You’ve read this intro before. You know, the one that starts with some statistics about growth in the mobile market. Laptops are outselling desktops, in case you haven’t heard already. They’ve been doing so for a while, and netbooks have been a big part of the story. You know this already, not because I’m guilty of writing variations of this intro a couple of times before, but because you’ve seen the burgeoning mobile market first hand. Even if the rising popularity of portable PCs hasn’t begun to shape your own harem of systems, you’ve no doubt seen the growing preponderance of notebooks among friends, family, and the cluster of bearded hipsters at your local coffee shop.
The mobile market is growing and evolving rapidly. That fact is certainly not lost on Intel, which today launches its first Westmere-based Core i5 and i3 desktop processors code-named Clarkdale. As one might expect from a Nehalem-derived design with dual Hyper-Threaded, Turbo-Boosted cores, Clarkdale is all kinds of awesome. It’s also not the only new CPU family launching today. Clarkdale has a mobile twin otherwise known as Arrandale.
Nehalem’s made its foray into notebooks back in October with the introduction of Clarksfield mobile Core i7 CPUs based on Lynnfield desktop silicon. These quad-core, eight-threaded monsters are typically found in larger, performance-oriented notebooks and portable gaming systems that tend not to be cheap. Arrandale is a much more mainstream design destined to slip into ultraportables, affordable thin and lights, full-sized notebooks, and probably even the next round of MacBook Pros. This is Intel’s replacement for the Core 2 Duo mobile line, so it’ll cover pretty much everything between netbooks and massive desktop replacements. If you’ll be shopping for a new notebook in the next year or so, chances are you’ll be looking at a good number of systems with Arrandale inside.
We’re used to seeing new mobile CPUs lag behind their desktop counterparts, so the fact that Intel has Arrandale ready in time for Clarkdale’s launch is really quite impressive. The shared roots of these designs break a lot of new ground for the chip giant. This is the first dual-core Nehalem derivative, and it features a novel multi-chip package (MCP) that pairs the processor core with sidekick silicon packing north-bridge and integrated graphics functionality. Westmere is also Intel’s first crack at high-volume microprocessor manufacturing using 32-nm fabrication technology. Our review of Clarkdale-based Core i3 and i5 processors covers Arrandale’s shared blueprint in much greater detail than I’ll indulge here. I highly recommend reading it for background on how this new manufacturing process and chip architecture come together.
Here, we’re focusing on what Intel has done to squeeze its latest CPU silicon into notebooks. Westmere really is a testament to scalability, not just because it’s suitable for desktops and notebooks, but because revisions are rolling out to cover all sorts of mobile applications. The new Core Mobile processor lineup spans more models than Tiger Woods has mistresses, at least as of the last time I checked. There are 11 new flavors spread across the Core i3, i5, and i7 Mobile families, including standard, low, and ultra-low-voltage designs.
|Model||Cores||Threads||L3 cache size||Base core clock speed||Peak Turbo clock speed||Maximum memory speed||TDP||Price|
All of these new CPU models have dual cores capable of juggling up to four threads via Hyper-Threading. Each core has 32KB L1 data and instruction caches and a 256KB L2 cache. The i7s feature a full 4MB of L3 cache, in addition to Turbo Boost and the highest clock speeds of the bunch. Intel sheds a little weight for the i5 family, dropping the L3 cache down to 3MB and lowering clock speeds slightly. The i3s lose Turbo Boost but retain relatively high base clock speeds.
Even the fastest Mobile Core i7 is a few MHz short of the slowest Clarkdale clock speeds, which is to be expected considering the difference in thermal design power (TDP) between the two families. Clarkdale CPUs predominantly carry 73W TDP ratings, while the most power-hungry Arrandale designs pull less than half that at just 35W. The 35W TDP applies to all of what Intel calls standard-voltage models. Low-voltage CPUs with 20W TDPs are available in the Core i7 family, denoted by an LM at the end of their model names. You can get ultra-low-voltage chips with 18W TDPs in the i7 and i5 lines, too. A UM suffix identifies those CPUs.
