Intel’s Core i7 comes to notebooks

Intel’s Nehalem microarchitecture has been a revelation thus far. This latest “tock” in the chip giant’s microprocessor development cycle debuted late last year in the form of Bloomfield-based Core i7 CPUs, whose blistering performance knocked everything else out of the high-end processor market. Then, less than a month ago, Intel trickled Nehalem down to the mainstream with more affordable Core i7 and i5 CPUs based on fresh Lynnfield silicon. As expected, these new processors outclassed the competition, broadening Nehalem’s dominance of the market.

Up next: notebooks. At the recent Intel Developer Forum, and not even a month after Lynnfield burst onto the desktop scene, a mobile version of the chip dubbed Clarksfield was unveiled inside larger laptops and portable gaming rigs.

Clarksfield might as well have been called Lynnfield for laptops, because that’s exactly what it is. Both squeeze 774 million transistors into a 296-mm² die area using Intel’s high-k, 45-nm fabrication technology. They do come in different packages, though. Lynnfield uses LGA1156, while Clarksfield rides a 988-pin package dubbed PGA988A. Despite having fewer pins, PGA988A still measures 37.5 mm square, so it’s actually the same size as LGA1156.

Given Clarksfield’s roots, it’s no surprise that the new CPUs based on it will be known as Core i7 mobile processors. Intel is making three models available to start: the Core i7-720QM and i7-820QM will serve the “quad-core performance” market while the Core i7-920XM fills in as the token Extreme Edition offering for those with deeper pockets. All three are quad-core designs, and they can all execute eight threads in tandem thanks to Hyper-Threading.

Cores Threads Base clock speed L3 cache TDP Price
Core i7-920XM 4 8 2.0GHz 8MB 55W $1054
Core i7-820QM 4 8 1.73GHz 8MB 45W $546
Core i7-720QM 4 8 1.6GHz 6MB 45W $364

Each of Clarksfield’s cores has 32KB L1 data and instruction caches. That’s backed by 256KB of L2 cache per core, with a shared L3 cache serving as a last line of defense before main memory. The 920XM and 820QM both have 8MB of L3 cache, but the 720QM must make do with only 6MB.

Obviously, the thermal challenges inherent to mobile applications put a bit of a damper on Clarksfield clock speeds. The range-topping 920XM has a base clock speed of 2GHz—a good 666MHz shy of its slowest Lynnfield-based desktop counterpart.

Of course, these base values are just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to Turbo Boost, Clarksfield CPUs can dynamically range above their base clock speeds when adequate thermal headroom is available. Turbo Boost is most aggressive when only one or two cores are occupied, but it’ll also push the issue a little if all cores are engaged, thermals permitting.

LFM clock speed Base clock speed Peak Turbo Boost speed
4 active cores 3 active cores 2 active cores 1 active core
Core i7-920XM 1.2GHz 2.0GHz 2.26GHz 2.26GHz 3.06GHz 3.2GHz
Core i7-820QM 1.2GHz 1.73GHz 2.0GHz 2.0GHz 2.8GHz 3.06GHz
Core i7-720QM 933MHz 1.6GHz 1.73GHz 1.73GHz 2.4GHz 2.8GHz

Interestingly, the mobile Core i7s have much more Turbo Boost range than their desktop counterparts. The most aggressive Lynnfield-based desktop CPU can raise its clock speed by 667MHz above its baseline, which translates to a healthy 18% increase. Yet that pales in comparison to the Core i7-820M, which can push its core a full 1.33GHz higher for a whopping 77% increase in clock speed. The 920XM and 720QM can each boost their clock speeds by 1.2GHz, or around 60%.

Intel doesn’t guarantee that every CPU will hit its Turbo Boost peak, however. I suspect success will largely depend on the effectiveness of the notebook’s cooling system. Clarksfield certainly presents a challenge on that front. The 920XM has a Thermal Design Power (TDP) rating of 55W, while the other two are rated for 45W. Those TDPs are much lower than Lynnfield’s 95W rating, of course, but they’re still high enough to keep Clarksfield out of smaller notebook designs.

Clarksfield employs numerous tricks to save power, including shutting down individual cores when they’re not in use. The chip can also opportunistically cut power to its cache, memory controller, and I/O components, too. The 920XM and 820QM are capable of throttling back their clock speeds via SpeedStep to 1.2GHz in what Intel calls Lowest Frequency Mode (LFM). The 720QM can drop even lower, down to just 933MHz. When in LFM, mobile Core i7 CPUs have TDP ratings between 35 and 37W.

To put things into perspective, consider that all of Intel’s Core 2-based mobile quad-core CPUs have TDP ratings in the 45W range, and they’re just CPUs. Clarksfield combines its four cores with traditional north-bridge components, including a dual-channel DDR3-1333 memory controller and 16 lanes PCI Express 2.0 connectivity. On the off chance you’re looking for a portable system with CrossFire or SLI, the PCIe lanes can be split evenly between a pair of x8 links, too.

The CPU also has a 2GB/s DMI interconnect that interfaces with Intel’s PM55 chipset—a mobile version of the P55 that launched alongside Lynnfield. As one might expect, the PM55 is largely identical to its desktop counterpart. Both offer six Serial ATA RAID ports, 14 USB ports, an embedded Gigabit Ethernet MAC, an HD audio interface, and eight PCI Express lanes. The PCIe lanes are tagged as 2.0, which is technically true, but still a little disingenuous. While they support all the features of the PCIe 2.0 specification, the lanes only signal at 2.5 GT/s, which is half the data rate of a full-bandwidth 2.0 link. This limitation shouldn’t be much of an impediment for mobile applications, though.

