Intel’s Sandy Bridge: Upheaval in the Mobile Landscape

You’re probably sick of me talking about Sandy Bridge in our notebook reviews, particularly since up to now I’ve been unable to provide any numbers for actual performance. Today, Intel takes the wraps off of Mobile Sandy Bridge and I can finally talk specifics. Notebooks have always been substantially slower than desktops, and prices for a set level of performance have been higher; that’s not going to change with the SNB launch, but the gap just got a lot narrower for a lot of users. The key ingredients consist of higher core clocks with substantially higher Turbo modes, an integrated graphics chip that more than doubles the previous generation (also with aggressive Turbo modes), and some additional architectural sauce to liven things up.

If you haven’t already done so, you’ll probably want to begin by reading Anand’s Sandy Bridge Architectural Overview, as well as our Desktop Sandy Bridge coverage. I’m not going to retread ground that he’s already covered, so the focus for this article is going to be solidly on the mobility aspects of Sandy Bridge. With notebooks now outselling desktops by almost two to one, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a greater emphasis is being placed on the new mobile offerings. For starters, most of the mobile SNB chips are getting the full 12EU graphics core, rather than a trimmed down 6EU variant. Toss in all of the improved power management features and what we end up with is a fast-when-needed, power-friendly, and efficient chip. We’ll get to the benchmarks in a moment, but let’s start with a recap of the mobile Sandy Bridge lineup.

Intel Mobile Sandy Bridge (Retail)
Model i7-2920XM i7-2820QM i7-2720QM i7-2620M i5-2540M i5-2520M
Cores/Threads 4/8 4/8 4/8 2/4 2/4 2/4
Base Frequency 2.5GHz 2.3GHz 2.2GHz 2.7GHz 2.6GHz 2.5GHz
Max SC Turbo 3.5GHz 3.4GHz 3.3GHz 3.4GHz 3.3GHz 3.2GHz
Max DC Turbo 3.4GHz 3.3GHz 3.2GHz 3.2GHz 3.1GHz 3.0GHz
Max QC Turbo 3.2GHz 3.1GHz 3.0GHz N/A N/A N/A
Memory Speed DDR3-1600 DDR3-1600 DDR3-1600 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333
L3 Cache 8MB 8MB 6MB 4MB 3MB 3MB
Graphics Cores 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs
Base GFX Freq. 650MHz 650MHz 650MHz 650MHz 650MHz 650MHz
Max GFX Freq. 1300MHz 1300MHz 1300MHz 1300MHz 1300MHz 1300MHz
Hyper-Threading Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TDP 55W 45W 45W 35W 35W 35W
Package rPGA/BGA rPGA/BGA-1244 rPGA/BGA-1244 rPGA/BGA rPGA/BGA rPGA/BGA
Estimated Price $1096 $568 $378 $346 $266 $225

Up first, we have the retail SKUs for the quad-core and dual-core parts. Worth noting is that availability of the quad-core processors should start this week, but the dual-core and LV/ULV parts won’t show up for a few more weeks. The quad-core parts will also use a different BGA package than the dual-core parts. The above will be the most readily available Sandy Bridge parts, as well as the fastest offerings, but there are additional OEM and LV/ULV products as well.

Intel Mobile Sandy Bridge (OEM)
Model i7-2635QM i7-2630QM i5-2410M i3-2310M
Cores/Threads 4/8 4/8 2/4 2/4
Base Frequency 2.0GHz 2.0GHz 2.3GHz 2.1GHz
Max SC Turbo 2.9GHz 2.9GHz 2.9GHz N/A
Max DC Turbo 2.8GHz 2.8GHz 2.6GHz N/A
Max QC Turbo 2.6GHz 2.6GHz N/A N/A
Memory Speed DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333
L3 Cache 6MB 6MB 3MB 3MB
Graphics Cores 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs
Base GFX Freq. 650MHz 650MHz 650MHz 650MHz
Max GFX Freq. 1200MHz 1100MHz 1200MHz 1100MHz
Hyper-Threading Yes Yes Yes Yes
TDP 45W 45W 35W 35W
Package BGA rPGA rPGA/BGA rPGA/BGA

We might get some of the above in OEM systems sent for review, and if so it will be interesting to see how much of an impact the trimmed clock speeds have on overall performance. The only mobile chip without support for Turbo Boost is the i3-2310M, so it will be interesting to see how that compares with current-generation i3 processors. Sandy Bridge should still be faster clock-for-clock than Arrandale/Clarksfield, and pricing on OEM parts might get these down into some very affordable notebooks and laptops. We’ll have to wait and see.