With the exception of a couple of 10W models, the existing Core 2 Duo mobile lineup is littered with 35W, 25W, and 17W CPUs. One might assume, then, that Intel has done little to reduce the power consumption of its new mobile platform. However, the old Core 2 Duos must be paired with separate north-bridge silicon. This role is typically filled by the GS45 Express and its GMA 4000-series integrated graphics processor, which combine to consume an additional 12W all on their own. Arrandale-based Core Mobile CPUs move the north bridgecomplete with integrated graphicsonto their MCP, with the processor TDP applying to the package as a whole.
As it does in Clarkdale, Arrandale’s integrated north bridge features 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes, a dual-channel DDR3 memory controller, and the latest version of Intel’s Graphics Media Accelerator. The mobile variants do have some restrictions, though. The PCIe lanes can’t be split evenly between a pair of x8 links like they can on the desktop. The memory controller is limited to a single DIMM per channel, and memory speeds top out at 1066MHz266MHz shy of Clarkdale. In fact, ultra-low-voltage Arrandales will only work with 800MHz memory.
Intel’s new IGP doesn’t skip a beat when transitioning to mobile. All of its hardware-accelerated goodness remains intact, including support for dual-stream H.264, VC-1, and MPEG2 video decoding that should enable smooth picture-in-picture Blu-ray playback with low CPU utilization. The GMA HD can power dual HDMI outputs simultaneously, and it can pass 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams over HDMI, which is an important consideration for audiophiles and home theater buffs with fancy receivers. Arrandale also features an Embedded DisplayPort connection not exposed in Clarkdale CPUs. This internal connection is intended to interface with notebook displays.
The mobile versions of the GMA HD make use of all 12 of the GPU’s 3D execution units. However, unlike desktop versions that are clocked at either 733 or 900MHz by default, Arrandale’s graphics component can dynamically scale its GPU clock based on need and the available thermal and power headroom. Dynamic Frequency, perhaps better thought of as Turbo Boost for graphics, is capable of pushing a mobile IGP up to 900MHz. According to Intel’s mobile processor data sheets, the IGP’s base clock speed ranges between 500 and 766MHz in standard-voltage CPUs, between 266 and 566MHz in low-voltage chips, and from 166 to 500MHz in ULV models.
Given how conservative Turbo Boost has been with the Core i5-540M in the full-sized notebook we’ve been testing, I wouldn’t bet on most portables having the thermal headroom to crank the IGP up to 900MHz. Even with single-threaded tasks, the i5-540M rarely hits its peak 3.06GHz Turbo Boost speed, preferring instead to settle for 2.93GHz or even 2.8GHzits maximum speed for multi-threaded workloads. Intel suggests that Dynamic Frequency is most effective when there’s a graphics-intensive load and low CPU activity, which would seem to rule out most games, anyway.
Moving the north bridge onto the CPU allows Intel to deploy Arrandale with a single-chip PCH, or Platform Controller Hub. Notebook makers will have four flavors to choose from: the QM57, QS57, HM57, and HM55 Express, all of which look to be derived from the P55 PCH that arrived in September alongside Lynnfield desktop CPUs. The HM55 will likely be the most common in consumer-oriented notebooks, in part because it’s the cheapest. With six 2.5GT/s PCIe 2.0 lanes, four SATA ports, a dozen USB ports, and an integrated Gigabit Ethernet MAC, the HM55 has more than enough connectivity for most portables. Plus, with a TDP of just 3.5W, it’s plenty power efficient, too.
These mobile PCHs interface with Arrandale over a DMI interconnect that offers 2GB/s of bidirectional bandwidth. A Flexible Display Interface (FDI) also provides a pipe between the GMA HD and the PCH’s integrated display outputs, which cover HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort. The block diagram above illustrates a desktop implementation, but a mobile one won’t look any different, at least in terms of how everything’s connected.
The last wave in Intel’s mobile onslaught is a collection of new Centrino wireless components. Code-named Calpella, these new wireless cards support the 802.11n standard. The top-rung Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 can reach three-stream speeds of up to 450Mbps. You’ll only squeeze 300MBps from the Advanced-N 6200, but a 6250 version of that card is available with WiMAX.
