Notebooks Guide

What Ivy Bridge Means for Mobile Computing (Updated)

Pushing the Limits of Mobile Computing

Updated : With more mobile Ivy Bridge processors launched, we've updated our original article (originally published on 24th April) to reflect these new models, what it means for Ultrabooks and a new conclusion based on our experience with Ivy Bridge to-date.

Pushing the Limits of Mobile Computing

Intel has just released their newest processors - the third generation Core processor family. Codenamed Ivy Bridge, these processors are manufactured using the latest 22nm process technology and boasts a number of incremental improvements to its Sandy Bridge predecessor. We have discussed about Ivy Bridge’s new features and platform updates at great length in another article, and we've also published a separate article showing it’s performance capabilities using the top desktop processor model (Core i7 3770K). In this article, we will be detailing what Ivy Bridge means for mobile computing, for notebooks and Ultrabooks in particular.

Let's begin by first taking a look at the list of mobile processors available at launch. Looking at the table below, it shows that only high-end quad-core Core i7 parts will be available at this point of time. And looking at the rated TDP, none of them are the low 17W TDP variants that are used in Ultrabooks. This means that folks who want to get their hands on an Ivy Bridge-powered Ultrabook would have to wait a little while longer yet. On the flip side, the Core i7-3920XM sports really aggressive clock speeds and it'll be interesting to see if it can push the envelope of desktop-replacement systems even further. From what we've gleamed in the upcoming line-up of multimedia notebooks being refreshed, the Core i7-36xx series are probably going to be most often used new mobile processor.

Processor Model Core i7-3920XM Core i7-3820QM Core i7-3720QM Core i7-3615QM Core i7-3610QM Core i7-3612QM
Cores / Threads 4 / 8 4 / 8 4 / 8 4 / 8 4 / 8 4 / 8
Frequency (Base) 2.9GHz 2.7GHz 2.6GHz 2.3GHz 2.3GHz 2.1GHz
Frequency (GHz) SC/DC/QC (Turbo) 3.8 / 3.7 / 3.6 3.7 / 3.6 / 3.5 3.6 / 3.5 / 3.4   3.3 / 3.2 / 3.1 3.3 / 3.2 / 3.1 3.1 / 3.0 / 2.8
DDR3 (MHz) 1600MHz 1600MHz  1600MHz 1600MHz 1600MHz 1600MHz
L3 Cache 8MB 8MB 6MB 6MB 6MB 6MB
Integrated GPU HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000
GPU Clock (Base / Turbo)  650MHz / 1300MHz 650MHz / 1250MHz 650MHz / 1250MHz 650MHz / 1200MHz 650MHz / 1100MHz 650MHz / 1100MHz
PCIe 3.0 Support  Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TDP  55W 45W  45W 45W  45W 35W
Price  US$1096 US$568 US$378 N.A. N.A. N.A.

 

New Processors (** Updated on 31st May 2012 **)

It’s been more than a month since the launch of Ivy Bridge, and Intel has just announced a slew of new mobile processors. While the mobile processors at launch were all high-end quad-core Core i7 parts, the new Ivy Bridge processors today from Intel will include eight new mid-range dual-core processors, four of which are ultra low-voltage 17W TDP variants specially-designed for Ultrabooks. And like the Sandy Bridge variants, the ultra low-voltage 17W TDP parts are easily identified by the number "7" in the last digit of their model name. Here’s a quick look at the new processors.

Processor Model Core i7-3520M Core i7-3667U Core i7-3517U Core i5-3360M Core i5-3320M Core i5-3210M Core i5-3427U Core i5-3317U
Cores / Threads 2 / 4 2 / 4 2 / 4 2 / 4 2 / 4 2 / 4 2 / 4 2 / 4
Frequency (Base) 2.9GHz 2.0GHz 1.9GHz 2.8GHz 2.6GHz 2.5GHz 1.8GHz 1.7GHz
Frequency (GHz) SC/DC (Turbo) 3.6 / 3.4 3.2 / 3.0 3.0 / 2.8  3.5 / 3.3 3.3 / 3.1 3.1 / 2.9 2.8 / 2.6 2.6 / 2.4
DDR3 (MHz) 1600MHz 1600MHz  1600MHz 1600MHz 1600MHz 1600MHz 1600MHz 1600MHz
L3 Cache 4MB 4MB 4MB 3MB 3MB 3MB 3MB 3MB
Integrated GPU HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000
GPU Clock (Base / Turbo)  650MHz / 1250MHz 350MHz / 1150MHz 350MHz / 1150MHz 650MHz / 1200MHz 650MHz / 1200MHz 650MHz / 1100MHz 350MHz / 1150MHz 350MHz / 1050MHz
PCIe 3.0 Support  Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TDP  35W 17W  17W 35W  35W 35W 17W 17W
Price  US$346 US$346 N.A. US$266 US$225 N.A. US$225 N.A.

