Meet the ASUS N56VM

For Mobile Ivy Bridge, Intel has teamed up with ASUS to provide us with an early sample of their upcoming N56VM notebook. You’ll note the choice of words there: this is an early sample, with indications that the hardware we received isn’t quite final, and it’s also a notebook as opposed to a laptop. Even so, as a first taste of what’s to come, the N56VM is very impressive.

I’ll admit to being quite happy with the industrial design on the N56VM. We’ve looked at N-series ASUS laptops in the past, but this iteration is much improved in terms of interior aesthetics. While it appears like the palm rest could be aluminum or some other metal, in actuality it’s just silver plastic, but it still looks nice. There’s certainly an element of the MacBook Pro vibe going on, only without costing nearly as much. The LCD cover does have an aluminum backing and it’s relatively solid, pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Sony VAIO SE in terms of feel.

In terms of user input devices, the keyboard feels good with a decent amount of key travel and not flex or springiness. Where ASUS continues to bother me is with their 10-key layout; there’s room for the 10-key to shift to the right a bit more and make space for a double-size Zero key. Take a look at the VAIO SE keyboard to see what we like, ASUS—it’s a simple change that could be implemented without any radical redesign work. Oh, and give us a backlight—the F3/F4 keys are silkscreened for it, and I hope that the lack of a backlight on our test unit is simply because we’re looking at early hardware; however, I worry that ASUS will remove the silkscreened labels and leave us with a non-lit keyboard. If I had my way, all laptops that cost north of $800 would include keyboard backlighting.

The other input device is the touchpad, and ASUS includes a frankly massive ElanTech clickable touchpad, similar in size to what you’d find on a MacBook Pro 15. The touchpad works great for the most part, as long as you like the whole clickable aspect; I don’t, really, but I can adapt well enough that it wouldn’t bother me. Gestures actually work very well for scrolling, delivering an experience that’s better than most other touchpads I’ve used. Oddly, however, if you “coast” (e.g. flick two fingers down on a web page so that the page will continue to scroll after you release), the scrolling becomes very choppy when your fingers leave the pad. That seems like more of a driver issue, and it’s not a huge problem, but it is worth pointing out. Again, speaking to my personal preferences (and Dustin agrees with me), I’d rather have discrete buttons and ditch the clickable touchpad. Other than potentially nicer aesthetics, there’s nothing better about having the buttons integrate into the touchpad surface in my book.

For the remaining hardware components, here’s a rundown of the specifications of our test unit.

ASUS N56VM Specifications
(Pre-release Hardware—shipping versions may differ)
Processor Intel Core i7-3720QM
(Quad-core 2.60-3.60GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM77
Memory 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600
Graphics Intel HD 4000 (16 EUs)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M 2GB DDR3
(96 CUDA cores, 797/1594/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM)
Display 15.6" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(LG Philips LP156WF1)
Hard Drive(s) 750GB 7200RPM HDD
(Seagate ST9750420AS)
Optical Drive Blu-ray Combo Drive (Matshita UJ141AF)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8161)
802.11n WiFi (Intel Wireless-N 2230)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
WiDi 2.0 Ready
Audio Bang & Olufsen Stereo Speakers
Headphone and microphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 10.8V, ~5.2Ah, 56Wh
Front Side Memory Card Reader
Left Side 2 x USB 3.0
HDMI 1.4a
Gigabit Ethernet
Exhaust vent
VGA
Subwoofer jack
Right Side Headphone jack
Microphone jack
2 x USB 3.0
Optical Drive
AC Power Connection
Kensington Lock
Back Side N/A
Operating System Windows 7 Professional 64-bit (via Intel)
Dimensions 14.97" x 10.09" x 1.12-1.34" (WxDxH)
(380mm x 256mm x 28.4-34.0mm)
Weight 6.01 lbs (2.73kg)
Extras HD Webcam
102-Key keyboard
Flash reader (MMC/SD/MS Pro)
120W Power Adapter

I don’t want to dwell too much on the hardware specs of the N56VM we’re testing, mostly because I’m not entirely sure this is what the final product will include. I’ve asked both Intel and ASUS on pricing and configuration options; Intel is suggesting a retail price of somewhere between $1000 and $1100 and ASUS is suggesting anywhere from to $1000 to $1300, depending on the specific configuration. My ASUS contact also said they may have a faster Kepler-based GPU in the US version (as opposed to the recycled GT 630M in our test unit), the CPU will most likely be an i7-3610QM, Blu-ray support will be dependent on the model, and there may be some budget configurations that ship with a DVDRW and a lower resolution 1366x768 LCD.