So what’s different in the PM55? The packaging, which is two millimeters narrower than the desktop part. Also the TDP, which, at 3.5W, is 1.2W lower than the P55.

Desktop performance?

If Clarksfield is really just Lynnfield squeezed into a notebook-friendly package, how does the mobile variant’s performance compare to that of its desktop counterpart? That’s a tricky question to answer given the unavoidable differences in clock speeds, especially when bolstered by Turbo Boost. Still, I ran a few benchmarks on a Clarksfield-based Clevo W870CU notebook with a Core i7-920XM and compared the results to some desktop performance data gleaned from our P55 chipset review to see what’s what.

The Core i7-920XM runs a little behind the desktop competition in the Stream memory bandwidth benchmark, but that’s to be expected given differences in the test systems used. Although the i7-920XM and i5-750 are both running dual-channel memory at 1333MHz, the desktop rig is using considerably tighter timings. I suspect that the i5-750 may also have a higher uncore speed than the mobile chip, but Intel isn’t disclosing uncore speeds for mobile Core i7s.

Our desktop Core i7 system is only running its memory at 1066MHz because we used an engineering sample CPU that doesn’t support 1333MHz memory. Bloomfield’s third memory channel makes up most of the difference, but it doesn’t help when we look at memory access latencies.

Here Clarksfield and Lynnfield are evenly matched, with just a nanosecond separating the two.

So what about application performance?

The i7-920XM actually has an edge over the Core i5 in 7-Zip, almost certainly because the latter lacks Hyper-Threading and is thus limited to executing four threads in parallel. All members of the mobile Core i7 family support Hyper-Threading, and 7-Zip is more than happy to take advantage.

Of course, the i7-920 is considerably faster than its XM cousin here. Both support Hyper-Threading, but the desktop chip has triple-channel memory and higher clock speeds on its side.

The first pass in our x264 encoding test doesn’t make effective use of more than four cores, putting the i7-920XM well behind the others due to its clock speed disadvantage. However, the second pass is more effectively multithreaded, allowing our Clarksfield sample to pull up just a few frames per second short of the faster four-thread Lynnfield CPU.

Additional threads and memory channels appear to have little impact on performance when executing stitch operations with The Panorama Factory, as evidenced by the close performance of our two desktop parts. The Core i7-920XM lags behind by a fair margin here, no doubt due to its lower base clock rate.

Introducing Clevo’s W870CU “laptop”

Clarksfield is targeted at what Intel calls “standard laptops,” which I suppose means anything that can cool a 45W CPU. Don’t get your hopes up for thin-and-lights or ultraportables, then. The mobile Core i7 is more about portable horsepower than absolute portability, and thus far systems have been restricted to sizes 15 inches and above.

Instead of sampling Clarksfield in reasonably portable 15″ systems, Intel elected to send out Clevo’s W870CU “performance desktop replacement notebook.” The performance desktop replacement bit is fitting, I suppose, but notebook? You have got to be kidding me. The W870CU measures 16.2″ x 11″ x 1.8-2.2″, which feels absolutely massive after a year of reviewing netbooks and ultraportables. Here’s how it looks alongside a 13.3″ Acer Aspire Timeline and a 10″ Eee PC:

Yeah, the W870CU is huge. And heavy, too. Our sample weighed in at around nine pounds on my bathroom scale, which is considerably more than I’d want to lug around in a briefcase or backpack. Heck, even carrying the Clevo around the house is a bit of a chore.

Not only is the W870CU too heavy to sit comfortably on one’s lap, but its bulky proportions also restrict where you can actually open it up. You really do need a proper desk to use the system comfortably. This is true of all desktop replacement portables, though. The Clevo may have generous proportions, but in practical terms, it’s no larger than other players in the desktop replacement segment. Also, the WU870CU is easily more portable than even a small-form-factor desktop PC. A Mini-ITX system with a similarly-sized 17″ LCD is going to be more cumbersome to transport than this land barge of a laptop, and that’s before you throw in a keyboard, mouse, and maybe some speakers or headphones. Consider, too, that the Core i7 hasn’t yet made its way to Mini-ITX motherboards.

Processor Intel Core i7-920XM 2GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel PM55 Express
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M 1GB
Display 17.3″ TFT with 1600×900 and LED backlight
Storage Intel X25-M 80GB solid-state drive
Toshiba
DVD+/-RW
Audio 6-channel HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 4 USB 2.0
1 DVI
1 HDMI
1 CATV input
1 eSATA
1 1394A FireWire
1 RJ45 10/100/1000
Gigabit
Ethernet via Realtek controller

1 analog headphone output
1 analog front output
1 analog rear output/line input
1 analog center-sub output/microphone input

Expansion slots

1 SD/SDHC/MMC/MS/MSPRO/xD
1 ExpressCard/54
Communications

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel W-Fi Link 5300

Input devices “Full size” keyboard with numpad
Sentelic trackpad with
multi-touch scrolling and programmable gestures
Internal microphone
Camera 2.0 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 16.2″ x 11.0″ x 1.8-2.2″ (412 mm x 279
mm x 45-55 mm)
Weight ~9 lbs (4 kg)
Battery Li-Ion 3800mAh, 42Wh

The W870CU can be configured with any one of Intel’s Clarksfield-based mobile chips. Our review unit predictably came equipped with a range-topping Core i7-920XM clocked at 2GHz, and Intel threw in a first-generation 80GB X25-M SSD for good measure. The chassis can actually accommodate two hard drives, making it easy for folks to combine solid-state and mechanical drives to balance performance and storage capacity. It’s also possible to run a pair of drives in a RAID 0 or 1 configuration.