In terms of specifications, the new processors sport slightly higher clock speeds than the Sandy Bridge models they replace, but otherwise retain mostly the same specifications such as L3 cache and TDP. But most crucially, especially for the low-voltage 17W TDP processors that will go into Ultrabooks, they will all be equipped with the new HD Graphics 4000 GPU. For most Ultrabooks which do not have discrete graphics, the new HD Graphics 4000 GPU will give the new generation Ultrabooks enhanced graphics capabilities. And although it won't let it blaze through the latest games at the best graphics settings, this should at least make Ultrabooks a little more pleasing to use, especially for very casual gaming.

However, note from the specs that the 17W TDP variants have lower processor and graphics clock speeds than the regular mobile processors. This would definitely create a gap in graphics performance and even experience, which we'll ascertain as soon as the new generation Ivy Bridge equipped Ultrabooks role in to the market. All things said, if you're really into gaming, you'll need a notebook with at least a mid-range discrete GPU - this requirement hasn't changed ever since notebooks have come into existence. What has improved is the base-level experience as the platforms progress every year. For example, video decoding and even encoding is a breeze with these new platforms.

 

Improved Performance, Power Efficiency

From our desktop Ivy Bridge CPU test comparisons,  we've found the new processor to perform about 10% faster (at maximum) than its direct predecessor. This performance boost comes courtesy of minor tweaks, the smaller 22nm manufacturing process and support for faster memory - officially, up to DDR3-1600MHz from Sandy Bridge’s DDR3-1333MHz.. As highlighted in our performance and overview articles, we expected only marginal raw performance improvements as the main improvements are in overall efficiency of the chip and its better graphics engine.  

Sandy Bridge was already touted as an efficient chip, but we can vouch that Ivy Bridge processors will be even more efficient. On top of the 22nm manufacturing process, which makes the chip more power efficient, Intel is also implementing what it calls Tri-gate (3D) transistors, which has greater surface area for electrons to travel thereby reducing current leaks and improving transfer speeds. Furthermore, mobile Ivy Bridge processors also offer support for low-voltage DDR3 memory. This, along with the other improvements, could help give Ivy Bridge-powered notebooks a significant boost in battery life. From our desktop Ivy Bridge processor testing, we've identified the newcomer to be over 20% more power efficient and we expect similar improvements when we test Ivy Bridge based notebooks that would be in retail shortly.

Increased battery life aside, the new 22nm manufacturing process should also enable the chips to run cooler. Making sure that the notebook can effectively vent heat is one of the more important design considerations and cooler chips would not only mean cooler and quieter notebooks, it could also free up vital real estate for other components. In fact, this can give rise to notebooks boasting even smaller/slimmer form factors altogether.

If you've a six minutes to spare, Intel has been preparing supplementary materials for the launch of the new processors like this rather amusing video giving you a fly-by view of the Ivy Bridge processor's die up-close to relate some of the discussed features, so check it out if you've time.

 

Improved Graphics

One of the most important improvements to Ivy Bridge is the considerably more powerful (relatively speaking) Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU. For the longest time, Intel has time and time again under delivered on the its integrated graphics promises, so much so that for the longest time, integrated graphics has become the byword for substandard graphics performance.

Fortunately, this changed somewhat with Sandy Bridge and it  looks set to change for the better with Ivy Bridge. Although the Intel HD Graphics 3000 GPU in Sandy Bridge was borderline capable of very light gaming, it was far from ideal. With the HD Graphics 4000 GPU however, we finally have a DirectX11-capable integrated GPU on notebooks. This will give consumers a more smooth and pleasant user experience, but also improve on the capabilities of the notebook and allow some casual gaming to be done at acceptable graphics settings - as opposed as having to tone all the graphics setting down to the minimum. The HD Graphics 4000 GPU won't replace discrete graphics anytime soon, but it's a decent update from the HD 3000. More details of the specific improvements have been mentioned here, and you can also check out our full performance analysis of the new integrated graphics.

With regards to the Ivy Bridge mobile processors launched today, all of the Core i7 mobile processors sport the more powerful Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU. There is also a less powerful variant known as the Intel HD Graphics 2500 and we expect it to be featured in some of the yet to be released mainstream and lower power mobile processors.

Before we wrap up this section, one of the more exciting features of the new integrated graphics is its dual display outputs in addition to the notebook's own display! For the longest time, notebooks with integrated graphics could only handle a single external display. With this new graphics engine update, it will be really interesting to see how notebook manufacturers will choose to implement the new GPUs' support for multi-display setups in their new notebooks. For notebooks that will implement this, its prospective owners can expect better presentation management with the extra display support.

