At last, Ivy Bridge is out. Surely that means a tidal wave of next-generation ultrabooks is about to hit. Surely we’re about to slice our fingers on Ivy Bridge-powered systems so thin they can be classified as bladed weapons.
Well, maybe we are. Just not quite yet.
In a disappointing turn of events, last month’s big Ivy Bridge launch didn’t bring us dual-core, 17W chips ready for ultrabooks. Those are coming, but later this year—perhaps early June, if we’re to believe the rumor mill. For now, the best we’ve got are mobile Ivy Bridge CPU models based on the same silicon as their existing desktop brethren.
In short, these mobile Ivy Bridges are fabbed on a 22-nm process with four cores and up to eight threads. They have as much as 8MB of L3 cache, DirectX 11-capable integrated graphics, PCI Express 3.0, and of course, the same architectural improvements that make Ivy Bridge faster, clock for clock, than Sandy Bridge. To top it off, Ivy Bridge has higher performance per watt than its predecessor.
We explored all of these improvements in detail in our Ivy Bridge desktop review last month. That’s where you should head if you’re dying to know about the nitty-gritty side of things.
What’s on our agenda today is a look at a real, honest-to-goodness notebook PC based on one of those new quad-core Ivy Bridge chips. The machine has a 15.6″ display and weighs in at just over six pounds, so in today’s ultrabook-crazy world, it might seem like the notebook equivalent of the fat girl at the prom. Well, okay; maybe not. This Asus N56VM is quite elegant by full-sized laptop standards, and it has some neat perks, like a 1080p display with a matte finish. It’s fast, too. The Core i7-3720QM processor ticking under the hood is the third-fastest mobile Ivy Bridge variant available today. Here’s how it compares to the rest of Intel’s mobile Ivy Bridge lineup:
|Processor||Core i7-3612QM||Core i7-3610QM||Core i7-3615QM||Core i7-3720QM||Core i7-3820QM||Core i7-3920XM|
|Base speed (GHz)||2.1||2.3||2.3||2.6||2.7||2.9|
|Peak Turbo speed (GHz)||SC||3.1||3.3||3.3||3.6||3.7||3.8|
|Intel HD Graphics 4000||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Base IGP speed (MHz)||650||650||650||650||650||650|
|Peak IGP speed (MHz)||1100||1200||1200||1250||1250||1300|
|Package||rPGA, BGA-1224||rPGA||BGA-1224||rPGA, BGA-1224||rPGA, BGA-1224||rPGA|
With a 45W power envelope, there’s little chance of the i7-3720QM showing up in anything remotely thin or light. Still, if you don’t mind a little bit of bulk in your backpack (or you’re buying a laptop to serve as a glorified desktop machine), then the chip has undeniable appeal. Turbo Boost can take one of its cores up to a blistering 3.6GHz to speed up single-threaded tasks, and even when all four cores are busy, it’ll run as fast as 3.4GHz if thermal constraints allow. The chip comes with the full-featured version of Intel’s brand-spanking-new HD Graphics 4000 IGP, and like its mobile partners in crime, it supports DDR3 memory speeds up to 1600MHz.
The i7-3720QM even has the full array of enterprise-friendly features, like AES, TXT, and vPro support. The Core i7-3820QM and Core i7-3920XM do, as well, but slower members of the mobile Ivy family aren’t so lucky.
Our host for this beast of a processor is, as we’ve said, the Asus N56VM. As I’m sure you can tell from the pictures above, we weren’t lying about its aesthetic appeal. I guess if we’re drawing comparisons to full-figured ladies, then this is more Christina Hendricks than anything. Rrrrrrawr.
