26xxM parts that will run into the $300+ range, but rather than paying $346 for something like the i7-2620M (2.7GHz base with 3.4GHz Turbo), I’d much rather have the $378 i7-2720QM (2.2GHz base, up to 3.3GHz max Turbo). In most workloads, I expect the 2720QM is going to be equal to or faster than the 2620M. We already hinted at the other reason for the dual-core parts: power restrictions. While a quad-core chip might idle very close to dual-core levels, put a heavier load on the CPU and the 45W TDP comes into play. I don’t expect to see standard voltage DC parts in anything smaller than 13.3”-screen laptops, and 45W quad-core chips will have a very difficult time in smaller chassis, but the 17W parts like the i7-2617M should be viable for 11.6”-screen ultraportables—it’s just a shame that the 1000 unit pricing on such CPUs is $289.

If we look at the bigger picture, one area where Sandy Bridge isn’t likely to tread is the sub-$600 laptop market—just like Arrandale, if we leave out the cut-down Celeron P4000 and Pentium P6000 models. You can already buy the ASUS K53E-A1 with an i3-2310M for $625, but going lower than that will be difficult. When you look at everything that goes into a modern laptop, it’s easy to see why. [Warning: Very rough estimates on pricing ahead.]

Add up the cost of the OS, RAM, storage, LCD, chassis, and battery and you’re looking at a base price of around $300 for a 4GB RAM + 500GB HDD laptop. AMD’s Brazos motherboard + APU will cost another $100-$125 most likely, which explains why the E-350 laptops start at $450 as a minimum price on the HP dm1z. With Sandy Bridge, the minimum cost of the motherboard and an i3 CPU is going to be closer to $200, and the faster i5 processors might bump that up to $250 to $300. Minimalist Sandy Bridge laptops like the K53E start at $600, which leaves plenty of room in the budget space. A laptop with the Celeron B810 can probably get down to the $500 price point, but at that point you’re only running SNB at 1.6GHz, you don’t have Turbo, you lose Quick Sync, and the GPU is a 6EU part that only runs at up to 950MHz. Such a laptop is going to be about half as fast as the i5-2520M we looked at today, which means it’s not particularly compelling if there’s only a 20% price difference.

If you’re in the market for a new laptop right now, I can make a very strong case for spending $800 to get a balanced laptop that should last several years. The K53E comes close to being such a laptop, with the only omission being switchable graphics of some form. If you compare the K53E to other budget offerings it provides a substantially faster CPU, a better GPU (for now), and depending on what you’re comparing it with either much better (K10.5) or only slightly worse (E-350) battery life. You get all that for just 16% more than the Toshiba L645, or 60% more than the HP dm1z. The problem is, there’s a huge market for laptops that are simply as cheap as possible—it’s the one reason netbooks are even remotely popular in my opinion. Netbooks are slow, often poorly built, slow, too small for many to use comfortably, and above all they’re really slow. AMD’s C-50 at least makes them viable for watching YouTube content and other videos, but they’re still much slower than what you can get for only a moderate bump in price. However, try talking to most people about YouTube and Flash content, amount of memory, hard drive capacity, and the difference between Win7 Starter and Win7 Home Premium and all you’ll get is a blank stare and a statement of, “But this laptop only costs $300!” If it’s difficult to convince someone to move from a $300 netbook to a $500 laptop, you can imagine the reaction most people have if you suggest a $720 laptop.

Intel looks content to cede a lot of ground to AMD in the low cost laptop market. There’s little (well, nothing really) to recommend an Atom netbook over a Brazos alternative at the $300 to $350 price bracket. Move up to $400 to $500 and you’ve got a bunch of AMD Athlon II, Turion II, and Phenom II laptops that will run circles around cheap netbooks; they may lack battery life and might run warm, but they’ve got plenty of RAM and storage. AMD E-350 laptops cater to the other side of the fence, with smaller sizes and better battery life, plus a better GPU compared to the old HD 4200 IGP. As for Intel, you can find Celeron and Pentium laptops for $500, but they’re cut back enough that while they might boast better battery life than AMD’s Danube (K10.5) platform, they fail to convince as a complete solution. After that we enter the gray area where laptops like the K53E overlap AMD laptops that have discrete GPUs—and presumably in the near future we’ll see Llano show up in the $600 to $750 price range. Finally, you get to the $800+ range, and this is where I find laptops start to get interesting. Here you reach the point where you don’t have to make serious compromises in pursuit of a lower price.

Above $800, I wouldn’t recommend much from the AMD camp right now, other than their graphics chips. The HD 6000M GPUs look like they perform well and have good power characteristics, and AMD might even have an answer for NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology (we’re trying to get some systems for testing to see how the latest AMD switchable graphics work). However, even at 3.0GHz a dual-core K10.5 CPU can’t keep up with last year’s i3-370M, and the aging HD 4250 IGP needed to be retired early last year. Thankfully, Llano will fix the GPU/IGP, and with the process technology switch and better use of power gating it should close the CPU performance gap. We’ll see what Llano has to offer soon enough, but right now the bar has been set and dual-core and quad-core Sandy Bridge are the ones to beat.