A quick look at Arrandale performance against desktop CPUs
Before diving into the first Arrandale-based notebook to arrive in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, it’s probably a good idea to see how the performance of Intel’s latest mobile CPU compares with what’s available on the desktop. The Asus K42F notebook we used for testing is equipped with a Core i5-540M clocked at 2.53GHz, whose performance we’ve presented in the context of the results from our Clarkdale desktop coverage. The i5-540M is most comparable to the desktop Core i3-540, which lacks the mobile chip’s Turbo Boost capability, but whose 3.06GHz base clock speed exactly matches the peak Turbo Boost speed of the i5-540M. Of course, the i5-540M is stuck with slower 1066MHz memory and only 3MB of cache.
I should also note that our notebook is using the Intel IGP, which carves out a slice of system memory for graphics. Having slightly less than 4GB of usable system memory shouldn’t impact the workloads we’re testing, but the Graphics Media Accelerator will consume some of the memory bandwidth otherwise available to the CPU. The desktop CPUs are all paired with a discrete graphics processor that just wouldn’t fit into our notebook’s 14″ chassis. Still, I’m curious to see how the i5-540M fares against some admittedly stacked desktop competition.
The i5-540M shadows the i3-540 in Sandra’s cache and memory bandwidth benchmark, but remains a step behind, likely due to its lower base clock speed. I didn’t see the i5-540M hitting its Turbo Boost peak all that often with single-threaded workloads.
With its SO-DIMMs running at only 1066MHz, the i5-540M has about 30% less memory bandwidth than its closest desktop equivalent. Still, you get loads more bandwidth than with old-school Core 2 designs that don’t feature integrated memory controllers.
The i5-540M lags behind the i3-540 in 7-Zip. This Arrandale implementation is still faster than a Core 2 Duo E860, though, and by quite a margin in the decompression test.
TrueCrypt doesn’t appear to take advantage of the new AES-NI instructions built into Westmere CPU silicon. However, the i5-540M still fares reasonably well, just edging out the E8600.
The i5-540M’s relative position in the field doesn’t change when we switch to Cinebench. Interestingly, the 540M is slower than the E8600 in the single-threaded rendering test. Hyper-Threading gives Arrandale the advantage when we move to the multi-threaded rendering test, though.
Although it completes The Panorama Factory’s stitch operation a couple of seconds faster than a Phenom II X2 550, the i5-540M is a ways behind the rest of the competition here.
The i5-540M and E8600 trade blows in the x264 HD video encoding test. With both passes, the mobile chip trails the i3-540 by a decent margin. These results were obtained using the latest 3.03 revision of the x264 benchmark. We have some additional x264 results a little later in the review that were obtained using an older 2.0 revision, so the scores aren’t directly comparable.
Introducing the Asus K42F notebook
Arrandale arrived on my doorstep inside a pre-production version of Asus’ upcoming K42F 14″ notebook. Behold its freshly buffed, glossy plastic sheen:
The glossy glare makes K42F’s textured underlayer a little difficult to see here. You’re not missing much, though. The series of curved grey lines that adorn the black top panel are faintly fingerprintesque, and certainly less visible than the collection of smudges and actual fingerprints that the glossy coating manages to attract with only light handling.
Asus doesn’t appear to have any other cosmetic treatments lined up for the K42F, but several models are planned, including two that are set to be available on January 17. The K42F-B1 will set you back $999; it features a Core i5-520M, 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 320GB 5,400-RPM hard drive, a Blu-ray reader, and an eight-cell battery. If you’re looking to spend a little less, the K42F-A1 rings in at $729 with a Core i3-350M. You also lose the Blu-ray drive in favor of a DVD burner and end up with a 6-cell battery. Neither the A1 nor the B1 comes with Bluetooth, which is odd considering that both support 802.11n Wi-Fi.
