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Sandy Bridge: The mobile perspective

I'd like my Sandy Bridge to go, please

By now, chances are you've perused our review of Intel's Sandy Bridge desktop processors and drawn your own conclusions about this new processor family. Conclusions like "wow, these are fast" and quite possibly "I want one." Or perhaps "I don't see what the big deal is," assuming you've just upgraded to a previous-generation CPU and are trying to suppress your buyer's remorse. Point is, this fresh batch of CPUs has set the high-water mark for what quad-core microprocessors can accomplish. Intel has hit another home run.

There is another side to Sandy Bridge we didn't address in our original review, though. As Intel was rolling out the desktop processors we reviewed, it also introduced a whole family of quad- and dual-core mobile Sandy Bridge variants. We covered these mobile parts in the news earlier this month. The gist is that a handful of mobile quad-core Sandy Bridge CPUs are available now, and dual-core derivatives, both standard- and low-voltage, will follow next month.

As it happens, Intel has sent us a big honking behemoth of a notebook packing the Core i7-2820QM, its second-fastest mobile quad-core Sandy Bridge processor. This mobile chip features four cores, eight threads, a 2.3GHz base clock speed, a 3.4GHz maximum Turbo Boost speed, Intel HD Graphics 3000, and a 45W thermal envelope. It ain't cheap (Intel quotes a $568 bulk asking price), but for folks seeking the latest and greatest in desktop-replacement notebooks, this is almost as good as it gets—at least in theory.

Over the next few pages, we'll put this 17" monster through our laptop testing suite in order to figure out just how quick this mobile incarnation of Sandy Bridge really is. We'll also seek answers to more philosophical questions, like whether this year's desktop replacement notebooks will still force users to deal with high heat output and low battery life. I don't want to spoil anything, but the answers may surprise you—in a good way.

By the way, If you haven't followed our prior Sandy Bridge coverage, I strongly recommend brushing up before getting to this piece. We won't reiterate architectural details or discuss the mobile Sandy Bridge lineup, since we already did so in our desktop review and news coverage, respectively.

Intel's Core i7-2820QM 17" review notebook
At this point, some bona-fide desktop-replacement-class laptops based on Sandy Bridge have made it into the market. However, Intel sent us a test system that, as far as we can tell, doesn't actually correspond to any shipping product. It was built by Taiwanese contract manufacturer Compal, contains a Core i7-2820QM running atop an Intel NAR00 LA-6211P notebook motherboard, and looks an awful lot like some of Gateway's current offerings, albeit with a few little differences.

Where you might expect a Gateway logo at the back, there's only a white sticker with "Intel" printed on it in black sans-serif type. Also, the left side of the chassis doesn't play host to a fan exhaust. Funnily enough, however, a shiny Gateway logo is prominently displayed on the touchpad button. That button was covered by a white sticker, too, but I assumed the sticker was meant to come off there. Oops!

Maybe we'll see Gateway introduce a similar laptop eventually, or maybe not. Right now, though, think of this machine as an Intel review system designed to give us a feel for how Sandy Bridge-powered desktop replacements will look, feel, and perform. There really isn't a whole lot more to it.

Now that we've broken the ice, here's a closer look at what this 17" behemoth is packing. Intel actually shipped it to us with one of its 160GB X25-M solid-state drives, which we had to install in a mounting bracket and slip into the chassis ourselves. Considering the presence of a high-end CPU and a Blu-ray drive on top of that, this would be a relatively high-end offering if it were selling in stores:

Processor Intel Core-i7 2820QM 2.3GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1600 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel HM67 Express
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 3000
Display 17" TFT with 1600x900 resolution
Storage Intel X25-M G2 160GB solid-state drive
Hitachi-LG CT21N Blu-ray combo drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Conexant CX2059x codec
Ports 1 USB 3.0
3 USB 2.0
1 eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via Atheros AR8151 controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel Centrino Wireless-N 1030
Input devices Keyboard with numpad
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 16.2" x 11.1" x 1.3-1.7" (412 x 281 x 33-42 mm)
Weight 7.1 lbs (3.22 kg) with battery
Battery Li-ion 4800 mAh, 71 Wh

A couple of interesting things to note: there are no discrete graphics, so this is more of a mobile workstation than a gaming notebook, and the battery is relatively beefy at 71 Wh. The battery in the last mobile test platform Intel sent us was a paltry 42Wh, and it only kept the system running for less than an hour of web browsing. With a 71-Wh battery, one would hope this machine will stay up for at least a couple hours, if not more. We'll test that in a bit.

By the way, forgive the relative terseness of the table above. Since we had neither an official product sheet nor much pre-installed software and drivers beyond what's necessary for the Intel gear to run, trying to find out details about, say, the system's touchpad was an exercise in futility. Again, though, you're highly unlikely to find this particular machine in stores, so such specifics don't matter very much.

What really matters is how the components above perform and how the whole system feels. We're going to explore the hardware a little more over the next couple of pages, then we'll get into the hard numbers. Sound good? Okay, keep your seatbelts on.