As for the ASUS K53E, while we looked at a notebook with the i5-2520M instead of the 2310M or 2410M, we still have a good idea of how the latter will perform. In a pinch, $625 for an i3-based notebook might be acceptable, but Turbo is a major selling point for Sandy Bridge and I’d be hesitant to give that up. For $720, the K53E-B1 gives you good application performance, good battery life, excellent transcoding capabilities, and adequate graphics performance for entry-level gaming. You’ll miss out on newer features like USB 3.0, you won’t get any other specialized expansion options like eSATA, FireWire, or ExpressCard, and you’ll get a poor quality LCD. We can levy similar complaints against many other budget laptops and notebooks.

The biggest problem with the ASUS K53E is really another ASUS laptop. If you don’t care about games at all, the K53E is fine, but when you can get substantially better gaming performance, a smaller and lighter chassis, and better battery life (except for video decoding) with the U41JF and only pay an extra $100, I’d be more inclined to go that route right now. With the 15% overclock, the U41JF’s i3-380M even manages to keep up and sometimes surpass the performance of the i5-2415M in the new MacBook Pro 13. There are definitely advantages with Sandy Bridge compared to Arrandale, but the dual-core parts tend to be more of an incremental upgrade than a major game-changer.

LCD, Temperatures, and Noise Levels
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  • duploxxx - Friday, April 08, 2011 - link

    what a lousy comment:

    On the other side of the charts—literally—is AMD’s E-350. We know it’s not meant to compete with Sandy Bridge (or even Arrandale or Core 2 Duo), but keep in mind that the cheapest price for such a laptop is going to be around $450. On average, the i5-2520M lays the smack down hard and ends up roughly four times faster than an E-350. Ah, but the E-350 has a much better IGP, right?

    you could have also put some higher rated atom's here,Tthey all would have performed even worse for the same price. Its OEM who are pushing this price higher of the Brazos,

    Watch the HD3000 scores and how they will be demolished by the LIano A8 series within a month the acer with P520 provides already a good idea about that besides the fact that it will have 4 cores at a much higher turbo frequency. The only thing that will be left is the higher single and dual core turbo mode for intel,.Afterall the i5M is exactly what should be compared with AMD A8M series, not a brazos......
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 08, 2011 - link

    Exactly, which is why I mention Llano oh... about nine times in the article, and point out that it should double the Brazos IGP performance with a CPU that "is a huge step up in performance from Bobcat." As for Atom: "There’s little (well, nothing really) to recommend an Atom netbook over a Brazos alternative at the $300 to $350 price bracket." Elsewhere I make fun of netbooks (Atom) for being, "slow, often poorly built, slow, too small for many to use comfortably, and above all really slow."

    The point with the SNB vs. E-350 comparison is that lots of people rip on Intel's graphics as being unfit for just about anything. The reality is that if we take the same mindset, Bobcat is just as bad because the CPU is such a massive bottleneck that it can only muster average graphics performance that's slightly faster than Arrandale. In reality, without the CPU bottleneck (or RAM bandwidth bottleneck) I suspect HD 6310M would be slightly faster than HD 3000. But when SNB offers about twice the graphics performance and four times the CPU performance and 80% of the battery life, yeah, those are items worth mentioning. It's also about 50% more expensive, of course.

    A balanced approach is the best for laptops, and that's my complaint with a lot of systems. Sandy Bridge is at least fast enough on the GPU side that the only people who won't be happy are serious gamers--casual gamers can get by. Brazos is also somewhat balanced, but the Bobcat core isn't enough even if it beat Atom--it's less than half the CPU performance of an Athlon II P320 for instance, and you will notice that when installing programs, loading applications, booting Windows, etc. Right now, Brazos needs more CPU, Danube needs more battery life and less power/heat and a better IGP, and gamers need a discrete GPU. Llano could easily take care of all three items.
    Reply
  • crazyape995 - Friday, April 08, 2011 - link

    I think the point duploxxx might be trying to make is that you intentionally compared Sandy Bridge against the E-350 to make it look bad.

    I understand the comments about AMD graphics being better than Intel's, but those were directed specifically at the Atom platform.

    AMD's E-350 destroys anything Intel's Atom platform can do, even with Nvidia's help. But what sets me off is how you don't hesitate to put it against Intel's flagship processors, but nowhere do I see Atom's results in the benchmarks.

    The chart looks like it was devised specifically to make the E-350 look like the worst chip available. And no amount of explainations/disclaimers change that.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 08, 2011 - link

    Fact: There are $600+ E-350 laptops available. Regardless of whether or not they should exist, they do exist, and as such it's a fair comparison. I didn't include Atom because it's not even remotely in contention -- and if I had C-50 results I wouldn't include those either. If people don't understand that we selected 12-15 laptops for the charts out of our catalog of over 80+ reviews, I'm not going to apologize. Use Mobile Bench and make your own comparisons.

