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Intel i7-3720QM Review; Ivy Bridge Goes Mobile

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SKYMTL

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After what seems like such a short time with Sandy Bridge, Intel’s new Ivy Bride is here and it is poised to take the mobile world by storm. Not only is this new generation supposed to extend the Core-series’ lead over the competition in a number of areas but in the mobile space at least, it should offer some unique benefits over its predecessor.

Even with the introduction of competing solutions like Sabine (the mobile version of Llano) and ultra portable Brazos platforms, few would argue that Intel’s dominance of the notebook market is nearly absolute. But there have been some signs of that supremacy eroding in a few areas. With the notebook and Ultrabook market expanding at a breakneck pace, more and more focus is being put upon a combination of CPU and GPU performance coupled with great battery life and portability. AMD’s aforementioned Fusion architecture -which included the Sabine and Brazos APUs- addressed this by effectively combining the central processing elements of a CPU and a relatively high performance GPU onto the same die. Considering more and more applications are taking advantage of the massive parallel processing capabilities of GPU architectures, at times the result of this synergy was something to behold but fell short in a number of areas, mostly due to a lack of CPU performance.


Intel has faced very much the same limitations as AMD did but on a completely different front. While the performance and overall efficiency of their central processing architecture was leaps and bounds ahead of AMD, their graphics cores always seemed to be several steps behind. Sandy Bridge was arguably their first step towards half way respectable GPU functionality but the Ivy Bridge-based i7 and i5 series processors are supposed to move closer to that elusive balance between CPU and GPU harmony. They also do this while consuming about the same amount of power as the previous generation.

Even though notebooks and desktops with Ivy Bridge processors will be available soon after this article is published, our goal here is to give you a little inside of the mobile portion of Intel’s revised architecture. To do accomplish this we brought in a engineering sample of ASUS’ new G75VW-3D which is equipped with Intel’s new i7-3720QM quad core, eight thread processor, a GTX 670M and 16GB of memory. Unfortunately, since this configuration will never be sold through retail channels, this article will focus upon the i7-3720QM with a review of the retail unit in the coming weeks.

It is also important to note that the 3720QM is actually a processor destined for the retail channel so we may not be seeing much of it on vendors’ systems but that isn’t to say it will never be available. With that being said, it is positioned in the top half of Intel’s Ivy Bridge lineup and it will be most prevalent in gaming, entertainment and content creation notebooks.

 

SKYMTL

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Meet the Ivy Bridge Mobile Processors and Platform

Meet the Ivy Bridge Mobile Processors and Platform


For the time being, Intel is only announcing a small portion of their Ivy Bridge-based mobile processors, most of which focus upon the performance and up-market mainstream markets. For the time being at least, the Sandy Bridge 2xxx-series will continue to be a part of Intel’s mainstream, entry level and ultra low voltage lineups but over the next few weeks and months, expect these to be replaced with a full range of Ivy Bridge-centric parts. We’ll be sure to cover those as they come out.

With the i5 and i3 parts on the backburner, we can narrow our focus upon the i7 product stack, which is broken into two distinct groups: the retail processors and those available only to OEMs. The only differentiating factor here is that companies like Dell, Lenovo, ASUS and others have access to the full stable of retail and OEM-centric parts while regular customers like you and I will only be able to buy the retail chips over the counter.


Let’s start things off with the retail processors. At the top of the heap we have the i7 3920XM, an Extreme Edition product that boasts a clock speed that ensures flagship status while still retaining a built-in GPU in case your system comes with a switchable graphics option. Considering its cost and power consumption, we won’t see any of these outside of ultra high end boutique notebook systems from the likes of Alienware, Maingear and Falcon Northwest.

Two more i7 quad core, eight thread processors –the 3720QM and 3820QM- round out the retail Ivy Bridge lineup. While the 3820QM’s specifications more closely reflect those of its Extreme Edition sibling, we’re told the 3720QM will make an appearance in quite a few gaming-oriented notebooks. Other than a slight 100MHz difference in clock speeds, the processors are nearly identical other than the 3820QM’s 8MB of L3 cache.


The OEM-only lineup consists of slightly lower end parts since the retail chips are mostly used for upgrade purposes. Their naming schemes on the other hand are a bit confusing. The i7 3615QM and 3610QM are essentially the same chip built for different package applications but have a 100MHz difference in the graphics controller’s maximum frequency. Rounding out this section is the 3612QM, a CPU that has a higher model number than the 3610QM

As with the Sandy Bridge lineup, this initial influx of Ivy Bridge chips are all 4 core, eight thread variants but there will likely be higher clocked or low voltage dual core chips added at a later point in order to round out the i7 lineup. In addition, every processor thus far includes the HD 4000 graphics controller with its 16 Execution units and compatibility with DDR3 1600MHz memory.


