ASUS K53E: Testing Dual-Core Sandy Bridgeby Jarred Walton on April 8, 2011 1:00 AM EST
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.