Additional K42F models are planned between $799 and $899. Arrandale will also get a taste of discrete graphics in the K42JR-A1, which will be similar to the K42F but with a Mobility Radeon HD 5470, Core i5-430M, and a 7,200-RPM hard drive. There’s no word on pricing for that model just yet.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-540M 2.53GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-1066 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel HM55 Express|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD|
|Display||14″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 2.5″ 5,400-RPM hard drive|
|Optical||Hitachi HT-DT-ST Blu-ray reader, DVD writer|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec|
|Ports||3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via JMicron controller
1 1394 FireWire
1 analog line/headphone output
|Expansion slots||SD/MMC card reader|
|Communications||802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200|
|Input devices||“Full size” keyboard
Trackpad with two-finger scrolling
|Camera||0.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||13.7″ x 9.3″ x 1.4″ (349 mm x 237 mm x 36.5 mm)|
|Weight||4.85 lbs (2.2 kg)|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion 63Wh|
Of course, none of these configurations actually match the K42F demo unit we used for testing. Our review sample sports a Core i5-540M that’s a little bit faster than the quickest CPU planned for the K42F series. This system also features a Centrino Advanced-N 6200 wireless card that will be replaced by a similar Atheros unit in retail versions of the K42F. Intel put a 500GB hard drive into this demo system, as well, and equipped it with Windows 7 Ultimate x64 rather than Home Premium. The CPU and hard drive upgrades should make our K42F a little bit faster than what you’ll be able to buy starting in a couple of weeks.
Intel says Arrandale can slide into notebooks at thin as 0.8″, but the K42F is quite a bit beefier. Too much holiday gluttony, perhaps. The K42F is close to an inch and a half thick and tips the scales at a little under five pounds. Here’s how it looks next to Acer’s thin-and-light Aspire Timeline 13.3″:
As you can see, the Asus’ footprint is only slightly larger. The difference in thickness is quite apparent and not entirely the fault of the optical drive. Asus managed to squeeze a DVD burner into its 14″ UL80Vt, which is just over an inch thick.
Keep in mind that the K42F is but one example of what will no doubt be a torrent of Arrandale-based notebooks. Even as I sit here writing this, hours before the official press embargo lifts, gadget blogs are littered with leaked marketing materials detailing notebooks of all shapes and sizes with Core Mobile CPUs inside.
Lifting the lid
Tilting back the K42F’s lid reveals a 14″ LED-backlit screen with 1366×768 pixels. This WXGA resolution has become the de facto standard for new notebook models at the affordable end of the spectrum.
Like most new laptop displays, the screen has a transreflective coating that delivers clear, crisp colors with the associated reflectivity baggage you’d expect from this panel type. On-screen reflections are generally easy to overcome by cranking the brightness, of which there’s plenty, but you can still see the odd reflection even in normal indoor lighting. A matte display would do away with reflectivity but impart a subtle grain to colors, so it’s a compromise either way.
We haven’t been particularly impressed with the WXGA panels on the last batch of 13.3″ and 14″ notebooks we’ve reviewed, and the K42F appears to pull its panel from the same pool. The screen’s viewing angles are only average, as you can see in the picture above.
From dead center, the screen’s colors look much better. The display tilts back far enough to hit the sweet spot for vertical viewing angles, too, so you should only run into problems when viewing from either side. I don’t tend to find myself in such a position with a notebook unless I’m sharing it to watch movies while traveling with a companion.
Asus mercifully keeps glossy plastic away from the screen bezel, but the fingerprint magnet returns to surround the keyboard. I guess the massive array of multi-colored stickers that are no doubt planned for the K42F’s palm rests weren’t ready in time for this pre-production unit.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||300 mm||107 mm||32,100 mm²||171 mm||57 mm||9,747 mm²|
|Versus full size||105%||97%||102%||99%||100%||99%|
With a footprint designed to accommodate a 14″ panel, the K42F has plenty of space for a roomy keyboard. The keyboard is even surrounded by a wide border, yet it still measures nearly the same dimensions as our full-size reference.
Interestingly, the keyboard doesn’t feature the chiclet-style keys seen on the last few Asus notebooks to pass through our labs. The bottom and left edges of the keys are beveled slightly, which nicely defines the borders between them. Although it’s difficult to see in the picture above, the caps also have a subtle contour that helps to keep one’s fingers centered.
I quite liked the look of the keyboard when I first saw it. However, after a couple of weeks of use, I’m not a fan. The problem isn’t with the shape, size, or even texture of the keys, but with the underlying mechanism. Tactile feedback is vague compared to the positive feel of Asus’ recent chiclet designs, and flex is easily visible, even when typing with a reasonable amount of force. Asus claims retail versions of the K42F will use a new keyboard design that eliminates some of the flex in pre-production units.