When placed directly alongside a previous generation i7 processor, it is quite evident that Ivy Bridge brings a number of benefits to the table. Even though Intel is using their latest 22nm manufacturing process, their priority wasn’t to lower power consumption while maintaining the performance status quo.

There are some additional power saving features built into the Ivy Bridge processors but as you can see above, some major improvements were made. Intel’s new i7 3720QM processor is a perfect example of this strategy. Despite holding a 300-400MHz CPU frequency advantage and incorporating an additional four GPU Execution Units, it maintains the same 45W TDP as the outgoing 2720QM. It also maintains the 2720QM’s original price point of $378.


In order to form the new Maho Bay platform, Intel’s mobile Ivy Bridge processors will be paired up with a compatible Panther Point motherboard. This combination brings the advantages of a faster, more efficient processor architecture and additional graphics capabilities and ties them into a chipset that has plenty of connectivity options, including support for Intel’s ultra fast ThunderBolt technology. Intel has also added five new Centrino Advanced Wireless-N options, giving OEMs the possibility of including a broader suite of connectivity options with their notebooks.


In the image above, all of the platform’s new features are listed and while we would love to go through each individually, a few need more explanation while others will be covered on upcoming pages. However, as should be evident by now, an Ivy Bridge processor and an accompanying 7-series motherboard will bring a broad feature set to the table and provide a user friendly environment for notebook users.


Speaking of harmony between the processors and the rest of the mobile environment, Intel has a number of motherboard options for this somewhat broad market. While the Ivy Bridge mobile CPUs feature native support for PCI-E 3.0, Quick Sync Video and various other technologies, it is the chipset / platform controller hub which may arguably bring the most to this relationship. It brings to the table SATA 6Gbps, triple display outputs, Intel Smart Response for quick boot times, and (finally) includes native support for USB 3.0. This addition of native USB 3.0 capabilities is particularly important since it reduces the mobile platform’s dependency upon power hungry third party controllers.
 

SKYMTL

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A Deeper Architectural Dive

A Deeper Architectural Dive



Intel’s approach to processor releases has been one of slow but steady progression in what is affectionately called the “Tick / Tock” plan. It is quite straightforward too: when transitioning to a new manufacturing process (the “Tick”, or in this case Ivy Bridge on the 22nm process), the same basic architectural foundation as the previous generation is used which in turn should in theory simplify the process. Meanwhile the “Tock” in this equation occurs when a new design is released and it uses a known process node so a large number of problems can potentially be avoided. So every Tick marks a die shrink while every Tock represents a new architecture.

To put this into context, the original Nehalem processors represented a new design for Intel on the 45nm manufacturing process. In 2010, Intel used that same Nehalem core to create Westmere on the 32nm node. Westmere represented the last gasp of Nehalem and in 2011, Intel’s new Sandy Bridge architecture was introduced. By this same trend, the successor to the Sandy Bridge design will be released in 2013 on the 22nm process and will be called Haswell.

At its most basic, this approach allows Intel to retain a yearly trend of updates, keeping their lineup fresh and ahead of the competition. However, while the Sandy Bridge architecture isn’t quite yet showing its age, Intel’s steady progression towards new product generations and manufacturing processes remains in place. So say hello to Ivy Bridge.


Don’t think of Ivy Bridge as a whole new architecture since it is considered by Intel to be the next step in Sandy Bridge’s architectural evolution. The main differentiating feature of this generation is the use of an advanced Tri-Gate 22nm fabrication process which has allowed for more transistors within the same space and relative power constraints of Sandy Bridge. For end users this means higher clock speeds, better overall performance and higher end graphics capabilities and for Intel it will eventually lead to lower wafer costs and potentially higher profits.

May will want Ivy Bridge to bring about significant performance changes but for the most part, Intel has left the core processing stages alone. Naturally, the higher clock speeds allowed by a move to 22nm and some instruction changes will bring about some improvements but Intel’s main focus has been upon brining their onboard graphics controllers up to current generation expectations. As a result, a massive amount of the core’s die space is taken up by the Processor Graphics stages as an additional four Execution Units have been added.


As we have been alluding to for most of this article, the improvements built into Ivy Bridge go beyond the new 22nm manufacturing process. Of most interest to notebook users, it incorporates additional power saving features like Power Aware Interrupt Routing which effectively directs power to individual cores as needed. Power Gating for the memory and graphics core has also been included in order to reduce consumption when the core is in lower power states. For interested OEMs, there is now an option to implement DDR3L Low Voltage modules which should be of interest for Ultrabooks and other small form factor portables. These just scratch the surface of what Ivy Bridge is capable of on the power front and from our conversations with several OEMs, a 20% decrease in clock for clock power has been realized on these new mobile processors versus those of the previous generation.