This laptop came to us directly from Intel, but it’s considerably closer to a real, honest-to-goodness retail product than the Sandy Bridge test vehicle we looked at last year. Asus actually plans to sell the N56VM eventually, although it’s going to release a “very similar configuration,” the N56VZ-DS71, beforehand. We’re told that config will pack a slower Core i7-3610QM processor and a quicker GeForce GT 650M GPU. I don’t know if pricing is final yet, but just to give you an idea, Asus mentioned figures in the $1149-1249 range.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3720QM 2.6GHz|
|Memory||8GB DDR3-1600 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel HM76 Express|
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 4000
Nvidia GeForce GT 630M (2GB DDR3)
|Display||15.6″ TFT with 1920×1080 resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||750GB Seagate Momentus 7,200-RPM hard drive
Matshita UJ141AF Blu-ray combo drive
|Audio||HD audio via Realtek codec|
|Ports||4 USB 3.0
1 Ethernet via Atheros AR816x controller
1 analog headphone/digital SPDIF port
1 analog microphone port 1 analog speaker port
|Expansion slots||1 SD card reader|
|Communications||802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel Centrino 2230
|Input devices||Chiclet keyboard
|Dimensions||15.0″ x 10.1″ x 0.5-1.4″ (381 x 257 x 12-35 mm)|
|Weight||6.02 lbs (2.73 kg)|
|Battery||56 Wh battery|
Retail system or not, the N56VM has its bases covered on the hardware front. It delivers everything from Bluetooth to Blu-ray, with fancy Bang & Olufsen built-in speakers for good measure. All the USB ports are SuperSpeed-enabled, and in addition to a generous 8GB of system memory, it features GeForce GT 630M graphics with 2GB of DDR3 RAM. Nvidia’s Optimus real-time switching functionality lets the GeForce kick in when it’s needed and kick back the rest of the time, limiting power drain and maximizing battery life.
So, yes, not bad. Not bad at all.
Ready to see how well the N56VM fares under closer scrutiny? Read on.
The display, speakers, and controls
Displays with matte coatings are a rare sight in modern notebooks. Displays with matte coatings that eschew the infernal 1366×768 resolution in favor of something a little nicer—say, 1920×1080—are even harder to come by. The N56VM’s panel is a rare gem indeed, because it ticks both boxes.
This isn’t one of those extremely rare displays that features VA or IPS panel technology, though. As nice as it may be, the N56VM’s display is of the TN variety, and it has the (limited) viewing angles to match:
To be fair, color shift isn’t particularly bad when you look from the side or down from above.
Since we wanted to check color accuracy, we ran X-Rite’s Eye-One Match v3.6.2 software and used it to calibrate the display. We don’t expect average joes to go around calibrating notebook displays, of course, but the tool spits out some very useful information after the process. In the screenshot below, the graph on the left shows the correction curves required to achieve “correct” colors per the specified gamma and color temperature settings (2.2 and 6500K, respectively). The diagram on the right shows the panel’s color gamut. We specified a luminosity target of 120 cd/m² and attempted to match it as closely as possible using the laptop’s brightness controls.
Bear in mind, by the way, that our N56VM didn’t come pre-loaded with any Asus software. If the company applies custom color profiles to its retail systems via software, then our test machine may not have been using such a profile.
Those are some very decent results. The default calibration is a tad too blue, but not by a whole lot. Compare the curves on the left to those we measured on Asus’ Zenbook UX31—the N56VM requires much less correction, and its curves follow a smoother progression, suggesting more uniformity in how colors are rendered out of the box.
Next, we cranked up the display’s backlight to its maximum setting and measured luminance at nine points along the panel’s surface. Luminance readings are presented both as cd/m² figures, which were produced by the calibration software, and as percentages of the most luminous point we measured. Note that luminance and perceived brightness follow different scales, so the display appears more uniform than the chart below might suggest.
I guess backlight uniformity isn’t so great. The left side of the display is measurably darker than the right side, and the bottom is darker than the top, too. The differences aren’t quite as stark to the naked eye as the diagram above might suggest, though.
To recap: here we have a nice 1080p display with a matte coating and decent color reproduction, which unfortunately suffers from poor backlight uniformity and the kind of color shifting problems typical of TN panels. You might want to shop elsewhere if you’re planning to do serious image editing work, but I think most users should be pleased. This is such a nice step up from the glossy, 1366×768 status quo.