On the graphics front, our sample packs Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280M—the green team’s flagship mobile GPU. Don’t let the name fool you, though. The 280M is actually based on the same G92b GPU that has powered desktop GeForce 9800 GTX+ graphics cards for more than a year. In fact, G92b is just a die shrink of the original G92 GPU that debuted in the GeForce 8800 GT nearly two years ago.

Despite its age, the 280M is still formidable in the mobile world. It’s a DirectX 10-class part with 128 stream processors and 1GB of dedicated GDDR3 memory, after all. Under load, the core runs at 583MHz, the shaders at 1450MHz, and the memory at 950MHz. These clock speeds drop precipitously when the GPU isn’t in use, with the core clock falling to 200MHz, the shaders to 400MHz, and the memory to 120MHz if you’re just idling at the Windows 7 desktop.

The GeForce isn’t your only option for this system. It can be configured with a GTX 260M or a Mobility Radeon HD 4870XT, instead. The spec sheet also suggests that you’ll be able to swap in an MXM 3.0 Type B card with Nvidia’s next-gen mobile GPU “when available.”

Since the W870CU is built to order, I won’t dwell further on the rest of our test unit’s specifications. Keep in mind that you can load this system up with Bluetooth, 8GB of memory, and a Blu-ray reader or writer if you so please. One may ditch the optical drive in favor of a third hard drive bay, too.

Inspecting the beast

Given its specifications, it’s clear that the W870CU has eyes for the portable gaming market. One might expect Clevo to cater to this crowd with juvenile bling, neon ground effects, and a flashy paint job, but the system’s styling is surprisingly sedate.

Matte black plastics dominate the design, which is a big improvement over the fingerprint-prone gloss that seems to be all the rage elsewhere. However, I can’t help but feel like plastic is a little bourgeois for what is ostensibly a premium system. Clevo doesn’t have to rip off Apple’s brushed aluminum look, but some nicer materials would go a long way toward making the W870CU feel as expensive as its ~$3,000 price tag.

At least the flat black exterior is broken up a little by red trim that discretely rings the system. The white-LED-backlit indicators for Wi-Fi connectivity and disk activity are nice touches, too, but they do little to elevate the overall blandness of the aesthetic.

Perhaps the most disappointing element to the W870CU’s exterior is the glossy plastic bezel that surrounds the display. It’s nearly impossible to open the screen without leaving smudges behind, which is a real shame considering how well Clevo avoided glossy plastics elsewhere.

The screen itself has a glossy coating, as has become commonplace on modern notebooks. Transreflective displays tend to produce better image quality than matte alternatives that usually impart a subtle grain to the picture. Excessive reflectivity is sometimes the price you pay, but it isn’t a serious problem for the Clevo. Any reflections I encountered in normal indoor lighting were largely muted by cranking up the screen’s brightness. And really, with a system this size, you’ll probably be running at close to full brightness plugged into a wall outlet most of the time. If you don’t believe me, just wait until we get to our battery life tests.

Like the rest of the system, the W870CU’s screen is massive. It measures 17.3 inches diagonally, and in our sample, offers a maximum resolution of 1600×900. A 1080p display is also an option, although gamers might want to think twice about stepping up. 1920×1080 has 44% more pixels than 1600×900, which means quite a bit more work for the graphics subsystem if you’re planning on running games at the native resolution. Folks who crave desktop real estate or want to make the most of Blu-ray movies may appreciate the higher-res option, though.

With hips wider than Kim Kardashian’s, the W870CU has enough room for a generous keyboard, complete with a numerical keypad. The keyboard could have been even larger, were it not for the speakers flanking it on either side. I’m not sure they’re worth the space; audio playback is clear, but almost entirely lacking in bass. What’s worse, the speakers prevent the keyboard from stretching to the full size one might expect from such a large system.

Total keyboard area Alpha keys
Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 335 mm 107 mm 35,845 mm² 167 mm 54 mm 9,018 mm²
Versus full size 117% 97% 114% 97% 95% 92%

The keyboard we use as a full-size reference is from an older 14″ Dell notebook that doesn’t have a numerical keypad, so it’s no surprise the Clevo keyboards covers more overall area. However, we also measure the distance between the outer edges of the A-to-L and T-to-V keys to get a better sense of the alpha key area, which is where we spend most of our time. Somewhat surprisingly, the alpha key area falls short of full size. In fact, it’s just a smidgen smaller than what you get with Asus’ 13.3″ UL30A—an ultraportable with considerably more modest proportions.

Fortunately, the near-full-size dimensions offer even my Neanderthal mitts plenty of breathing room. The chiclet design nicely separates the keys, as well, providing a good sense of where one’s fingertips lie. I’m still getting used to the narrower right-shift key, though. It’s been shaved down to make room for a full-height directional pad, which is a common trade-off, and one I can live with even if bites me with a typo every now and then.

You don’t expect to find flex in a system as large as the W870CU, but the keyboard has a little give if you apply firm pressure. Nonetheless, the keyboard feels good, especially when hammering away with all the enthusiasm of a fanboy engaged in a forum flame war. Key travel is ample, and there’s a nicely weighted threshold at the start of the stroke. The tactile feedback as each key bottoms out doesn’t feel quite as precise, but the dull thud at the end of the travel is still oddly satisfying.

The trackpad’s pretty satisfying, too, even if many folks won’t use it. The surface is nice and smooth, and in addition to horizontal and vertical scrolling zones, users can configure the behavior of multi-touch gestures like swirls and two-finger swipes on a per-application basis. I’d still rather use a mouse, though, and it’s hard to imagine lugging the Clevo around without one.