While we’re on the subject of the hardware configuration, I do have a few things to say about the NVIDIA GPU. First, the laptop shipped with an older 290.47 NVIDIA driver (dating back to around November or December of last year!) that initially caused some of our gaming tests to fail to run—even when attempting to run on the IGP. A quick email to NVIDIA got me updated 296.54 drivers (the 300 series beta won’t install, if you’re wondering), but the other troublesome element isn’t as readily fixed. If you look at the clocks we listed above, you’ll notice that the GT 630M is running at 475/950MHz core/shaders. The problem is that GT 540M and GT 630M normally run at 672/1344MHz, so the GT 630M clocks are 30% lower than what we’d expect. Given this is pre-release hardware, I’m hopeful that the actual shipping product will have better clock speeds—and getting a GT 640M or even GT 650M into the chassis would elevate the N56VM from being a mainstream laptop that can handle a bit of gaming into a viable gaming laptop.

Update: So it took a while, but I actually ended up figuring out that the reported clock speeds for the GT 630M in the N56VM are incorrect. GPU-Z and the NVIDIA Control Panel both list 475/950MHz core/shader clocks, but the sensors tab in GPU-Z shows 797/1594MHz, and based on performance (which we'll see later), the sensor readings are correct.

There were a few other oddities during testing that speak to the early nature of the hardware. The wireless toggle shortcut on the keyboard properly launched a WiFi on/off onscreen overlay that we’ve come to know from previous ASUS laptops, only it didn’t actually work properly. It would enable/disable the Bluetooth radio, but WiFi would only turn off/on using the shortcut if we restarted the laptop. Another anomaly is the keyboard backlight indicators on the F3/F4 keys; there’s no keyboard backlight on our unit, though we’d love to see one!

What all this means is that we’re testing a laptop that may or may not actually ship in this particular configuration. ASUS will certainly have several N56VM SKUs available (and we know there will also be an N56VZ using the same chassis), and there will be models for Asia, the US, Europe, etc. Hopefully we’ll also see some models with a faster GPU, in particular a Kepler-based offering, as the GPU we’re testing isn’t anything special.

The one thing that I hope doesn’t change is the LCD. It’s not the best 15.6” 1080p LCD I’ve ever tested; I’m still heavily biased in favor of the wide viewing angles delivered by the Sony VAIO SE’s IPS panel, but second to that the AU Optronics B156HW01 v4 is my favorite TN panel in this size. Still, the LG panel in our unit is at least a good offering. We’ll give the detailed numbers later, but suffice it to say the contrast is good, I love the anti-glare coating, and the backlight can get really bright (over 400 nits!) if needed. Colors are only “okay” and I can certainly see the 6-bit interpolated color effect when I look for it (as I can with nearly all TN panels), but at least we’re not dealing with a glossy 1366x768 LCD with a poor 200:1 contrast ratio!

Another item that deserves praise with the N56VM is the speakers. I’ve seen other ASUS laptops sporting Bang & Olufsen branding before, but until now the speakers were still disappointing. The N56VM on the other hand actually has the ability to produce good audio without the need for headphones. I still don’t think it’s better than the Dell XPS 15 (the XPS 15z isn’t the same, incidentally—the XPS 15 sounds far better, as does the N56VM), but it’s at least close. It’s one of the better sounding laptops I’ve had a chance to use in recent years.

So kudos to ASUS and Intel for delivering a laptop that provides just about everything I could ask for. If I could actually point users at a store where they could purchase this exact unit and configuration for $1100 or less, I would happily do so—and I could even see paying up to $1200. However, I would steer clear of any budget configurations, especially if they use a bog standard 1366x768 display. It’s that simple. Now let’s run through the benchmark results and see what Ivy Bridge brings to the mobile world.

Mobile Ivy Bridge Lineup and New Chipsets Ivy Bridge Application Performance: Movin’ On Up
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  • krumme - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    There is a reason Intel is bringing 14nm to the atoms in 2014.

    The product here doesnt make sense. Its expensive and not better than the one before it, except better gaming - that is, if the drivers work.

    I dont know if the SB notebooks i have in the house is the same as the ones Jarred have. Mine didnt bring a revolution, but solid battery life, like the penryn notebook and core duo i also have. In my world more or less the same if you apply a ssd for normal office work.

    Loads of utterly uninteresting benchmark doest mask the facts. This product excels where its not needed, and fails where it should excell most: battery life.