Intel Mobile Sandy Bridge (LV/ULV)
Model i7-2649M i7-2629M i7-2657M i7-2617M i5-2537M
Cores/Threads 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4
Base Frequency 2.3GHz 2.1GHz 1.6GHz 1.5GHz 1.4GHz
Max SC Turbo 3.2GHz 3.0GHz 2.7GHz 2.6GHz 2.3GHz
Max DC Turbo 2.9GHz 2.7GHz 2.4GHz 2.3GHz 2.0GHz
Memory Speed DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333 DDR3-1333
L3 Cache 4MB 4MB 4MB 4MB 3MB
Graphics Cores 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs 12EUs
Base GFX Freq. 500MHz 500MHz 350MHz 350MHz 350MHz
Max GFX Freq. 1100MHz 1100MHz 1000MHz 950MHz 900MHz
Hyper-Threading Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TDP 25W 25W 17W 17W 17W
Package BGA-1023 BGA-1023 BGA-1023 BGA-1023 BGA-1023
Estimated Price $346 $311 $317 $289 $250

What’s interesting to note about the ULV parts is that even the slowest i5-2537M (yeah, those code names are going to be easy to remember!) comes clocked higher than the outgoing i7-640UM, with more aggressive Turbo modes and a 1W lower TDP. Perhaps we’ll see an M11x R3 with 400M (or 500M?) graphics and one of these ULV chips?

But enough about other products; let’s take a look at the preview system we received and see how this thing stacks up to the current generation notebooks. As this isn’t final hardware, we won’t be focusing all that much on the laptop design and features but will instead concentrate on performance. So, come meet our mobile Sandy Bridge test notebook.

Meet the Compal Sandy Bridge Notebook
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  • mtoma - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Something like Core i7 1357M could make Win 7 tablets temporarily viable. Remember that in the ultra portable space the big words are: multitasking, dual core processors (like Cortex A9). So, realistically, we need ULV dual-core Sandy Bridge. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    The i7-640M runs at 1.2GHz minimum and 2.26GHz maximum. The i7-2657M runs at 1.6GHz minimum and 2.7GHz maximum. (Actually, minimum on all the Core 2nd Gen is 800MHz when you aren't doing anything that needs more speed.) That would be 33% faster base speed and up to 19% higher max speed, just on clock speeds alone. However, you forgot to factor in a round 20-25% performance increase just from the Sandy Bridge architecture, so you're really looking at anywhere from 19% (bare minimum) to as much as 66% faster for normal usage, and things like Quick Sync would make certain things even faster. Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    You've got a limited range of TDP that any given architecture will be good in. According to Intel (at the time of the atom launch) things start getting rather ragged when the range gets to 10x. Until Core2 this wasn't really an issue for Intel because the p3 and prior's top end parts had sufficiently low TDPs that fitting the entire product line into a single architecture wasn't a problem. It didn't matter much in the P4 era because the Pentium-M and Core 1 were separate architectures and could be tuned so its sweet spot was significantly lower than the desktop P4. Beginning with Core2 however Intel only had a single architecture. The bottom tier of ULV chips suffered due to this, and on the high end the fact that overclocking (especially voltage OCing) was very poor on the performance gain/increased power consumption scale.