Above the keyboard are the N56VM’s Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speakers. They dwell under sets of little holes drilled through the aluminum, which are (quite elegantly) arranged in fading concentric circles. The speakers sound surprisingly decent by notebooks standards, with passable separation between highs and mids, and plenty of volume headroom. As you’d expect, though, they sound a tad tinny. Also, they make the system’s casing vibrate even at low volumes, which has the potential to get uncomfortable. You’ll probably be best off plugging in a nice pair of headphones.
Asus has taken cues from Apple in making the N56VM’s keyboard: keys poke straight out of the aluminum surface covering the top half of the notebook’s body. The metal seems to give this keyboard a little bit of extra resilience, because I noticed very little flex when typing, and keys had nice, crisp tactile feedback.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||276 mm||103 mm||28,428 mm²||167 mm||52 mm||8,8684 mm²|
|Versus full size||96%||94%||90%||97%||91%||89%|
In terms of size, the keyboard is a wee bit smaller overall than our non-chiclet reference. In fact, the keys feel a tad small even by chiclet standards. Perhaps that’s because Asus needed to leave room for the numeric keypad on the side. As someone who does a lot of data entry in Excel, I can appreciate a good numpad—but I wouldn’t mind some slightly fatter keys, either.
Asus tells us retail N56VM systems will boast keyboard backlighting. That feature wasn’t enabled on our test system, however.
Let’s now talk about the N56VM’s multi-touch touchpad, an Elantech model that looks like something right off a MacBook Pro. Apple does make some truly excellent touchpads—I’d go so far as to call them the best in the industry—so this would be a good thing… if the imitation weren’t only skin-deep. Unfortunately, this Elantech contraption doesn’t have the right friction coefficient; it feels too tacky, and it rattles a little when you tap to click. The software suffers from the same shortcomings we noticed on our pre-release Zenbook UX31 last year. Try to click-and-drag with your thumb positioned too far forward, and the cursor will freeze, thinking you’re trying to perform a two-finger resize. It’s a frustrating design flaw that I haven’t encountered on any other multi-touch touchpad designs, save for the UX31’s.
I’ll give Asus a tentative pass here, since this isn’t a retail sample, and the company ended up fixing the problem on retail Zenbooks. Besides, everything else, from resizing and rotating to scrolling, works just fine. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed, though.
Connectivity and expansion
Much of the N56VM’s flanks are occupied by a large exhaust vent and a Blu-ray drive, so there aren’t as many ports as one might hope. Asus still took care of the essentials, though:
You’ve got VGA, Ethernet, and HDMI on the left side, a couple of audio jacks (analog headphone/SPDIF and microphone) on the right side, and two USB 3.0 ports on either side. There’s also a 2.5 mm connector on the left that’s apparently designed to accommodate an external subwoofer. Our notebook didn’t ship with such a bass box, but certain other Asus systems do—the N55SF, namely. Perhaps retail N56VM systems will, as well.
Despite the shiny aluminum around the keyboard, the bottom of the notebook is all plastic. Asus offers relatively easy access to the notebook’s internals. One screw opens the compartment where the RAM, Wi-Fi adapter, and hard drive are located. The battery is removable with a single latch.
We complete our tour of the N56VM with a look at its jumbo-sized AC adapter. Yes, it’s big; and yes, it’s heavy. With cables and all, it weighs in at just over 1.5 lbs—heavier than an iPad. Since the laptop tips the scales at about 6 lbs by itself, you’ll be lugging 7.5 lbs of equipment if you plan to take the thing on the road.
Our testing methods
We’ve run a lot of laptops through our test suite, so for the sake of informativeness (and entertainment), we’ve included all the results in the graphs on the following pages. To make things readable, we’ve greyed out the results for everything but the N56VM and its Sandy Bridge-based counterpart, the N53S.
