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Intel's ultrabook-bound Core i5-3427U processor

Ivy Bridge slims down for this year's ultrabooks

For months now, we've been hearing about how great Ivy Bridge ultrabooks are going to be. We've heard they will reach lower price points, use enclosures made of either metal or composite materials, and feature a slew of other goodies, both standard and optional, like touch-screen displays. Intel hasn't been shy about adding to the hype, predicting price tags as low as $599 and touting 2012 as the year ultrabooks will go mainstream.

Well, we're about to see if reality lives up to the hype, because today Intel unwraps its first ultrabook-bound Ivy Bridge processors: 22-nm chips with 17W power envelopes tailored for uber-slim, ultra-light systems.

Unlike the quad-core mobile Ivy Bridge CPUs that arrived earlier this year (which we reviewed not long ago), these newcomers are based on a new version of Ivy Bridge with half the cores and half as much last-level cache. Normally at this point, we'd tell you the basic specs of the dual-core Ivy Bridge chip, but strangely, Intel PR rep Thomas Kaminski refused to answer our questions about the chip's transistor count and die size. Intel virtually always divulges such information up front, and its reticence here may be an indicator that the firm is recovering problematic quad-core chips by disabling half of their cores and cache. We'll have to crack open our review laptop in order to confirm, and we haven't had time to do so yet. We do expect Intel to produce a natively dual-core variant of Ivy Bridge eventually, though.

Ivy Bridge DC, as Intel calls it, retains some of the amenities of its quad-core sibling. Intel has outfitted the processor with the full-featured version of its HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics processor, or IGP. (Graphics clock speeds are substantially lower on the 17W parts, though.) Functionality like hardware virtualization, AES, TXT, and vPro support all remain fully enabled. Ultrabook-bound Ivy Bridge processors feature Turbo Boost 2.0, so clock speeds will scale dynamically based on available thermal headroom, and Hyper-Threading, so you'll see four graphs instead of two in the Windows Task Manager. Also, of course, these puppies benefit from all of the other architectural improvements of Intel's Ivy Bridge microarchitecture. For more details on those, be sure to check out Scott's review of the Core i7-3770K.

Here's a full list of the first 17W, dual-core Ivy Bridge models:

For reference, the quickest previous-generation 17W chip is the Core i7-2677M, which has a 1.8GHz base clock speed, a 2.9GHz peak Turbo speed, 4MB of L3 cache, and a $317 price tag in thousand-unit quantities. The Ivy Bridge-based Core i5-3427U is largely similar, but it has a substantially lower price tag: just $225. The i5-3427U does have a lower peak Turbo speed and less L3 cache, as well, but remember that Ivy Bridge is faster clock-for-clock than Sandy Bridge. We'd expect the two chips to perform similarly, or perhaps for the Ivy model to have a slight edge.

You don't have to take our word for it, though. Intel sent us a prototype ultrabook with a Core i5-3427U inside, and we've run it through our revamped mobile benchmark suite alongside a first-gen ultrabook based on the Core i7-2677M. You'll find the results in the next several pages.

But before we do that, let's briefly introduce our guinea pig.

Introducing Intel's Ivy Bridge ultrabook prototype
Intel was adamant that this prototype isn't a production machine and shouldn't be treated as such. But... well, we couldn't resist snapping a couple of pictures anyway. After all, this is the first Ivy Bridge ultrabook we've gotten to play with, and it's a looker:

This bad boy has a 13.3" display (with a 1600x900 resolution), measures about 0.79" at its thickest point, and tips the scales at a scant 3.22 lbs. Don't let the shiny gray palm rest fool you: there isn't a single metallic surface to be found anywhere on the outside. Still, the system feels surprisingly tough and rigid. Intel didn't get into specifics, but we figure this might be one of those ultrabooks with composite enclosures we've heard so much about.

Inside that chassis dwells 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 240GB Intel 520 Series solid-state drive, and a 49.4 watt-hour battery. Connectivity includes mini HDMI, analog headphone, and dual USB 3.0 ports. SuperSpeed USB is, of course, standard on all 7-series chipsets, including this system's UM77 Express.

According to Intel, systems similar to this one will retail for $1,000-1,100 when they hit stores. "When will that be," you ask? Intel tells us the Ivy ultrabook launch is scheduled for June 5, but a "couple of" systems will already be out by then. I guess you can consider this the pre-launch... or something.

In any case, we hope production systems are more polished. This one had a few issues, including a buggy touchpad, odd noises coming from under the palm rest when the system was running, and a bit of play between the the display bezel and LCD panel. We'll have to forgive those oversights, obviously, since this doesn't even look like a pre-production system from a major vendor. It's plastered with Intel logos and has "Ultrabook" etched in large letters on the lid.