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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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, January 4, 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 3, 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 3, 2011 - link

    Which tool do you use to check the turbo frequencies under load? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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 3, 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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