The N53S was kindly provided by Asus for this review. As you’ll in the chart below, it resembles the N56VM in a lot of ways—it, too, has a quad-core, eight-thread CPU with a 45W power envelope. It features the same hard drive model, the same amount of memory, and the same GPU. It even has the same battery specs: 56Wh, 5200 mAh, lithium-ion. The few internal differences (besides the CPU and chipset, of course) are relatively minor. The N56VM’s GeForce GT 630M is clocked at 475MHz, while the N53S’s runs at a speedier 675MHz. Also, the N56VM runs its RAM at 1600MHz instead of 1333MHz, but it has more relaxed memory timings.
Before we go forward, we should talk about the machines we tested in more than one state. The A53T, N82Jv, U33Jc, UX31, Eee PC 1015PN, and T235D were all tested using special battery-saving profiles, and the A53T, N82Jv, U33Jc, UX31, and 1015PN were run in high-performance mode, too.
With the N82Jv, we recorded our Battery Saving results with Asus’ Super Hybrid Engine on, which dropped the CPU clock speed from 2.4GHz to 0.9-1GHz depending on the load. The U33Jc also has a Super Hybrid Engine mode, but we didn’t enable it for testing. The UX31’s battery-saving profile, meanwhile, limits the CPU speed to 60% of its maximum.
On the U33Jc, the high-performance profile included by Asus raises the maximum CPU clock speed from 2.4 to 2.57GHz. On the N82Jv, the same profile leaves the CPU running at default speeds, i.e. up to 2.66GHz when Turbo Boost kicks in. Finally, with the Eee PC, the low-power profile limits the CPU to about 1GHz and disables the Nvidia GPU, while the high-performance profile raises the CPU speed by a whole 25MHz.
The Samsung Series 9 was tested both plugged in and unplugged, since the default battery profile limits the CPU clock speed to 50% of its maximum when the machine is running off the battery.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of those runs.
|System||AMD A8-3500M test system||Acer Aspire 1810TZ||Acer Aspire 1830TZ||Acer Aspire One 522||Asus A53T||Asus K53E||Asus Eee PC 1015PN||Asus N56VM||Asus N53S||Asus N82Jv||Asus U33Jc||Asus UX31||HP Pavilion dm1z||HP ProBook 6460b||Intel Core i7-2820QM 17″ review notebook||Samsung Series 9 (900X3A)||Toshiba Satellite T235D-S1435|
|Processor||AMD A8-3500M APU 1.5GHz||Intel Pentium SU4100 1.3GHz||Intel Pentium U5400 1.2GHz||AMD C-50 1.0GHz||AMD A6-3400M 1.4GHz||Intel Core i5-2520M 2.5GHz||Intel Atom N550 1.5GHz||Intel Core i7-3720QM 2.6GHz||Intel Core i7-2670QM 2.2GHz||Intel Core i5-450M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz||AMD E-350 1.6GHz||Intel Core i5-2410M 2.3GHz||Intel Core i7-2820QM 2.3GHz||Intel Core i5-2537M 1.4GHz||AMD Turion II Neo K625 1.5GHz|
|North bridge||AMD A70M FCH||Intel GS45 Express||Intel HM55 Express||AMD Hudson FCH||AMD A70M FCH||Intel HM67 Express||Intel NM10||Intel HM76 Express||Intel HM65 Express||Intel HM55 Express||Intel HM55 Express||Intel QS67||AMD Hudson FCH||Intel HM65||Intel HM67 Express||Intel HM65 Express||AMD M880G|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9||AMD SB820|
|Memory size||4GB||3GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (1 DIMM)||6GB (2 DIMMs)||6GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (1 DIMM)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB||4GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM||DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz|
|Audio||IDT codec||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.1689 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12443 drivers||Conexant codec with 126.96.36.199 drivers||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5273 drivers||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20673 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1186 drivers||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.16837 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12463 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19924 drivers||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5229 drivers||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20646 drivers||IDT codec with 6.10.6302.0 drivers||IDT codec with 6.10.6328.0 drivers||Conexant codec with 220.127.116.11 drivers||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.16871 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12472 drivers|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6620G + AMD Radeon HD 6630M
with Catalyst 8.862 RC1 drivers