Unfortunately, Asus hasn’t mentioned any changes to the touchpad, which could also use some work. The tracking surface is perfectly smooth, but the glossy coating feels almost tacky unless you’re touching it with just the right amount of pressure. Touchpad surfaces should be as smooth and slick as possible to allow for effortless tracking, especially as multi-touch gestures become more common.
Multi-touch isn’t particularly developed here, however. The Elan Smart-Pad drivers are anything but: they support two-finger vertical and horizontal scrolling and little else. I guess I’m spoiled by the latest Synaptics touchpad drivers, which in addition to two-finger scrolling, support chiral scrolling, pinch zooming, three-finger swipes, and tap zones.
Connectivity and expansion options
The K42F has more than enough girth for a healthy assortment of expansion ports and slots, so let’s start the tour.
The right edge plays host to USB and Gigabit Ethernet ports. Here, we also get a glimpse of the optical drive, which despite the lack of logos, is in fact a Blu-ray reader. Arrandale’s IGP is perfectly suited for HD video playback, and with an HDMI output situated on the left side of the system, so is the K42F.
While we have the optical drive in focus, I should take a moment to point out the hair-trigger eject button. Even lightly brushing up against the right side of the systemsomething I apparently do with great frequency when using a mouseis enough to eject a disc. Asus tells me that production versions of the K42F will use another optical drive model with a different button configuration. Hopefully it won’t be as sensitive.
Over on the left side of the system, we can see the K42F’s video outputs and its remaining USB ports. A headphone jack sits beside the USB ports, but you won’t find a microphone input anywhere on the system. That’s right; in the year 2010, Asus will be selling $1000 notebooks that don’t have mic inputs. The chassis certainly has room for an input port, but somewhere along the line, an accountant probably decided the pennies it would cost to implement one would be better spent on more glossy plastic. Skype users will have to make do with the embedded mic, which isn’t likely to deliver better sound quality than the one on the headset you were hoping to plug in.
Somewhere behind the K42F’s primary exhaust port lies a fan that has a tendency to generate a high-pitched buzz unlike anything I’ve heard from an Asus laptop in recent times. The fan isn’t particularly loud, but the associated buzzing, which seems separate from the fan noise and fades in and out irrespective of CPU load or apparent fan speed, hits just the right pitch to be an annoyance. When asked about the noise, Asus suggested that Intel’s decision to swap in faster CPUs could explain the buzzing, which sounds a little like the vibration of a component that isn’t quite seated properly. According to Asus, the fans on production K42F systems run quietly and without buzzing.
Lest you think that Asus left a memory card reader off the K42F, one can be found under the front edge of the system. I’d almost expect to see an ExpressCard slot in a rig of this size, but one isn’t provided. Neither is a DisplayPort output nor a hybrid eSATA/USB port, both of which would have been welcome additions.
At least one can easily access the K42F’s SO-DIMM slots and its internal hard drive bay. With 4GB of memory coming standard on even the $729 K42F-A1, a memory upgrade seems unlikely. The Core i5’s performance potential will no doubt make an SSD upgrade tempting for some folks, though.
Our custom K42F config came equipped with a 6-cell, 63Wh battery. Since this is such a new system, marketing materials boasting outlandish run times aren’t yet available. We’ll have to rely on the far more realistic results of our own battery life testing. Do keep in mind that some K42F models will be available with an 8-cell unit. I suspect that battery will be rated for 84Wh like the ones in Asus’ UL series.
Asus covers the K42F with a two-year warranty that provides one year of accidental damage protection. There’s a zero-bright-dot policy for the LCD, too. Unfortunately, the build quality of our pre-production unit isn’t stellar. Maybe it’s cheap plastic or the lack of a substantial subframe, but the chassis has more flex than I’d expected from something this thick and weighty. The keyboard feels a little loose, too, although the screen hinge is at least nice and tight.