Connectivity and expansion options

While this, ahem, notebook doesn’t have much chance of matching the expansion capacity of the desktops it aspires to replace, there’s more than enough connectivity for most users.

The right side of the system hosts a quartet of analog audio jacks, an ExpressCard/54 expansion slot, one of four USB ports, and a DVI output. You also get an eSATA port for speedy external storage, but it’s not the fancy new variety that integrates a USB port for power.

An optical drive dominates the left edge, joining another USB port, a FireWire plug, the requisite memory card reader, and even a CATV input. And yes, that’s an RJ11 plug, presumably for an optional modem. Or maybe it’s just a joke.

At the rear, a plastic door hides access to the last two USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, an HDMI output, and the power plug. The door seems entirely unnecessary, exactly the sort of thing that’s going to break off eventually.

If you want to poke around the W870CU’s internals, a single back panel is easily removed, providing largely unrestricted access to the guts of the system. Users have access to the dual DDR3 DIMM slots, hard drive bays, MXM graphics slot, and the beefy blower and heatpipe assemblies that guard against meltdown.

This system is fortified with some serious copper, combined with plenty of airflow, to keep the Core i7-920XM and GeForce GTX 280M cool. The Clevo’s fans are almost always active, even when idling at the Windows 7 desktop with the CPU and GPU throttled to their lowest speeds. Launch a game or load up the CPU, and the fan noise kicks up a notch, morphing from a hum to more of a whine. The fact that the fan noise is so persistent at idle actually annoys me more than the loudness under load.

That’s what you get for putting high-power hardware into a small space, I guess. That which produces much heat also draws considerable power, making Clevo’s use of a measly 42Wh battery look a little stingy, if not a thinly veiled admission of defeat. This class of system really isn’t meant to be used away from a wall socket—not for long, anyway.

Our testing methods

Our mobile coverage has focused almost exclusively on netbooks and ultraportables over the last few years, so none of the systems we’ve tested recently are even remotely appropriate rivals for the W870CU. But what the heck, let’s see what sort of carnage ensues when you line up a $3500 bleeding-edge portable gaming rig against a collection of budget ultraportables that sell for less than $800.

Since the Clevo is really designed to run off wall power, we’ve only tested it as such. However, some of the other systems were tested multiple times, either with different power-saving modes or running on and off the battery, but only when that affected performance. The Acer Aspire Timeline was also tested with a simulated single-core SU3500 processor. Those results appear as the Aspire 3810 Timeline (SU3500) in our application performance graphs.

With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

System

Acer Aspire One 751h


Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline


Asus UL30A-A1
Clevo
W870CU


Gateway LT3103u


MSI X-Slim X340


HP Pavilion dv2


Asus Eee PC 1000H


Samsung NC20
Processor Intel Atom Z520 1.24GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400
1.4GHz
Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300
1.3GHz
Intel
Core i7-920XM 2GHz
AMD Athlon 64 L110 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Solo U3500
1.4GHz
AMD Athlon Neo MV-40
1.6GHz
Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Via Nano ULV 2250 1.3GHz+
System bus 496 MT/s

(124MHz)

800 MT/s

(400MHz)

800 MT/s

(400MHz)

QPI 4.8 GT/s

(2.4GHz)

HT 1.6 GT/s

(800MHz)

800 MT/s

(400MHz)

HT 1.6 GT/s

(800MHz)

533 MT/s

(133MHz)

800 MT/s

(200MHz)

North bridge Intel US15W SCH Intel GS45 Intel GS45 Intel
PM55
AMD RS690M Intel GS45 AMD RS690E Intel 945GSE Via VX800
South bridge Intel ICH9M Intel ICH9M AMD SB600 Intel ICH9M AMD SB600 Intel ICH7M Via ID8353
Memory size 2GB (1 DIMM) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs)
4GB (2 DIMMs)
2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM)
Memory type DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz
DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
DDR2 SDRAM at 480MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz
CAS latency
(CL)
4 6 6 9 5 5 5 4

RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
4 6 6 9 5 5 5 4
RAS precharge
(tRP)
4 6 6
9
5 5 5 4
Cycle time
(tRAS)
15 15 24 15 18 15 12
Audio codec Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5817 drivers
Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5807 drivers
Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5888 drivers

Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5854 drivers
Realtek codec
with 6.0.1.5854 drivers
Realtek ALC888S codec
with 6.0.1.5804 drivers

IDC codec with 6.10.6138.62 drivers Realtek
ALC6628
with 5.10.0.5683 drivers
Realtek codec
with

5.10.0.5740 drivers

Graphics Intel GMA 500 with 7.14.10.1005 drivers Intel GMA 4500MHD with 7.15.10.1666 drivers Intel GMA 4500MHD with 7.15.10.1752 drivers Nvidia GeForce GTX
280M with 8.15.11.8627 drivers
ATI Radeon X1270 with
8.561.0.0 drivers
Intel GMA 4500MHD with 7.15.10.1599 drivers ATI Mobility Radeon HD
3410 with 8.563.3.1000 drivers
Intel GMA950 with
6.14.10.4926 drivers
Via Chrome9 IGP with
6.14.10.182 drivers

Hard drive
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
250GB 5,400 RPM
Toshiba

HDD2HD21
500GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM Intel X25-M 80GB SSD
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
250GB
5,400 RPM
Fujitsu MJA2320BH 320GB
5,400 RPM
Western Digital Scorpio
Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB
5,400 RPM
Samsung Spinpoint M
HM160HI 5,400RPM

Operating system
Windows 7

RC x86



Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x64 with Service Pack 2


Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x86 with Service Pack 2

Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Windows 7 RC x86

Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x86 with Service Pack 1


Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x64 with Service Pack 1
Microsoft Windows XP Home
with Service Pack 3
Microsoft Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 3

We used the following versions of our test applications:

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Performance

The suite of everyday tasks we use to test the performance of ultraportables won’t make the Core i7-920XM break a sweat, but it makes for a good appetizer before we get into some serious gaming. We’ll kick things off with a couple of browser tests running in Firefox. The first is FutureMark’s Peacekeeper benchmark, which the company says tests JavaScript functions commonly used on websites like YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, and others. To test Flash performance, we used the Flash component of the GUIMark rendering benchmark.

