Meet the Compal Sandy Bridge Notebook

Our review system comes from Compal via Intel, and as this is pre-release hardware there were a few minor bugs that have yet to be ironed out. For one, there was no way to disable the Bluetooth radio; perhaps a bit more alarming was that after resuming from hibernate, at least once the system fan decided to stop spinning. The latter problem made for some interesting hair-pulling, as suddenly benchmark performance started to plummet—particularly when running back-to-back CPU intensive tests! Early hardware anomalies aside, you can probably recognize the design elements from another major OEM, and it’s possible Acer/Gateway will ship something very similar to this system in the future; then again, it’s equally plausible that this was just a one-off design using existing parts so Intel could demonstrate their latest and greatest mobile platform.

Unlike the previous generation Clarksfield launch, Intel didn’t seed us with their absolute fastest mobile CPU this time around—probably because they don’t have to! We’re looking at the middle tier of quad-core performance this time, and while the i7-2920XM is technically faster, it’s hard to figure out who would be willing to part with an extra $500 just to get 100-200MHz more performance (and a 10W higher TDP). Perhaps the higher TDP will allow the Extreme version to hit maximum Turbo speeds more often, but it would likely hurt battery life in the process, so the 2820QM looks to be a good compromise. In fact, if you’re willing to give up another 100MHz and 2MB of L3 cache, the 2720QM should offer up 95% of the 2820QM performance for 2/3 the price. Here are the specs of our test system.

Compal Sandy Bridge Notebook Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2820QM
(4x2.30GHz, 32nm, 8MB L3, Turbo to 3.40GHz, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1600 (Max 8GB)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 3000
12 EUs, 650-1300MHz Core/Shader clocks
Display 17.3" LED Glossy 16:9 HD+ (1600x900)
(Seiko Epson 173KT)
Hard Drive(s) 160GB SSD (Intel X25-M G2 SA2M160G2GC)
Optical Drive BD-ROM/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CT21N)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8151 PCIe)
802.11n (Centrino Wireless-N 1030)
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Audio 2.0 Speakers
Microphone and two headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 8-Cell, 14.8V, 4.8Ah, 71Wh
Front Side None
Left Side Memory Card Reader
1 x USB 2.0
Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Combo
HDMI 1.4
VGA
Gigabit Ethernet
AC Power Connection
Kensington Lock
Right Side 2 x USB 2.0
Optical Drive
Power Switch
Back Side Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Dimensions 16.3" x 10.8" x 1.1-1.35" (WxDxH)
Weight 7.3 lbs (with 8-cell battery)
Extras Webcam
99-Key Keyboard with 10-Key
Flash reader (SD, MS, MMC, xD)

The basic features are par for the course; about the only missing “modern” feature we’d like to see is USB 3.0 support, but unfortunately that’s not part of the new 6-series Intel chipsets and it’s missing from this particular test system. Many laptop manufacturers will address that shortcoming with third-party chips, so we won’t worry too much about it for now. Intel did choose to equip their sample with some nice extras, though, like a 160GB Intel G2 SSD and a Blu-ray combo drive.

As a high performance notebook, the build quality is definitely lacking, but then only the CPU and storage options are truly high-end. There’s no discrete GPU, no keyboard backlighting, a run-of-the-mill (i.e. poor) HD+ LCD, mediocre speakers, a touchpad that didn’t have functional multi-touch (or even scroll/gesture) support at this time [cue Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone], and a horrible dark glossy plastic chassis. We don’t actually have a price for the system as configured, since it’s not for sale, but we can add up a few of the components and make a guess that it will come in north of $1400+ ($1000 will cover the CPU, SSD, and BRD; $400-$500 should take care of the remaining items).

Again, this seems like more of a proof of concept rather than something most users would be interested in buying. Sure, when we get to the benchmarks you’ll see that the integrated graphics are certainly sufficient for “mainstream” use, but it’s hard to call a $500+ quad-core CPU and $400 SSD anything other than enthusiast/high performance. Pair this with a decent discrete GPU (i.e. from NVIDIA with their Optimus Technology), and it would be a lot more compelling. That’s what we hope to see when we start getting retail notebooks using Sandy Bridge in for testing, so we’ll leave off critiquing the Compal design now.

Besides the complaints, let’s address the other good elements before we get to the benchmarks. First, we like the 71Wh battery; it’s not an ultra-high capacity option like some of the 95Wh models, but it’s a good step up from 48Wh batteries. HDMI 1.4 also shows up, so 3D movie viewing is possible (with the appropriate display). The other thing to point out is the memory: DDR3-1600 in a notebook. In general applications, that probably doesn’t matter much, but when you’re sharing memory bandwidth with an IGP the added bandwidth that DDR3-1600 brings will definitely prove useful. Just think: system memory bandwidth now checks in at 25.6GB/s, which is equal to what you get from midrange discrete mobile GPUs (i.e. the 420M, 425M, and 435M). More importantly, most of the Arrandale laptops we’ve tested have used DDR3-1333 memory running at DDR3-1066, so we’re talking about a healthy 50% improvement in bandwidth (at least for the faster quad-core Sandy Bridge designs).

Now, if you’re looking just at the specs, the above may not seem like it’s going to set the world on fire. The TDP on the CPU is still 45W, which means it could burn through the 71Wh battery in under two hours quite easily. However, this is where Intel’s architectural changes start to come into play. Particularly at anything less than a heavy load, battery life is substantially better than you’d expect. In fact, this is the first notebook we’ve tested where you can get close to four hours of battery life watching a Blu-ray movie—no, not watching an H.264 file off the hard drive, but actually spinning your Blu-ray drive and reading a disc! Yes, a larger 95Wh battery paired with current-generation hardware would probably break three hours, but four hours from a quad-core system is amazing.

Battery life isn’t the only thing to impress; CPU performance on laptops just took a huge leap forward. Provided your system is running at moderate temperatures, the CPU will hit very high clock speeds for single-threaded and multi-threaded tasks. Here’s another area where the sample notebook might not be the best sample of what’s to come, as sustained loads would get the CPU to the point where it would have to back down from the 3GHz range, but we still measured performance higher than desktop i7-930 in quite a few benchmarks. And as for the graphics, Arrandale finally got Intel’s IGP to the point where it was competitive with AMD’s HD 4250 IGP; Intel’s HD Graphics 3000 generally more than doubles what Arrandale could manage, which easily pushes their IGP into the entry-level gaming category—and perhaps even further.

Improved battery life, substantially higher processor performance, and integrated graphics performance that can now hang with entry-level discrete GPUs makes for a holy trinity that will be difficult to match, let alone surpass. AMD will of course have their own Fusion products launching later this year, and we expect to see at better performance compared to Intel’s IGP, but when old Core 2 processors are already matching or exceeding AMD’s mobile parts, and Clarksfield and Arrandale were significantly ahead, Sandy Bridge ups the ante yet again.

Intel has shown data for several years indicating that laptops and notebooks are easily outselling desktops globally, but never have we seen such a big jump in notebook performance between generations. An old quad-core Kentsfield desktop could still outperform the fastest Clarksfield notebooks in CPU-intensive tasks, but now you’ll need at least a decent quad-core Bloomfield/Lynnfield to keep up with the i7-2820QM. Enough talk; turn the page and see just how fast notebooks have become.

Intel’s Sandy Bridge: Upheaval in the Mobile Landscape Mobile Sandy Bridge Application Performance
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  • mtoma - Monday, January 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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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