|Intel GMA 4500MHD with 126.96.36.1992 drivers||Intel HD Graphics with 188.8.131.527 drivers||AMD Radeon HD 6250||AMD Radeon HD 6520G + AMD Radeon HD 6650M 1GB
with Catalyst 8.861.0.0 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 184.108.40.2061 drivers||Intel GMA 3150 with 220.127.116.117 drivers
Nvidia Ion with 18.104.22.16812 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 22.214.171.12496 drivers
GeForce GT 630M with 296.54 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 126.96.36.1992 drivers
GeForce GT 630M with 296.54 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 188.8.131.529 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 335M with 184.108.40.20696 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 220.127.116.119 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 310M with 18.104.22.16821 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 22.214.171.1246 drivers UX33||AMD Radeon HD 6310 with 8.821.0.0 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 126.96.36.1991 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 188.8.131.526 drivers||Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 184.108.40.2066 drivers||AMD Mobility Radeon HD 4225 with 8.723.2.1000 drivers|
|Hard drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 250GB 7,200 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM||500GB Seagate Momentus 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 640GB 5,400-RPM||Toshiba MK2565GSX 250GB 5,400 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Seagate Momentus 750GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 750GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 7200.4 500GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400-RPM||Adata XM11 128GB solid-state drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 320GB 7,200-RPM hard drive||Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 320GB 7,200 RPM||Intel X25-M G2 160GB solid-state drive||256GB Samsung MZ8PA256HMDR solid-state drive||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64 SP1||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Firefox 3.6.9
- Adobe Flash 10.1.82.76
- x264 HD Benchmark 3.19
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 1.7
- Far Cry 2 1.03
- CPU-Z 1.56
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.
We realize this is an old version of Firefox. However, the point of this benchmark is to compare web browsing performance across multiple systems, and we can do a good job of that now that we’ve accumulated a reasonable data set.
Ivy’s off to a decent start in SunSpider, trouncing the Sandy Bridge-based Asus N53S and most other configs. The only exceptions are three Asus systems at the top; they all have slower CPUs, but they were all run with Asus’ “High Performance” battery profiles enabled. We suspect those battery profiles game the results somehow—at least on the UX31, the High Performance setting prevents the processor from lowering its clock speed to save power. SunSpider’s workload is fairly staccato, so clock speeds may be varying some on the other configs.
7-Zip has a handy built-in benchmark that lets us test both compression and decompression performance.
x264 video encoding
The x264 video encoding benchmark doesn’t call on the GPU to accelerate the encoding process, leaving us with a good look at how the various mobile CPUs stack up.
Our data compression and video encoding results are less surprising. Ivy is hands-down faster than the competition, with the older Core i7-2820QM and Core i7-2670QM—both Sandy Bridge variants—in close pursuit.
This latest version of TrueCrypt makes use of the AES-NI instructions built into Intel’s Westmere and Sandy Bridge CPUs.
The Asus N53S’s Core i7-2670QM chip lacks the hardware AES acceleration present in the i7-2820QM and our Ivy Bridge CPU, which makes a big difference in TrueCrypt. As expected, Ivy leads the pack again by a comfortable margin.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
We tested the original Modern Warfare by running a custom timedemo at 1366×768 with everything cranked up except for vsync, antialiasing, and anisotropic filtering, which were all left disabled. With the Eee PC and Aspire One 522, we opted for respective native resolutions of 1024×600 and 1280×720 instead of 1366×768.
Both of the graphics processors in the A53T’s Dual Graphics team, the Llano IGP and the discrete Radeon GPU, were enabled throughout our gaming tests. However, since Dual Graphics only supports games that use DirectX 10 and 11, some of the games we tested couldn’t make use of both GPUs.