While the Clevo scores higher in the Peacekeeper benchmark, its advantage isn’t as large as one might expect from such a high-end system. This particular set of JavaScript tasks certainly isn’t making the most of the available horsepower.

Neither does the GUIMark Flash benchmark, which isn’t even twice as fast on the Clarksdale rig.

Next up, we have 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark, which tests file compression and decompression performance. We used the 32-bit client here, so the results differ from those on page two, which were obtained using the 64-bit client.

Now that’s more like it. 7-Zip spins up eight threads on the W870CU, taking full advantage of the Clevo’s significantly greater horsepower to deliver more than four times the performance of the closest budget ultraportable.

Battery life

Each system’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a ~30% screen brightness setting on the Eee PC, which is easily readable under normal indoor lighting. That brightness level is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness setting we used on the dv2, LT3103, Aspire One 751, and UL30A. The 50% brightness levels on the X-Slim and Timeline are the closest to the Eee PC’s 30% setting, so that’s what we used for those units. However, the Timeline’s Power Saving mode does lower the system’s brightness slightly. On the W870CU, we found that the brightness level three ticks up from the bottom was closest to the others.

Note that the Samsung NC20 we tested was a foreign model; domestic units have a 15% larger battery. Also, we didn’t test the NC20 in its manually-invoked “max battery” mode. For both of these reasons, you could surely achieve longer run times with an NC20 than what you’ll see below. See our NC20 review for more details.

For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled as well. Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for this test.

Since the Clevo didn’t break the hour mark in either the web surfing or movie playback tests, I’ll give you its run times in minutes: 48 and 50, respectively, not that we expected greater longevity. The battery’s only rated for 42Wh, and the processor alone has a 45W TDP.

External operating temperatures

External operating temperatures were measured with an IR thermometer placed 1″ from the surface of the system. Tests were conducted after the Clevo had run our web surfing battery life test for a couple of hours.

Although most of the system’s surfaces remain reasonably cool, there’s a definite hot spot right in the middle. Still, even after hours of gaming, the keyboard didn’t get uncomfortably warm. The underbelly’s hot spot might have lap-searing potential if this were the sort of notebook you’d put on your lap for extended periods of time, but that hardly seems likely given its weight and dimensions.

A few evenings with a modern portable gaming rig

I used to be a pretty hard-core PC gamer, but it’s hard to find time these days. When I do have a spare hour or two, I usually want to get out of the Benchmarking Sweatshop that houses my gaming PC, so I end up on the couch across from a console. It’s just not the same, I know, but after a full day in the office, that’s the last place I want to be to unwind.

With the W870CU, not only did I have an excuse to conduct some real-world testing with the latest games, but I could also easily drag the system out of my office. And so I did. The goal here wasn’t to come up with a comprehensive set of benchmark results, but instead to determine just how well the Clevo handles recent titles specifically at its native resolution. If you’re curious about how the ultraportables fared in these games, they didn’t. None of them managed even remotely playable frame rates in the next six titles, even at the lowest resolutions and detail levels.

Rather than bringing out the big guns at first, I began my testing with Left 4 Dead, which tends to run rather well on modest hardware. Using FRAPS to get a sense of in-game frame rates, I set the resolution to 1600×900, cranked up the the image quality settings, and enabled 16X anisotropic filtering and 4X antialiasing. The result? An almost constant 60 frames per second. I tried 8X antialiasing next, and then a couple of the 16X modes, but frame rates remained steady at 60 FPS. Sweet!

Call of Duty: World at War doesn’t offer quite as many in-game antialiasing modes, but 4X seemed to be plenty. With the eye candy cranked, anisotropic filtering maxed, and 4X AA, frame rates oscillated between 44 and 68 FPS. Gameplay was smooth, even during intense action sequences.

Far Cry 2 fills in as our final shooter and the most recent of the three. I went for broke with the game’s ultra detail level and 4X antialiasing and was surprised to find frame rates hanging between 28 and 40 FPS in outdoor areas and up to 50 FPS indoors. The game looks absolutely gorgeous with these settings, and it’s playable, at least through the first few hours. You’ll have to back off on the detail levels to avoid occasional stutters, though.

I’m a sucker for good driving games, and GRID is one of the best on the PC. The Clevo easily handled maximum in-game detail levels with 8X antialiasing, never dipping below 47 FPS. Heck, I’d even play the game with 16X CSAA, which delivered between 41 and 57 FPS. Pushing to the highest 16xQ CSAA mode dropped frame rates into the 30s, which is a little low for driving, at least for my tastes.

Need for Speed: Shift is the latest driving title to hit the PC, and while it’s another console port, I couldn’t resist taking the demo for a spin (or dropping that pun). With detail levels cranked and 4X antialiasing, the W870CU pushed between 40 and 60 FPS. 8X AA proved a little too demanding, knocking frame rates down a peg to 28-37 FPS.