    The trigate is mostyly a failure now. There is no need to call it otherwise, and the "preview" looks 10% like a press release i my world. At least trigate is not living up to expectations. Sometimes that happen with technology development, its a wonder its so smooth for Intel normally, and a testament to their huge expertise. When the technology matures and Intel makes better use of the technology in the arch, we will se huge improvements. Spare the praise until then, this is just wrong and bad.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Seriously!? You're going to mention Atom as the first comment on Ivy Bridge? Atom is such a dog as far as performance is concerned that I have to wonder what planet you're living on. 14nm Atom is going to still be a slow product, only it might double the performance of Cedar Trail. Heck, it could triple the performance of Cedar Trail, which would make it about as fast as Core 2 CULV from three years ago. Hmmm.....

    If Sandy Bridge wasn't a revolution, offering twice the performance as Clarksfield at the high end and triple the battery life potential (though much of that is because Clarksfield was paired with power hungry GPUs), I'm not sure what would be a revolution. Dual-core SNB wasn't as big of a jump, but it was still a solid 15-25% faster than Arrandale and offered 5% to 50% better battery life--the 50% figure coming in H.264 playback; 10-15% better battery life was typical of office workloads.

    Your statement with regards to battery life basically shows you either don't understand laptops, or you're being extremely narrow minded with Ivy Bridge. I was hoping for more, but we're looking at one set of hardware (i7-3720QM, 8GB RAM, 750GB 7200RPM HDD, switchable GT 630M GPU, and a 15.6" LCD that can hit 430 nits), and we're looking at it several weeks before it will go on sale. That battery life isn't a huge leap forward isn't a real surprise.

    SNB laptops draw around 10W at idle, and 6-7W of that is going to the everything besides the CPU. That means SNB CPUs draw around 2-3W at idle. This particular IVB laptop draws around 10W at idle, and all of the other components (especially the LCD) will easily draw at least 6-7W, which means once again the CPU is using 2-3W at idle. IVB could draw 0W at idle and the best we could hope for would be a 50% improvement in battery life.

    As for the final comment, 22nm and tri-gate transistors are hardly a failure. They're not the revolution many hoped for, at least not yet. Need I point out that Intel's first 32nm parts (Arrandale) also failed to eclipse their outgoing and mature 45nm parts? I'm not sure what the launch time frame is for ULV IVB, but I suspect by the time we see those chips 22nm will be performing a lot better than it is in the first quad-core chips.

    From my perspective, to shrink a process node, improve performance of your CPU by 5-25%, and keep power use static is still a definite success and worthy of praise. When we get at least three or four other retail IVB laptops in for review, then we can actually start to say with conviction how IVB compares to SNB. I think it's better and a solid step forward for Intel, especially for lower cost laptops and ultrabooks.

    If all you're doing is office work, which is what it sounds like, you're right: Core 2, Arrandale, Sandy Bridge, etc. aren't a major improvement. That's because if all you're doing is office work, 95% of the time the computer is waiting for user input. It's the times where you really tax your PC that you notice the difference between architectures, and the change from Penryn to Arrandale to Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge represents about a doubling in performance just for mundane tasks like office work...and a lot of people would still be perfectly content to run Word, Excel, etc. on a Core 2 Duo.
    Reply
  • usama_ah - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Trigate is not a failure, this move to Trigate wasn't expected to bring any crazy amounts of performance benefits. Trigate was necessary because of the limitations (leaks) from ever smaller transistors. Trigate has nothing to do with the architecture of the processor per se, it's more about how each individual transistor is created on such a small scale. Architectural improvements are key to significant improvements.

    Sandy Bridge was great because it was a brand new architecture. If you have been even half-reading what they post on Anandtech, Intel's tick-tock strategy dictates that this move to Ivy Bridge would be small improvements BY DESIGN.

    You will see improvements in battery life with the NEW architecture, AFTER Ivy Bridge (when Intel stays at 22nm), the so-called "tock," called "Haswell." And yes, tri-gate will still be in use at that time.
    Reply
  • krumme - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    As I understand trigate, trigate provides the oportunity to even better granularity of power for the individual transistor, by using different numbers of gates. If you design your arch to the process (using that oportunity,- as IB is not, but the first 22nm Atom aparently is), there should be "huge" savings

    I asume you BY DESIGN mean "by process" btw.

    In my world process improvement is key to most industrial production, with tools often being the weak link. The process decides what is possible in your design. That why Intel have used billions "just" mounting the right equipment.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    No, he means Ivy Bridge is not the huge leap forward by design -- Intel intentionally didn't make IVB a more complex, faster CPU. That will be Haswell, the 22nm tock to the Ivy Bridge tick. Making large architectural changes requires a lot of time and effort, and making the switch between process nodes also requires time and effort. If you try to do both at the same time, you often end up with large delays, and so Intel has settled on a "tick tock" cadence where they only do one at a time.