    The conclusion talks a lot about the strengths of Brazos and AMD, but some people have a history of being strong AMD advocates in our comments. Every time I/we suggest that AMD might not be the best choice, they have to post a rant about how we're paid off or blind/stupid/[insert pejorative]. Read our Brazos reviews and you'll see we focused a lot of good attention on the platform, though we didn't hesitate to call out the weaknesses.

    Simply put, E-350 is not good for current games, and it's not particularly fast in general applications. It's fine for multimedia and basic office work, it gets good battery life, and it doesn't cost a lot. If that's what you want, it's a great solution. Personally, there are too many things I like to do that are sluggish on E-350 (i.e. casual browser games like Bejeweled Blitz come to mind).
    Reply
  • derricker - Friday, April 08, 2011 - link

    "The conclusion talks a lot about the strengths of Brazos and AMD, but some people have a history of being strong AMD advocates in our comments. Every time I/we suggest that AMD might not be the best choice, they have to post a rant about how we're paid off or blind/stupid/[insert pejorative]. "

    Has it occurred that it's too obvious in front of everybody's eyes and that you particularly are not doing that great of a job in trying to deny the blatant bias in favor of intel??

    The rudeness of your replies comes as a surprise for me here at anand, seeing a heavily biased articled in favor of those who pay the bills, that's yesterday news.
    Reply
  • TypeS - Saturday, April 09, 2011 - link

    There's no rudeness in his post and it's quite clear the bias towards AMD that you and the other two posters who are attacking Jarred have. Seems Jarred has a point made about AMD fanboys and comments.

    Learn to be more observant and aware before you make such biased and unfounded accusations. It's OEMs like Sony who are placing Brazos into a regular notebook form factor and pricing it within striking distance of the ASUS notebook. The point that should come across is that if you start looking at some unbalanced (perhaps even overpriced) E-350 options out there, its worth an extra $100 for overall better performance.

    There's no Intel bias here. And AMD fanboys need to face reality, AMD has a brief moment in the spotlight with K8 but Intel has been 1 or 2 steps ahead ever since Conroe. Even when comparing appropriate alternatives (based on SKUs), Intel wins.

    But you'll find lots of articles where the writers here Anandtech praise AMD, maybe not as much in the CPU market but quite often a lot in the GPU market where they immensely improved and given nVidia a lot of smackdowns that no one expected woujld come.

    So take your defensive AMD fanboyism out the door and learn to be more observant and open-minded.
    Reply
  • kevlno3 - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - link

    To be reality is , don't trust the benchmark. it's not going to benefit you anything. It's only let Intel earn 86% in the market.
    i trust the benchmark , review . now i suffer in Dell N4110. it's doesn't perform well.
    I would said , value of money is most important. when u buy the new notebook , you can save RM3-400 ,why you need to buy Intel? it's wouldn't last you up to 3 years. your model will just out of date in another 9months.
    I will go back to AMD after i can let go this Dell N4110.
    To be frank to whole world ,80% PC user wouldn't notice the speed different in his work space. you can't notice the speed different in 80% time you turn on your computer , you wouldn't notice the different when u doing autoCAD , sending email , log in facebook . but only thing u notice is when u loading the program. (just because this reason we let Intel earn 80% in market.)
    Reply
  • erple2 - Sunday, April 10, 2011 - link

    Do you also believe that the Moon Landings were a staged hoax because the Astronauts gave up swearing to things that they were actually at the moon?

    It's not obvious in my eyes at all. If you want to be rude, go ahead. I think that Jarred (and most of Anandtech) has been quite unbiased towards either camp. Just because your team doesn't win out on every (reasonable) comparison, doesn't imply any kind of bias at all.
    Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 09, 2011 - link

    Jarred, I agree with your reasoning for including the E-350. Some people are blinded by AMD fanboyism, it seems. I have a preference for AMD, but I think your comments are right on the money. I bought a Thinkpad X120e because I think that AMD did a great job reinvigorating the small form factor. At 15.6" the E-350 has more competition and the premium for Intel based solutions is lower, so I think it's a good idea to give buyers an idea of how it compares in this form factor.

    That said, I think it would have been interesting to see how the i3-2310M version of this laptop compares.
    Reply
  • kevlno3 - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - link

    i would tell u , u wouldn't notice you are using E350 or core i3 2310. i totally dislike my Dell N4110 core i3 2310 . because the battery life is just 3hours .(normal price is RM1899 from Dell website , i buy promotion price from dealer , RM1.6k with HD6630 , 4GB , 500GB 7200rpm) E350 is about 6 hours & price is just RM1099. of course i wouldnt go for that model , because i need to play game , i need some model at least with HD6470.
    in fact currently Llano notebook is going crazy . pair with 6650 but only help the benchmark about 10% & the price is nearly to the core i5 model. core i5 2410 + GT540 RM2299. Llano sell RM 1800.
    Dell i5 2410 + HD6470 is selling RM1899.
    i would agree the price if AMD Llano w.o the HD6650 & the price is selling RM1.4k with 5-6 hours battery life
    USD 1 = RM3
    in fact i using C50 to complete all my office work with 8hours battery life . but i think i can't do it with Atom. if not why most of my friend sell it after 2 week?
    Reply

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