Interestingly, I did notice occasional stuttering in the game. The stuttering tended to strike in tight corners with lots of traffic, but it didn’t correspond to particularly low frame rates, which makes me think the issue isn’t a lack of horsepower. My gut says sloppy console port, but with one patch already released for the full version of this game, maybe it’s just the demo.

I really wanted to check out Batman: Arkham Asylum because the Clevo’s GeForce is capable of accelerating the title’s PhysX effects. The game recommended using the “normal” PhysX mode, which is one step down from the highest setting, and probably all this mobile GeForce 9800 GTX 280M can handle while also pushing pixels. With the graphical detail levels cranked and 4X antialiasing, I enjoyed frame rates between 28 and 50 FPS—not bad for a portable gaming rig running one of the most recent PC titles to hit the market.

Conclusions

Processors based on Intel’s Nehalem microarchiteture have claimed every market they’ve entered, and the high-performance end of the mobile spectrum is no different—not that we should be surprised. Clarksfield is really a full-blown Lynnfield implementation, complete with four cores, Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost, and on-die memory and PCIe controllers. The silicon hasn’t changed at all; it’s just been squeezed into a notebook-friendly package. All you give up is a little clock speed… and 40-50W of power consumption.

Clearly, the current crop of mobile Core i7 CPUs is best suited for more substantial notebooks, such as desktop replacements and mobile workstations. All of the systems announced thus far have measured 15 inches or larger, although a few dip into 6-lb territory. The 920XM seems to be restricted to more brutish portable gaming rigs, which makes sense given its higher TDP. But even the entry-level Core i7-720QM has a 45W TDP, making it difficult to imagine Clarksfield CPUs making their way into thin-and-light designs. Instead, that market will be better served by dual-core Arrandale processors that should arrive next year.

As for Clevo’s W870CU, my feelings are mixed. The system is obscenely powerful for something that weighs less than 10 lbs, and the fact that it can run the latest games at its native display resolution with full detail and gobs of antialiasing is impressive to say the least. The upgradeable MXM slot that promises support for next-gen Nvidia GPUs is also encouraging, and it’s exactly the sort of insurance I’d want in a high-end gaming notebook. Except that this really isn’t a notebook. Or a laptop. At best, it’s a portable gaming rig that all but requires a wall socket—and it’s an expensive one, at that.

Even the base W870CU configuration runs well over two grand. As tested, our system will set you back closer to $3,500, which is more than enough to build a couple of desktop Lynnfield rigs, complete with 24″ monitors. Heck, for that kind of money, you could put together several dual-core Mini-ITX gaming rigs that would actually deliver better frame rates at higher resolutions. Those systems wouldn’t be terribly cumbersome to throw into a trunk for a trip to the next LAN party, either.

If you happen to travel to LAN parties by bicycle, the ability to stuff the Clevo into a backpack might make sense. The same goes if you travel by air and want to avoid the hassles associated with checked baggage. I suppose one could also make a similar argument for folks who need an easily transportable quad-core workstation, but that’s about it.

Even if I were in the market for this sort of portable power, I’d think twice before dropping three large on the W870CU. Maybe I’m shallow, but for that kind of money, I expect a level of luxury from the chassis that matches the performance of the underlying engine. What’s billed as a high-end notebook ultimately feels like a mid-range model with a ridiculously fast engine stuffed under the hood.

Comments closed
    • Chrispy_
    • 10 years ago

    So I bought a dell studio17 with the i7-720 and a 1GB Radeon 4650 at around the time of this review.

    It runs everything really rather nicely though I think the 4850 is probably a closer match for the Clevo’s GPU but hey – I didn’t have that option and the difference in the real world is that I get the same fps in games on my 4650 without AA+AF as the GTX 280M can provide with AA+AF. I can live with that.

    What I don’t get is costs: I paid

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 10 years ago

    Holy sweeping generalizations, Batman!

    One company gives out one laptop to websites for review, with an outrageous video card for a laptop, and a tiny battery…and suddenly, Core i7s are energy hogs.

    You guys saying all that do realize that these are an even lower power version of the Lynnfield platform, which everyone seems to think blows the Core 2 platform out of the water in efficiency, right?

    The fact that the dinky battery lasts as long as it does is a testament to how well these work. It uses the same amount of electricity as single-core Athlon 64 laptops used to, even with that psycho video card.

    Wait until Windows 7 is out and the more “standard” Core i7 laptops are released before passing judgement.

      • TO11MTM
      • 10 years ago

      If we put this guy too close to snakeoil it will be like matter and anti-matter coming together.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      I think you need to reread the review. They didn’t bash the CPU itself so much as the notebook and it’s small battery. Anything that resembled CPU or platform bashing was reserved to nothing more than the usual for such large and very high processing power mobile workstation DTR-type machines.

    • LoneWolf15
    • 10 years ago

    Aside from the Core i7, every other Intel notebook benchmarked here had a low-power, low-clock CPU.

    What about a comparison with, say, the Core2 P8700 or P9700? I think the comparison would be more fair in performance (admittedly, they’d still get beaten), and they’d still kill the Core i7 on temperature and battery life. Maybe I missed something here, but it seems apples-and-oranges here.

    • Afty
    • 10 years ago

    Couldn’t you guys have found some more comparable systems to benchmark against? It’s meaningless to compare this system against netbooks and ultraportables.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 10 years ago

    I’m getting one all because of this statement: l[

    • derFunkenstein
    • 10 years ago

    Well I’d save money on this machine right off the bat by skipping the SSD. When I can pay $1/GB and get a 256GB drive I’ll pick one up, but for now at nearly 3x that the price/performance equity isn’t there for me, so all the bitching about $3500 is ridiculous. To me I’d stick with a 320GB or 500GB mechanical drive and see the price (most likely, given markups done by manufacturers) drop below $3000.