Our testing methods
We’ve already seen how Arrandale stacks up against a collection of desktop CPUs. Now, it’s time to see how the K42F’s performance compares to a selection of notebooks, including Acer’s 13.3″ Aspire Timeline 1380T, Asus’ UL80Vt, and Dell’s Studio 14z. The Acer and Asus systems feature Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage Core 2 CPUs, while the Dell has a standard mobile Core 2 Duo, making it the most appropriate rival.
In addition to featuring an aggressive power-saving mode, the UL80Vt has a switchable GeForce graphics processor and a nifty turbo button that overclocks the CPU to 1.73GHz. We’ve tested the Asus system in a turbo configuration with its discrete GPU enabled and in its most frugal power-saving mode, which uses Intel integrated graphics and clocks the processor down to just 800MHz. The other notebooks don’t have high-performance or special battery-saving modes, so they were tested in their default configurations.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.
|System||Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline||Asus K42F||Asus UL80Vt-A1||Dell Studio 14z|
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 1.4GHz||Intel Core i5-540M 2.53GHz||Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz||Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 12.4GHz|
|System bus||800 MT/s
|QPI 4.8 GT/s
|North bridge||Intel GS45||Intel HM55 Express||Intel GS45||Nvidia GeForce 9400M G|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9M||Intel ICH9M|
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz|
|CAS latency (CL)||6||7||6||7|
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||6||7||6||7|
|RAS precharge (tRP)||6||7||6||7|
|Cycle time (tRAS)||15||20||15||27|
|Audio codec||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12407 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19939 drivers||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5298 drivers||IDT codec with 184.108.40.20617 drivers|
|Graphics||Intel GMA X4500MHD with 220.127.116.116 drivers||Intel GMA HD with 18.104.22.1685 drivers||Intel GMA X4500MHD with 22.214.171.1242 drivers
Nvidia GeForce G210M with 126.96.36.19988 drivers
|Nvidia GeForce 9400M G with 188.8.131.5219 drivers|
|Hard drive||Toshiba HDD2HD21 500GB 5,400 RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- WorldBench 6
- Firefox 3.5.3
- Adobe Flash 10.0.32.18
- x264 HD Benchmark 2.0 with x264 version 0.59.819
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
- Call of Duty 4 1.4
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.
WorldBench kicks off our new collection of notebook tests, providing some insight on how each system deals with a varied collection of common desktop applications.
The K42F gets off to a good start, handily beating the Studio 14z to lead the field.
Even browser benchmarks can benefit from additional CPU horsepower. Peacekeeper runs much faster on the K42F, although the Arrandale system’s lead isn’t as pronounced in the GUIMark test.
Yeah, this one’s not even closeor fair. The Core i5-540M may be a dual-core CPU, but Hyper-Threading allows it to run twice as many concurrent threads as its Core 2-based competition. 7-Zip’s internal benchmark is nicely multi-threaded, and the results speak for themselves.
The x264 HD video encoding benchmark is multi-threaded, too, and the K42F continues to dominate. Short of gaming, high-def video editing is probably going to be the most demanding task an average home user will throw at their system. Arrandale is certainly up to it.
We settled on Call of Duty 4 for our first and only gaming benchmark. I used the 1366×768 native resolution common to all four systems and disabled most of the game’s eye candy, including antialiasing and anisotropic filtering.
That’s a much better result than one might expect from an Intel IGP. However, the K42F’s frame rates still trail those of the Studio 14z and UL80Vt, both of which use Nvidia graphics solutions.
These results don’t tell us much about real-world gaming, so I fired up a collection of titles to see how the K42F would fare. FRAPS was used to monitor in-game frame rates in each title. Let’s see if there’s anything to Intel’s assertion that the GMA HD can handle “mainstream 3D gaming.”
Geometry Wars is pretty mainstream, right? The game has been out on the Xbox 360 for ages, and it’s cheap to buy for the PC via Steam. Unfortunately, it crashes to the desktop anytime you try to change the resolution on the GMA HD, a task that even the last GMA generation could handle. Geometry Wars ran at a solid 60 FPS at 640×480, at least.
Darwinia could probably be classified as a casual title, although not a mainstream one. Either way, it runs quite well on the K42F. The system managed a nearly a solid 60 frames per second at 1366×768 with all but the game’s pixel effects cranked up to high detail.