Far Cry 2
In Far Cry 2, we selected the “Action” scene from the game’s built-in benchmark and ran it in two configurations: first at 1366×768 in DirectX 10 mode with detail cranked up, and then at that same resolution in DX9 mode with the lowest detail preset. Vsync and antialiasing were left disabled in both cases. Again, the Eee PC and Aspire One 522 were run at 1024×600 and 1280×720, respectively.
We tested integrated and discrete graphics performance, and in both cases, our Ivy system performed better than its Sandy counterpart—even though, as we noted earlier, the Ivy machine has a slower GeForce GPU. I suppose the faster CPU makes up for the slightly slower GPU.
The differences between the two systems’ IGPs are particularly stark in Far Cry 2 with the detail turned up, where Ivy’s HD Graphics 4000 offers nearly double the performance of Sandy’s HD Graphics 3000. Neither solution yields frame rates that could be considered playable, though, and they’re much closer overall in our other tests.
Off the beaten path
What happens when we take the N56VM for a spin in some newer games? To find out, we installed Battlefield 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Bulletstorm, and we tried to find playable settings for both the IGP and the discete GeForce GPU. Then, we played each game while keeping an eye on frame rates using Fraps. In the interest of maximizing in-game eye candy and performance, we lowered the resolution from the default 1920×1080 to 1366×768. It should come as no surprise that 1080p gaming isn’t a sensible proposition for IGPs in modern, graphically intensive titles.
In Battlefield 3’s Kaffarov mission, the N56VM’s discrete GPU handled the game smoothly at 1366×768 using the “low” detail preset. Frame rates were in the 40-60 FPS range, with occasional dips below 40 during heavy action. We tried the “medium,” preset, but that took frame rates down to the mid-30s, which felt a little sluggish considering the fast pace of the action.
Intel’s HD Graphics 4000 also made the game playable at 1366×768 using the “low” preset, but it didn’t manage frame rates above 25-35 FPS—again, too sluggish for this type of game. Getting a really smooth experience would probably involve lowering the resolution further, which wouldn’t look too great. (1366×768 is already a little fuzzy on the N56VM’s 1080p display.)
Our walk through Whiterun in Skyrim was much smoother with both graphics solutions. At 1366×768 using the “medium” preset, the GeForce managed around 50 FPS on average, with occasional drops to 30 FPS. Getting the same level of smoothness out of the Intel IGP required a trip back to the graphics settings and a drop to the “low” preset. Once we did that, frame rates were back in the 30-50 FPS range. The game was smooth and definitely enjoyable, even if it didn’t look particularly pretty.
Our experience with Bulletstorm‘s “Hideout” echo was pretty close to what we saw in Skryim. At 1366×768 with the “medium” preset and no antialiasing, the GeForce seemed to average around 50 FPS with occasional dips to 40 or so during heavy action. We had to step down to the “low” preset to get similar performance out of the Intel IGP. Dips during firefights were closer to 30 FPS there, though.
All in all, kudos to Intel. Battlefield 3 may be somewhat off-limits to the IGP, but still, the N56VM would be a passable gaming machine even without its discrete GPU. Not only was performance solid, but we also didn’t encounter any visual artifacts. Serious gamers will still want some sort of GeForce or Radeon graphics, though, for obvious reasons.
Video decoding performance was tested using the Iron Man 2 trailer in multiple formats. Windows Media Player was used for the H.264 QuickTime clips, while Firefox hosted the windowed YouTube test. Windows 7’s Performance Monitor was used to log CPU utilization for the duration of the trailer, but we played each video three times and grabbed the lowest numbers for each. This method should provide representative numbers largely untarnished by CPU utilization from background processes.
|Iron Man 2 H.264 480p||0-2.7%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 720p||0-2.9%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 1080p||0-3.5%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 720p windowed
Ivy performs pretty much as you’d expect when confronted with high-def H.264 videos—flawlessly. Windowed Flash playback is another story. We tested Flash 11.2 in Chrome and were dismayed to find that playback wasn’t particularly smooth despite the low CPU utilization. Switching to full-screen mode seemed to resolve the problem entirely, though. I expect we can chalk up that unexpected kink either to Flash itself or to Intel’s drivers.