    Still, that’s alot of money for even a high-end portable in 2009. In 1999, that’s a different story.

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      g[

        • pullmyfoot
        • 10 years ago

        In 1999 I paid $3500 for a PIII Dell lappy with integrated Intel graphics and 365mb of ram and a 20gb hard drive! Lol

    • grantmeaname
    • 10 years ago

    Are you sure it’s a 1600*900 screen? Everywhere I’ve seen says it’s 1920*1080.

      • Dissonance
      • 10 years ago

      Quite sure.

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      A 17 inch screen with 1920ร—1080 would be absurd.

        • swaaye
        • 10 years ago

        WUXGA (1920×1200) is very popular with 17″ notebooks. Several of my friends have that setup. It’s a very dense image and it’s not bad at all except for what it requires of notebook GPUs for games.

        I think I would prefer my 24″ LCD to have that density.

        Of course, because the LCD vendors are jamming 16:9 down our throats in a mass movement certainly only beneficial to them, it’s now 1920×1080.

          • Meadows
          • 10 years ago

          I know, the density is what’s absurd. Perhaps the laptop is better this way, then.
          I’d go with your preferences about 24″ screens, personally.

            • Spurenleser
            • 10 years ago

            Absurd density? I have a Dell XPS M1530 with a 1920 x 1200 screen and I don’t think that the density is absurd. OK it’s about 150 pixel per inch but I can read it without any problem. My parents and my uncle complained though ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Jon
    • 10 years ago

    Mobile Core i7 is good news all around. I’ve slowly moved myself from using beefy unluggable desktops to more portable laptops for the exact reason you would need a laptop, mobility. Though I didn’t want to sacrifice my gaming so I ended up with a higher end configuration on the HP dv7. Now, instead of upgrading my desktop every 3 years to the latest and greatest, I’ve changed my rhyme and will be upgrading my laptop every 2 years. Makes perfect sense in the long run.

    When you look at how things are progressing in the world can you guess what kind of machine you’ll be using 5 / 10 / 15 years from now? It will most probably be something mobile.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 10 years ago

    That power plug just doesn’t make any sense. Why put a cover over the one connection that will be used 99% of the time?

    • Byte Storm
    • 10 years ago

    I’ve had an i7 ‘Laptop’ since august. Course it is a desktop proc in a gigantic laptop, so mine really is a portable desktop.

    But I’m OK with that. I don’t use my computer anywhere but home and work, so true portability (as most would see it) isn’t my need. Power is.

    • piesquared
    • 10 years ago
      • ish718
      • 10 years ago

      Did you forget about “Westmere”? Or are you living in some AMD fantasy world?

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      You do understand that /[

        • ClickClick5
        • 10 years ago

        Even with Arrandale, this still seems to be to much power for a laptop. In most applications, even a desktop.

        At current with the way things are programmed, two threads are where it’s at. Most of the “utilize every core” applications I have seen are very inefficient with their tasks and thread distribution. And if the porgram needs say a quad core, the coding is bloated or there is a very small gain in performance over a dual core.

          • UberGerbil
          • 10 years ago

          Which is why Arrandale should be a good design — for a lot of those loads, one of the cores is shut down and not drawing any power. But it’s there if you need it. Meanwhile the on-package graphics lowers the overall system power load and simplifies the cooling design for the ODMs. (Even with discrete graphics it should be a win because the integrated graphics gets used most of the time).

      • YeuEmMaiMai
      • 10 years ago

      say what? AMD has something that can directly compete with the C2D let alone I7? in laptops? where………..I7 really isn’t ready for the real notebook market yet…….and even now the C2D are just craking 2.8Ghz and AMD’s offerings are even slower yet…..

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 10 years ago

    I wish someone would review one of the Core i7 laptops that actually makes sense. ๐Ÿ™

    I’ve seen that some may have integrated graphics, too. That seemed like the only serious drawback inherent to the platform itself.

    • ClickClick5
    • 10 years ago

    1: “What do you do with your laptop?”
    2: “My new i7 laptop?”
    1: “Duh…what do you do with it?”
    2: “I did some movies in Movie Maker and…I play WOW.”
    1: “…$3500…8 threads for WOW?”
    2: “I don’t lag.”
    1: “I don’t either. And my machine cost $500.”
    2: “At least mine is portable! *sticks out tongue*”
    1: “$3500 worth of portable mass…thats great I guess.”

    Three days later, the laptop went missing.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    The mainstream Clarkfield laptops seems much more interesting.

    • albundy
    • 10 years ago

    is the batter just for show?

      • Peldor
      • 10 years ago

      A 42Wh battery makes no sense for this size laptop. If you look at other 17″ laptops you’ll generally find 6-cell options around 55Wh and 9-cell around 85Wh. Would the battery life be great? No, but it’d be double what this is delivering.

      At least you get an Intel SSD for your $$$$.

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      Think of it as a very limited UPS for your luggable all-in-one desktop system.

        • mnecaise
        • 10 years ago

        Good enough to keep the think alive in suspend or sleep mode until you reach your next destination.

      • lethal
      • 10 years ago

      No, its a very important piece of the hardware. Its what keeps the “you need to plug your computer” notification on the screen ;).