    But this is all old news and you should be fully aware of what Intel is doing, as you've been around the comments for years. And why is it you keep bringing up Atom? It's a completely different design philosophy from Ivy Bridge, Sandy Bridge, Merom/Conroe, etc. Atom is more a competitor to ARM SoCs, which have roughly an order of magnitude less compute performance than Ivy Bridge.
    Reply
  • krumme - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    - Intel speeds up Atom development, - not using depreciated equipment for the future.
    - Intel invest heavily to get into new business areas and have done for years
    - Haswell will probably be slimmer on the cpu part

    The reason they do so is because the need of cpu power outside of the servermarket, is stagnating. And new third world markets is emergin. And all is turning mobile - its all over your front page now i can see.

    The new Atom probably will provide adequate for most. (like say core 2 culv). Then they will have the perfect product. Its about mobility and price and price. Haswell will probably be the product for the rest of the mainstream market leaving even less for the dedicated gpu.

    IB is an old style desktop cpu, maturing a not quite ready 22nm trigate process. Designed to fight a BD that did not arive. Thats why it does not impress. And you can tell Intel knows because the mobile lineup is so slim.

    The market have changed. The shareprice have rocketed for AMD even though their high-end cpu failed, because the Atom sized bobcat and old technology llano could enter the new market. I could note have imagined the success of Llano. I didnt understand the purpose of it, because trinity was comming so close. But the numbers talk for themselves. People buy an user experience where it matter at lowest cost, not pcmark, encoding times, zip, unzip.

    You have to use new benchmarks. And they have to be reinvented again. They have to make sense. Obviously cpu have to play a less role and the rest more. You have a very strong team, if not the strongest out there. Benchmark methology should be at the top of your list and use a lot of your development time.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    The only benchmarks that would make sense under your new paradigm are graphics and video benchmarks, well, and battery life as well, because those are the only areas where a better GPU matters. Unless you have some other suggestions? Saying "CPU speed is reaching the point where it really doesn't matter much for a large number of people" is certainly true, and I've said as much on many occasions. Still, there's a huge gulf between Atom and Core 2 still, and there are many tasks where CULV would prove insufficient.

    By the time the next Atom comes out, maybe it will be fixed in the important areas so that stuff like YouTube/Netflix/Hulu all work without issue. Hopefully it also supports at least 4GB RAM, because right now the 2GB limit along with bloated Windows 7 makes Atom a horrible choice IMO. Plus, margins are so low on Atom that Intel doesn't really want to go there; they'd rather figure out ways to get people to continue paying at least $150 per CPU, and I can't fault their logic. If CULV became "fast enough" for everyone Intel's whole business model goes down the drain.

    Funny thing is that even though we're discussing Atom and by extension ARM SoCs, those chips are going through the exact same rapid increases in performance. And they need it. Tablets are fine for a lot of tasks, but opening up many web sites on a tablet is still a ton slower than opening the same sites on a Windows laptop. Krait and Tegra 3 are still about 1/3 the amount of performance I want from a CPU.

    As for your talk about AMD share prices, I'd argue that AMD share prices have increased because they've rid themselves of the albatross that was their manufacturing division. And of course, GF isn't publicly traded and Abu Dhabi has plenty of money to invest in taking over CPU manufacturing. It's a win-win scenario for those directly involved (AMD, UAE), though I'm not sure it's necessarily a win for everyone.
    Reply
  • bhima - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    I figure Intel wants everyone to want their CULV processors since they seem to charge the most for them to the OEMs, or are the profit margins not that great because they are a more difficult/expensive processor to make? Reply
  • krumme - Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - link

    Yes - video and gaming is what matters for the consumer now, everything is okey as it will - hopefully - be 2014. What matters is ssd, screen quality, and everything else, - just not cpu power. It just needs to have far less space. Cpu having so much space is just old habits for us old geeks.

    AMD getting rid of GF burden have been in the plan for years. Its known and can not influence share price. Basicly the, late, move to mobile focus, and the excellent execution of those consumer / not reviewer shaped apus is a part of the reason.

    The reviewers need to move their mindset :) - btw its my impression Dustin is more in line with what the general consumer want. Ask him if he thinks the consumer want a new ssd benchmark with 100 hours of 4k reading and writing.
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    No, the finer granularity is just a nice side effect (which could probably be used more aggressively in the future). However, the main benefit of tri-gate is more control over the channel, which enables IB to reach high clock speeds at comparably very low voltages, and at very low leakage. Reply

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