Naturally, there are several other additional features on Ivy Bridge mobile processors like compatibility with PCI-E 3.0 discrete graphics cards, the continued support of AVX extensions and additional security enhancements for peace of mind.


Click on image to enlarge

When compared to the units contained within Sandy Bridge processors there have been plenty of architectural changes to Intel’s integrated graphics cores this time around. The Processor Graphics Unit is now broken up into three distinct graphics processing stages: the Global Assets containing the fixed function stages along with the Geometry engines, the Slice Common with its Rasterizer, L3 cache setup and pixel back ends and finally the main Slice unit which houses the Execution Units, L1 cache and other rendering pipeline necessities. Separate units have also been included for the Media CODECs and necessary display output features.

As with Sandy Bridge’s architecture, the Execution Units still do the lion’s share of heavy lifting in this core design. Much like NVIDIA’s cores or AMD’s shaders, they are responsible for the day to day multistage processing for both graphics and compute workloads. However, Intel has now added support for Compute Shaders so high levels of parallelism are now possible and shared local memory has been added to increase the performance of Direct Compute applications. As necessitated by the addition of DX11, the architecture also supports Shader Model 5.0.

Speaking of the switch to DX11 compatibility, it has necessitated the modification of the primary rendering stages. A dedicated tessellation unit as well as a pair of programmable stages –the Hull Shader and Domain Shader- has been thrown into the equation. In order to further aid DX11 performance, the architecture now supports BC6H/7 compressed texture formats as well.

While Intel have made plenty of sizeable microarchitectural enhancements to the graphics processor, what’s really interesting is that they have given the IGP its own L3 cache. While the Last Level Cache (LLC) is still shared between CPU and IGP, this small cache has been integrated into the graphics core and slightly reduces the need for the IGP to use power-hungry 256-bit ring bus interface that connects all the elements of the chip. This change, along with the lower GPU frequency and voltage, and of course the switch to the 22nm process has allowed Intel to double GPU’s performance per watt.


Along with the architectural improvements that may not be apparent by looking at the on-paper specifications of Ivy Bridge’s Processor Graphics, the HD4000 series now includes 16 Execution Units, an improvement over the 12 within Sandy Bridge’s higher end layout, resulting in a twofold improvement in certain cases. The HD2500 maintains the six EUs of the previous generation but with the wide range of on-die changes it should still offer a performance bump of between 10-20% in certain graphics intensive workloads. Quick Sync video transcoding and other GPGPU intensive tasks will also see a significant across the board improvement with these new PGUs, regardless of the clock speed differences.

The new HD graphics architecture isn’t completely focused upon offering a preset specification layout either. It is able to easily scale upwards or downwards, creating a nearly infinite list of derivatives. We likely won’t see any of these offshoots in this generation but expect higher performance from an expanded layout when Haswell hits sometime in 2013.


The HD Graphics on Ivy Bridge can dynamically adjust its frequency in order to automatically increase the clock speeds of the graphics controller when higher loads are detected. Much like the Turbo Boost technology on the CPU itself, this acts as a way to conserve power when high speeds aren’t needed and yet allows for on-the-call performance in demanding situations. And as you will see in our IGP gaming benchmarks section, the HD Graphics 4000 needs every bit of extra performance to compete with the Llano APUs.
 
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SKYMTL

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Taking Ultrabooks to the Next Level

Taking Ultrabooks to the Next Level


Intel’s Ultrabooks initiative started as a way to move the notebook world towards a more compact, portable and affordable platform. Prior to Ultrabooks, Windows-based laptops were typically large, heavy devices which had problems competing with Apple’s lineup from a “wow factor” perspective. There were some thin and light products out there –Sony’s Vaio lineup springs to mind- but they were typically expensive and only appealed to buyers with a good chunk of disposable income. But that wasn’t their only problem. As the notebook market moved towards a mainstream product space, people started looking for portability to suit their on-the-good mentality and longer battery life to ensure fully mobile data access, even if that meant sacrificing a bit of performance.


The idea behind the first Sandy Bridge based Ultrabooks was to deliver exactly what people were looking for: an ultra portable notebook that could last five or more hours off of a single charge coupled with a sub-$1200 price point. To achieve this, Intel set forth a number of requirements and vendors answered the call, but with mixed results.

One of the main issues with the first batch of Ultrabooks was the Huron River platform, which consisted of low performance Low Voltage Sandy Bridge processors. While sufficient for everyday tasks, they lagged behind in other areas.