Portal doesn’t have much going on in the graphics department, so it seemed like a good candidate for this latest Graphics Media Accelerator. Somewhat to my surprise, the game ran smoothly at native resolution with high detail levels. Frame rates hovered in the mid-30s and regularly jumped into the 40-50 FPS range. Only rarely did they drop into the high 20s, which is still plenty smooth.
Inspired by success with a Source-engine game, I next tried my luck with Left 4 Dead 2. I started at native resolution with low in-game detail levels, and while frame rates oscillated between 20 and 35 FPS a lot of the time, heavy action, smoke, fire, or any combination of those elements sent me into the low teens. Not acceptable. Lowering the display resolution helped some, but not much. At 640×480, I was still getting frame rates in the low 20s during a zombie rush or in areas that combined action with smoke or fire effects. Plus, the game’s just ugly with all the eye candy turned all the way down.
I didn’t have high hopes for Borderlands, and I wasn’t disappointed. At 640×480 with the lowest in-game detail levels, frame rates mostly hovered between the high 20s and low 30s. Any action quickly sent frame rates into the low 20s, though. At native resolution, the K42F didn’t manage better than a single-digit slideshow.
In a last-ditch effort to get a decent shooter running smoothly on the K42F, I fired up Call of Duty 4 once more. At native resolution with nearly the lowest detail levels, the game’s first level was just playable. The FPS counter spent a lot of time in the mid 30s, although it regularly dropped down to the low 20s when there was lots of on-screen action. Lowering the display resolution to 640×480 didn’t help matters much, either. Even at that resolution, I didn’t see an improvement in frame rates during heavy action scenes.
Whether the GMA HD lives up to “mainstream 3D gaming” very much depends on what you define as a mainstream 3D game. And, I suppose, whether you’re willing to tolerate extremely low resolutions and detail levels. Intel still has work to do on the compatibility front, as evidenced by our issues in Geometry Wars. I tried to use GRID for testing, as well, but it crashed to the desktop before even loading. That particular issue has afflicted older GMA revisions for a while now, and I guess it hasn’t been fixed.
Our next batch of tests highlights the GMA HD’s video playback performance, which should be quite a bit better than its gaming chops. The chart below includes approximate CPU utilization percentages gleaned from the Windows 7 Task Manager alongside subjective impressions of actual playback.
I used Windows Media Player to handle all playback tests and Firefox for our windowed YouTube HD test. The new version of Windows Media Player built into Microsoft’s latest OS supports the video-decoding capabilities of the GMA HD.
|Star Trek QuickTime 480p||1-3%||Perfect|
|Star Trek QuickTime 720p||1-4%||Perfect|
|Hot Fuzz QuickTime 1080p||2-4%||Perfect|
|DivX PAL SD||1-10%||Perfect|
|720p YouTube HD windowed||15-32%||Perfect|
Playback was perfectly smooth across the board. Only our 720p YouTube HD clip raised CPU utilization above 10%, but Flash video playback has always been pretty demanding. The latest Flash 10 beta supports GPU acceleration for video playback, and with it, the K42F’s CPU utilization dropped to between 13 and 20%. Not bad for a beta that was released before the GMA HD’s official launch.
Since the K42F has a Blu-ray drive, I fired up PowerDVD 9 to check CPU utilization during HD movie playback. I tested using 28 Days Later, Click, and Nature’s Journey, which covers all three Blu-ray encoding formats at some pretty high bit rates. The movies played back perfectly smoothly running at the system’s native resolution. All three registered CPU utilization in the 9-17% range, which is pretty good considering that Blu-ray copy protection processing is usually handled by the CPU.
Each system’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a 50% brightness setting for the Timeline, which is easily readable in normal indoor lighting and is the setting we’d be most likely to use ourselves. That setting is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness level on the K42F, UL80Vt, and Studio 14z, which is what we used for those configurations.
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.
The K42F has the shortest battery life of the bunch. However, it’s working with fewer resources than the UL80Vt and Studio 14z. The Arrandale system’s battery is rated for just 63Wh11Wh less than the Studio’s battery and a whopping 21Wh less than what you get with the UL80Vt. A K42F-B1 retail revision with an eight-cell battery and an i5-520M should offer more competitive run times.