 

Platform Improvements and Considerations

Another aspect that Ivy Bridge will benefit notebooks is that along with the new CPUs, Intel will be introducing a new  platform codenamed Chief River. The new platform will finally integrate USB 3.0 controllers into the chipset (the higher-end variants to be exact) that will support up to four USB 3.0 ports and thus, negating the need for third party controllers. This has a larger impact on notebooks where motherboard real estate and thermal management is more precious. 

Intel will be introducing three new mobile chipsets for consumers - HM75, HM76 and HM77. There are subtle differences between the chipsets that are worth noting. The high-end HM77 model with its support for RAID and Intel Smart Response technology will most likely feature on premium machines such as desktop replacement systems and gaming-grade notebooks, where performance is key and where there is enough real estate for multiple hard drives. On the other end of the scale, the HM75 will likely be used on entry-level notebooks seeing that it lacks support for RAID, Intel Smart Response Technology and even USB 3.0 ports! The HM76 should see mass adoption seeing that it has the crucial support for USB 3.0 but eschews support for RAID and Intel Smart Response Technology, something that is probably not feasible in the first place for a compact notebook.

Also, with the new Ivy Bridge processors and Chief River platform, we are hoping to see more Intel WiDi-enabled notebooks. Intel WiDi is short for Wireless Display and it lets you stream content from your notebook to your TV wirelessly. It’s a convenient technology (even easier than DLNA, though it's more prevalent) and we are hoping to see it take off with the new generation of Ivy Bridge-powered notebooks, especially since TV manufacturers such as LG are ramping up support for WiDi with their new Cinema 3D Smart TVs. Whether the WiDi initiative will succeed or not is too early to tell, but we can probably conclude that by 2014.

Also, Intel’s platform responsive features will also benefit notebooks greatly. While these features are great for desktop users, it is on notebooks that they’ll really shine. For notebooks with SSDs, Intel Rapid Start technology claims to provide start up times of five to seven seconds from a near zero power state. For users whose notebooks have SSDs, this will let them carry their notebooks around without having to shut it down and then power it up. We've seen a number of Ultrabooks feature them so far, but we believe it could be prevalent for all Ivy Bridge equipped notebooks in time to come.

 

Improved Security

As part of Intel’s never-ending drive to make notebooks more secure, they have recently announced their very own Intel Anti-Theft Technology. This service was introduced in Singapore recently, and in a nutshell, what it does is that if a notebook goes missing, the users can submit a lockdown request over the Internet. Also, users can configure the notebook to perform “check-ins” at a server at set intervals, failure to do so will also trigger the machine to enter a lockdown mode. Support for this technology  is subjected to the local provider tie-ups, but we expect this service to eventually be available in all major regions.

 

** Updated on 31st May 2012 **

Final Thoughts

Like Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge is expected to make a bigger impact on notebooks rather desktops. We have already reviewed one of the first Ivy Bridge notebooks to hit the market - the MSI GT70 gaming notebook - and found it to be a beast of a gaming notebook. While Intel is certainly not neglecting desktop users and raw CPU performance, it is clear that they are keeping a close eye on developments in the mobile computing scene.

Earlier in the year, Intel, along with its partners, introduced the first barrage of Ultrabooks to the world. The defining characteristics of an Ultrabook are its high portability, long battery life and decent performance, thanks to the use of low-voltage Sandy Bridge processors. And now, we finally have new low-voltage Ivy Bridge processors with improved performance per watt efficiency to make Ultrabooks even more appealing to consumers.

However, the previous month saw some interesting developments in the mobile computing space in the form of AMD launching their new Trinity APU. As we have detailed in our Trinity APU review, AMD’s latest Trinity processors are an interesting mix to the equation as we think they provide a viable alternative especially for non-demanding mainstream users, who don’t need the superior CPU processing capabilities of Intel processors. However, how successful Trinity will be, however, remains to be seen as Trinity-equipped notebooks are only just beginning to trickle into the market.

As for Intel, the release of their new mainstream Ivy Bridge processors should herald the coming of even more Ivy Bridge-powered notebooks and Ultrabooks. And thanks to the improvements of the new Ivy Bridge processors, we foresee that Ultrabooks, in particular, will be even more attractive to consumers. In fact, according to Intel’s press notes, they hope that with Ivy Bridge processors, Ultrabooks will finally enter the mainstream market. And by their own admission, it is only with the next generation of Core processors - "Haswell" - that they will "reinvent" the notebook genre.

As we have said earlier, the market dynamics will really get interesting once the more mainstream dual-core and low-voltage processors are released and now that they are announced, and with Computex just days away, these are are going to be interesting times for the mobile computing scene.