    The atom is weak as you approach 10W because it was designed not as a low end laptop part (although Intel is more than willing to take your money for a netbook); but to invade ARM's stronghold in smartphones, tablets, and other low power embedded systems. Doing that requires good performance at <1W TDP. By using a low power process (instead of the performance process of every prior Intel fabbed CPU) Moorestown should finally be able to do so. The catch is that it leaves Intel without anything well optimized for the 10-15W range. In theory the AMD Bobcat should be well placed for this market, but the much larger chunk of TDP given to graphics combined with AMDs historic liability in idle power make it something of a darkhorse. I wouldn't be surprised if the 17W Sandybridge is able to end up getting better battery life than the 10W Bobcat because of this.
    Reply
  • Kenny_ - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    I have seen in the past that when Mac OS X and Win 7 are run on the same machine, Mac OS X can have significantly better battery life. Is there any chance we could see what Sandy Bridge does for battery life under Mac OS X? Reply
  • QChronoD - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    This was a test machine that intel cobbled together. Give it a few weeks or months after some retail machines come out, and then I'm sure that someone in the community will have somehow shoehorned OSX onto one of the machines. (Although I don't know how well it would perform since they'd probably have to write new drivers for the chipset and the graphics) Reply
  • cgeorgescu - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    I think that in the past we've seen MacOS and Win7 battery life comparison while running on the same Mac, not on the same Acer/Asus/Any machine (cause MacOS doesn't run on such w/o hacks). And I suspect Apple manages better power management only because they have to support only few hardware configurations (so doing optimizations especially for that hardware), it's a major advantage of their business model.
    It's like with the performance of games on Xbox and the like... The hardware isn't that impressive but you write and compile only for that configuration and nothing else: you're sure that every other machine is the same, not depending on AMD code paths, smaller or larger cache, slower or faster RAM, that or the other video card, and so on...

    Aside power management in macs, to see what Sandy Bridge can do under MacOS would be frustrating... You know how long it takes until Jobs fits new stuff in those MBPs. Hell, he still sells Core2 duo.
    Reply
  • Penti - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Having fewer configurations don't mean better optimized graphics drivers they are worse. Having only intel doesn't mean the GCC compiler only outputs optimized code. It's a compiler AMD contribute to among others and there's no such thing as AMD code paths, there is some minor difference in how it manages SSE but that's it. Most is exactly the same and the compiler just optimizes for x86 not a brand. If it supports the same features it is as optimized. Machine Code is the same. It's not like having a cell processor there.

    Power management is handles by the kernel/drivers. You can expect SB MacBooks in like this summer. Not too long off. And you might even be seeing people accepting Flash on their macs again as Adobe is starting to move away from their archaic none video player work flow. With 10.2 and forward. Battery/Power management won't really work without Apples firmware though. But you are simply not going to optimize code on a OS X machine like a console, your gonna leave it in a worse state then the Windows counterpart. Apple will also be using C2D as long as Intel don't provide them with optimized proper drivers. It's a better fit for the smaller models as is.
    Reply
  • mcdill the pig - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Perhaps the issue is more the Compal's cooling system but those max CPU temps (91 degrees celsius) seem high. It may also be that the non-Extreme CPUs will have lower temps when stressed.

    My Envy 17 already has high temps - I was looking forward to SB notebooks having better thermal characteristics than the i7 QM chips (i.e. no more hot palmrests or ball-burning undersides)....
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    This is a "works as designed" thing. Intel runs the CPU at the maximum speed allowed (3.1GHz on heavily threaded code in this case) until the CPU gets too warm. Actually, funny thing is that when the fan stopped working at one point (a cold reboot fixed it), CPU temps maxed out at 99C. Even with no fan running, the system remained fully stable; it just ran at 800MHz most of the time (particularly if you put a load on the CPU for more than 5 seconds), possibly with other throttling going on. Cinebench 11.5 for instance ran about 1/4 as fast as normal. Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Throttling down to maintain TDP at safe levels has been an intel feature since the P4 era. back in 2001(?) toms hardware demoed this dramatically by running quake on a P4 and removing the cooler entirely. Quake dropped into slideshow mode but remained stable and recovered as soon as the heatsink was set back on top.

    The p3 they tested did a hard crash. The athlon XP/MP chips reached several hundred degrees and self destructed (taking the mobos with them). Future AMD CPUs had thermal protection circuitry to avoid this fail mode as well.
    Reply

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