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 K42F had run our web surfing battery life test for a couple of hours.
Despite the fan’s incessant buzzing, the K42F doesn’t run all that hot. The underbelly gets a little warm, but not so much that it’ll cook your lap.
The fact that Arrandale and Clarkdale share the same core silicon speaks volumes about the scalability of Nehalem’s 32-nm Westmere implementation. This potent dual-core CPU can Turbo Boost its way up to 3.73GHz in a desktop-bound Core i5-670 and also run as an ultra-low-voltage mobile Core i5-520UM at just 1.06GHz. Between these two extremes lies a full range of Arrandale and Clarkdale CPUs to suit just about every sort of mainstream desktop or mobile PC.
Clarkdale’s performance is quite impressive on the desktop. Despite squeezing into a much smaller power envelope, Arrandale isn’t much slower in the Core i5-540M implementation we’ve looked at today. There’s ample power for mainstream notebooks, then, and plenty of grunt for high-performance portables that don’t need the excess of a quad-core, eight-thread Clarksfield CPU.
Perhaps more important than Arrandale’s performance is the relative improvement in power efficiency that it brings to Intel’s mainstream mobile platform. Moving the north bridge onto the CPU package and into the processor’s thermal envelope has dramatically lowered the overall TDP ratings for Intel’s mobile CPU and chipset combos. With the Core 2 Duo, you were looking at 10-35W for the CPU, another 12W for the north bridge, and 2.5W for a south bridge chip. With Arrandale, you have 17-35W for the CPU plus a 3.5W PCH like the HM55 Express. All in all, you’re looking at 20.5-38.5W for Arrandale, versus 24.5-49.5W for the old Core 2 Duo platform.
Shrinking a mobile platform from three chips down to two only works if you don’t need auxiliary silicon to build a competent system. The Pine Trail Atom refresh tried the same trick, but it can’t play HD video smoothly without a companion video decodera third chip. Thanks to the decode acceleration built into the new Graphics Media Accelerator HD, Arrandale doesn’t need any help playing HD video with minimal CPU utilization. If you want to play real 3D games, though, the GMA HD isn’t going to cut it.
Intel’s may only expect the GMA HD to handle so-called casual or mainstream titles, and it’ll do just fine if you pick and choose your titles, resolutions, and in-game detail levels carefully. But there are plenty of games that are simply too slow or too ugly on the GMA HD to be worth playing. I’m not talking about cutting-edge titles, either. Call of Duty 4 is more than two years old now, and any sort of on-screen action will bring the GMA’s frame rates into the low 20s, even at the lowest resolution and detail levels.
The fact is that most notebook buyers don’t play games. Those who do simply need to be shopping for Arrandale-based systems that feature a discrete graphics processor. That rules out the Asus K42F we’ve looked at today, although Asus’ upcoming K42JR-A1 will feature Mobility Radeon graphics.
Honestly, I’d write off the K42F even if you don’t need to play games. Sure, the A1 revision will be cheap at just $729 with a Core i3-350M. However, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the K42F is a last-generation notebook with a next-gen CPU. The missing microphone input is almost inexcusable, and the lack of DisplayPort and hybrid eSATA/USB ports seems incredibly short-sighted. Bluetooth is only optional, and it hasn’t made the cut for the two models currently on deck for January 17th. Throw in a portly chassis made up mostly of fingerprint-prone glossy plastic and a touchpad with the bare minimum of multi-touch functionality, and the K42F looks more and more like last year’s news.
I’ve used a lot of very good Asus netbooks and notebooks over the last couple of years, but the K42F simply doesn’t do Arrandale justice. Fortunately, a CPU family as deep as the new Core Mobile lineup is going to end up powering a wide range of diverse systems not only within Asus’ own stable, but in those of other manufacturers, as well. Consumers should have plenty of exciting new options to explore in the coming weeks and monthseverything from ultraportables and thin and lights to budget notebooks and game-worthy systems, all of which will be faster than ever before. Arrandale will probably inspire even more users to ditch their desktops in favor of notebooks, which ensures you’ll be reading the same old tired intro about the rise of portable PCs well into the new year and beyond.