To gauge run times, we conditioned our systems’ batteries by cycling them two times. For the web browsing test, we used TR Browserbench 1.0, which consists of a static version of the TR home page that cycles through different text content, Flash ads, and images, all the while refreshing every 45 seconds. Then, we tested video playback in Windows Media Player by looping an episode of CSI: New York encoded with H.264 at 480p resolution (straight from an HTPC). Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were enabled for the web browsing test and disabled for movie playback.
We attempted to keep the display brightness consistent across all systems, choosing levels corresponding to a readable brightness in indoor lighting. A 40% brightness setting was used on the Acer 1810TZ, Asus A53T, Asus K53E, Asus N82Jv, Asus N53S, Eee PC 1015PN (in its “Super Performance” mode), HP Pavilion dm1z, Toshiba Satellite T235D. We used a 50% setting on the Aspire One 522, Eee PC 1015PN in “Battery Saving” mode (since disabling the Nvidia GPU seemed to reduce brightness), as well as on the U33Jc. Because of their dim, matte displays, the HP ProBook 6460b and AMD A8-3500M systems were tested at 70% brightness settings. Conversely, because of their high display luminosities, the Zenbook UX31 was tested at a 25% brightness level, and both the N56VM and the Series 9 were tested at 30%. The Series 9’s adaptive brightness setting was disabled, as well.
Well, that’s a little disappointing. With a similar supporting cast of hardware, Ivy and Sandy offer similar battery run times. The former does slightly better in video playback, but not by a whole lot—and in any case, the results aren’t anything to write home about. Folks seeking all-day battery life are going to want to wait for Ivy Bridge’s dual-core incarnation.
We measured temperatures using an infrared thermometer at a distance of 1″ from the system after it had been running TR Browserbench 1.0 for about an hour.
The NV53M’s Ivy Bridge CPU doesn’t dissipate too much heat, and Asus’s chassis appears to handle that heat dissipation well. The N56VM felt barely lukewarm even after running our browsing test for just over an hour. When we left Skyrim running for an hour, temperatures around the keyboard and palm rest climbed only to 30-35°C—still barely warm to the touch.
Let’s talk about Ivy Bridge first and the N56VM second.
Ivy Bridge delivers greater performance per watt than the previous generation, and it shows in our performance results. On top of that, the new HD Graphics 4000 IGP is a substantial improvement over Intel’s prior attempts at game-worthy integrated graphics. It’s fast enough to handle modern games like Skyrim and Bulletstorm at lower detail settings, which is excellent. An entry-level discrete GPU is always going to be faster, but at least gaming without one is a very reasonable option.
Our battery life results were a little more surprising. The new silicon may pack a stronger punch than Sandy Bridge within those thermal constraints, but it doesn’t appear to offer tangible benefits for battery run times within the same power envelope. Then again, we were looking at a laptop with a 45W Ivy Bridge variant. If it’s longer battery life you seek, you’ll want to look for a processor with a 35W or lower TDP rating.
As before, I’d say we’re more excited about upcoming ultrabooks with 17W, dual-core Ivy Bridge chips than anything. Big honkin’ notebooks have some appeal if you absolutely need a portable system as your primary computer. In that case, it’s hard to beat getting a full-featured Ivy Bridge CPU, 8GB of RAM, a discrete GeForce, a 1080p display, Blu-ray, and USB 3.0 in something that fits in your backpack. For the average laptop user, though, a more slender, lightweight, and less feature-packed system might be more enticing.
Speaking of which, what do we make of the N56VM? Well, considering the system’s size and weight, Asus has done a good job of achieving some level of elegance and design flair. The matte 1080p display is a very nice touch, as is the snappy keyboard and the liberal application of aluminum panels. Our only issue is with the touchpad, which doesn’t feel ready for prime time. Again, though, we weren’t looking at an actual retail system, so the issues we encountered with clicking and dragging may be fixed when the N56VM hits stores. We’ll have to withhold our final verdict until then.