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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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, January 04, 2011 - link

    Definitely a driver bug, and I've passed it along to Intel. The HD 4250 manages 7.7FPS, so SNB ought to be able to get at least 15FPS or so. The game is still a beast, though... some would say poorly written, probably, but I just call it "demanding". LOL Reply
  • semo - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Thanks for mentioning USB 3.0 Jarred. It is a much too overlooked essential feature these days. I simply will not pay money for a new laptop in 2011 without a single USB 3.0 port. Reply
  • dmbfeg2 - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Which tool do you use to check the turbo frequencies under load? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    I had both CPU-Z and the Intel Turbo Monitoring tool up, but neither one supports logging so I have to just eyeball it. The clocks in CPU-Z were generally steady, though it's possible that they would bump up for a few milliseconds and then back down and it simply didn't show up. Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    On the other Sandy Bridge article by Anand, right on the front page, it is mentioned that the 6EU GT1 (HD2000) die has 504M transistors, while the 12EU GT2 (HD 3000) die has 624M transistors. Yet here you are saying HD Graphics 3000 has 114M. If the 12EU version has 120M more transistors than the 6EU version, then does that not imply a total gpu transistor count well north of 200M? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    AFAIK, the 114M figure is for the 12EU core. All of the currently shipping SNB chips are quad-core with the full 12EU on the die, but on certain desktop models Intel disables half the EUs. However, if memory serves there are actually three SNB die coming out. At the top is the full quad-core chip. Whether you have 6EU or 12EU, the die is the same. For the dual-core parts, however, there are two chips. One is a dual-core with 4MB L3 cache and 12EUs, which will also ship in chips where the L3 only shows 3MB. This is the GT1 variant. The other dual-core version is for the ultra-low-cost Pentium brand, which will ship with 6EUs (there will only be 6EU on the die) and no L3 cache, as well as some other missing features (Quick Sync for sure). That's the GT2, and so the missing 120M includes a lot of items.

    Note: I might not be 100% correct on this, so I'm going to email Anand and our Intel contact for verification.
    Reply
  • mino - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Nice summary (why was this not in the article ?).

    Anyway those 114M do not include memory controller, encoding, display output etc. so the comparison with Redwood/Cedar is not really meaningful.

    If you actually insist on comparing transistor counts, semething like (Cedar-Redwood)/3 shall give you a reasonable value of AMD's SPU efficiency from transistors/performance POW.
    Reply
  • mino - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    "After all, being able to run a game at all is the first consideration; making it look good is merely the icing on the cake."

    If making it look good is merely icing on the cake, why bother with GPUs ? Lets just play 2D Mines!
    (While for the poor souls stuck with Intel IGPs it certainly is just the icing, for Christ's sake, that is a major _problem_, not a feature !!!)

    After a few pages I have decided to forgo the "best-thing-since-sliced-bread" attitude, but, what is too much is too much...
    Reply
  • mino - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Regardless the attitude, HUGE thanks for listening to comments and including the older games roundup.

    While I'd love to see more games that actually provide playable frame-rates (read: even older ones) on SNB-class IGPs like Far Cry or HL2, even this mini-roundup is a really big plus.

    As for a suggestion on future game-playability roundup on IGP's, it is really simple:
    1) Take a look at your 2006-2007 GPU benchmarking suites
    2) Add in a few current MMORPGs
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 03, 2011 - link

    Anand covered several other titles, and most of the pre-2007 stuff should run fine (outside of blacklisting problems or bugs). Time constraints limit how much we can test, obviously, but your "reviewer on crack" comment is appreciated. 2D and 3D are completely different, and while you might feel graphical quality is of paramount importance, the fact of the matter is that SNB graphics are basically at the same level as PS3/Xbox 360 -- something millions of users are "okay" with.

    NVIDIA and AMD like to show performance at settings where they're barely playable and SNB fails, but that's no better. If "High + 1680x1050" runs at 20FPS with Sandy Bridge vs. 40FPS on discrete mobile GPUs, wouldn't you consider turning down the detail to get performance up? I know I would, and it's the same reason I almost never enable anti-aliasing on laptops: they can't handle it. But if that's what you require, by all means go out and buy more expensive laptops; we certainly don't recommend SNB graphics as the solution for everyone.

    Honestly, until AMD gets the Radeon equivalent of Optimus for their GPUs (meaning, AMD GPU + Intel CPU with IGP and automatic switching, plus the ability to update your Radeon and Intel drivers independently), Sandy Bridge + GeForce 400M/500M Optimus is going to be the way to go.
    Reply

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