    • flip-mode
    • 10 years ago

    It is kind of… refreshing… to see a review of a notebook that has an unapologetically indulgent girth, even if just because it makes you appreciate the smaller, less powerful ones. I’d never go for something like that but I guess this thing could be just what some people are looking for. I wonder how snappy Revit would feel on a machine like that… Revit runs sluggish even on the fastest Core-2 Duo and I’ve been wondering if the i7 would make a difference.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 10 years ago

      Yeah the battery life is totally roflsauce.

    • swaaye
    • 10 years ago

    That’s some beefy notebook CPU power there. ๐Ÿ™‚ Perhaps a nice DTR machine.

    A note about 7zip though. The built-in bench uses more threads than the practical 7zip creation does. It will only use 2 threads. You’d have to make 4 archives at once to hit 8 threads.

    • reactorfuel
    • 10 years ago

    Jeez, 50 minutes battery life, $3500, and the side profile of an aircraft carrier? Forget “desktop replacement.” This thing is an all-in-one desktop with a built-in UPS. I’d much rather have an i5 or i7 desktop with a beefy (and easily upgradeable) graphics card, good midrange laptop, and netbook – and it sounds like I’d come out ahead on price that way, too.

      • TurtlePerson2
      • 10 years ago

      I think I’d rather have this computer than having a desktop and a cheap laptop if money weren’t a consideration. Since I do have a limited supply of dollars, I can’t really see myself owning a system like this. You could get a nice laptop, a nice desktop, and a cheap used car for $3500.

        • reactorfuel
        • 10 years ago

        Why would you want it at all? High-end laptops lose most of the benefits of normal laptops – easy portability and battery operation being the two biggest issues. Plus, performance is mediocre compared to a desktop; the “extreme” i7 mobile only barely keeps up with a midrange i5, and there’s simply no contest when it comes to mobile video. The mobile “GTX 280″ is just another relabeled G92 part, and any credible gaming desktop (as in, almost any system with a $100 video card) will beat it easily. Finally, this is just anecdotal, but I’ve never seen a high-performance laptop that didn’t eventually develop heat problems.

        Even if someone offered me any laptop in the world for free, I wouldn’t choose this one. It might be useful in very limited circumstances – say, if you need to transcode video in a hotel room – but you take a lot of tradeoffs to get mediocre desktop power. I’d much rather just acknowledge that a laptop’s never going to have high-end desktop performance, and go with a reasonably fast mobile dual-core, midrange discrete graphics, and have a lightweight system with good battery life.

        Also, I don’t know where you’re coming from on pricing, but I figured $1200 for a desktop, $300 for a monitor, $1500 for a notebook, and $400 for a netbook. $1500 will buy you a lot more than a cheap laptop – that’s enough for a midrange Dell or Lenovo business model with a decent CPU and good battery life, or a 13” Macbook Pro with decent specs if you’d prefer to rock the fruit.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          I think you overlooked where he said a cheap used car :p

            • reactorfuel
            • 10 years ago

            Touche – I misread that “and” as “or.”

            Still, I don’t see why this would be a desirable system for anybody but the aforementioned “I gotta transcode this video in my hotel room” crowd. In college, I saw plenty of students with top-of-the-line desktop replacements that they were really unhappy with because they couldn’t take them anywhere. The size and weight don’t sound too massive, but carrying them around everywhere gets really annoying, and God forbid you have to set it up on a small table with other people. Even aside from the cost, from what I’ve seen desktop replacements are usually white elephants. Not many people buy a second one.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          having all your data in once place and then being able to tote it around is nice.

          That said, I’m sticking with a desktop for now; the price premium for a laptop isn’t quite worth it.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 10 years ago

    I think Arrandale will be a much more interesting portable system CPU for the majority of what people expect from a laptop. I love the CULV ultraportables too though.

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      Yep, exactly what I was thinking.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 10 years ago

    On page 6 (Our testing methods) you mixed up the System Buses for the Clevo W870CU and the Gateway LT3103u. HT 4.8 GT/s (2.4GHz) should be for the Gateway and QPI 1.6 GT/s (800MHz) should be for the Clevo.

    EDIT:

    Correction. Only ‘HT’ and ‘QPI’ are mixed up. Sorry.

      • Dissonance
      • 10 years ago

      Fixed.

    • Shining Arcanine
    • 10 years ago

    I figured laptops would become energy hogs when Intel said that they would start designing their new processors for workstations again, as opposed to designing them for laptops, but a 50 minute battery life is worse than I had expected.

    I guess the Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M 1GB graphics card is more to blame for the poor battery life than Intel’s new design habits. Nvidia doesn’t seem to care much about making its laptop parts have acceptable 2D power consumption. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the systems’ power goes to the graphics card.

      • Krogoth
      • 10 years ago

      Sandy Bridge is going to be the next-generation “true” laptop/netbook chip.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 10 years ago

        If by next-gen you mean new architecture yeah but Arrandale will be the next laptop-specific part.

      • Freon
      • 10 years ago

      Well with how well the 5870 and 5850 did on power consumption I’d hold out for a mobile version. 5750M FTW?

    • Krogoth
    • 10 years ago

    It is technically a desktop replacement.

      • FuturePastNow
      • 10 years ago

      DTR SFF AIO EIEIO

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      …Yes, that’s what the review said. Well done.

        • VILLAIN_xx
        • 10 years ago

        LMAO.

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 10 years ago

        pwned!!

      • Hattig
      • 10 years ago

      Yeah, it’s big enough to use as a stand for a laptop.

      9lbs! wtf! If this is indicative of mobile i7 then it’s doomed to failure. What’s wrong with Intel? :p

    • 5150
    • 10 years ago

    Glad to see some notebook reviews coming out of this place. Awesome job, as always.

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