With the introduction of the Ivy Bridge-based Chief River platform, Intel is looking to take Ultrabooks to the next level and make them appealing to a much wider market. The goal here is to add more features, retain this niche’s original slim dimensions and further enhance battery life without performance acting like a sacrificial lamb. But Ivy Bridge is only the first step in this gradual progression; 2013 will bring the Shark Bay platform which is based upon the new Haswell microarchitecture and should usher in a new area for mobile computing.


The baseline specifications of these new Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabooks may have remained the same but Intel has added a number of new requirements that manufacturers need to follow before their products can be marketed as “Ultrabooks”. This time around, system storage speeds of 80MB/s and a minimum capacity of 16GB are necessary while at least one USB 3.0 port is now an integral part of the specification.

Other than that, not much has changed other than a recommendation to integrate Intel’s suite of security tools and the possibility of lasting more than eight hours on a single charge. We’re guessing eight hours of actual unplugged usage won’t happen until Haswell is released and for the time being, most Ultrabooks will still struggle to reach the baseline five hours. Remember, Intel’s figures are based upon MobileMark, a program that has been widely panned for its erroneous battery life testing procedures and actual battery life will be substantially less when an Ultrabook is used in real world scenarios.


Many end users perceive their system’s effectiveness through relatively simplified terms: if the system boots up and loads programs quickly, it will meet three quarters of their performance needs. Let’s face it; the last thing you want is to wait around while your notebook gobbles up battery power while reloading applications.

In order to meet these expectations, Intel has implemented a number of features within their Ultrabook platform. The first of these is the notebook’s ability to be usable within six seconds of waking up from a hibernating state. They’ve also added Smart Response Technology which gives OEMs the option of including a low capacity SSD alongside a larger spindle-based drive. SRT automatically caches your most used startup, application and document items on the faster SSD which allows for quicker load times. However, we doubt most of these slim and light notebooks will actually have the space for an SSD and a traditional hard drive.

Finally, we should mention Intel’s Smart Connect Technology since it can be a huge timesaver since it downloads emails, social network notifications and other items when the system isn’t being used. This will likely come in handy when your notebook is plugged in but since SCT wakes the system up from hibernation to perform its tasks, running this feature on battery power isn’t a great idea.


Intel’s security features aren’t prerequisites on all Ultrabooks but some OEMs have begun including them nonetheless. Identity Protection Technology allows for a unique security tag to be added to a notebook. Supporting websites will then ask for their usual login information followed by a request that the computer’s unique tag also be entered. This adds a second level of security to online purchases and could protect end users against account hijacking. You can read more about it HERE.

The Anti Theft Technology can perform a number of tasks if your notebook or Ultrabook is ever lost or stolen. It can act like a LoJack system which locates your device but other features like the ability to disable the system and advanced data encryption services are also included. More importantly, it also allows for a remote data shredding “poison pill” to be sent out over a 3G network anywhere in the world. You can read more about Intel’s solution HERE
 

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Display & GPU Features Aplenty

Display & GPU Features Aplenty


With a focus being put upon the graphics capabilities of Ivy Bridge, it should go without saying that Intel has incorporated a number of features to expand the PGU’s usefulness. Most of these items have already been in place since Sandy Bridge but many have been reworked or thoroughly revised this time around.


The mobile Ivy Bridge processor may hold the graphics core but all of its signals are shunted through the Flexible Display Interface towards the PCH, which handles all of the display outputs. While notebooks won’t necessarily incorporate all of the possible display options, Ivy Bridge platforms have the ability to incorporate every one of today’s standards.

In addition to the long list of display options, these new notebooks can also output signals to a pair of external sources while powering the onboard monitor. This could come in handy for business users in particular.


As with past generations, OEMs have the option of including Intel’s Wireless Display module on their upcoming notebooks. We’ve experienced WiDi firsthand http://www.hardwarecanucks.com/foru...-alienware-m14x-gaming-notebook-review-5.html and the experience was surprisingly smooth considering the numerous compatibility issues that normally pop up when trying to wirelessly stream HD content. Some additional features like enhanced quality, easier connection handoffs and direct integration into consumer electronics are expected to be rolled out in the coming year but unless Intel sees more support from industry partners, we wouldn’t expect some of these expectations to come true.


Stereoscopic 3D has made a splash into nearly every segment of the consumer market, in no small part due to Hollywood’s insistence in cramming it down our collective throats. However, like many other companies riding the same wave, Intel has implemented a wide variety of options to view 3D content through their architecture. Everything from glasses free 3D to stereoscopic streaming is supported.


As with most other graphics architectures, the Intel HD4000 and HD2500 support a wide range of picture quality enhancement options. We were hoping to see some form of GPU accelerated digital noise reduction included but that wasn’t meant to be this time around.


Quick Sync Video makes a comeback as well but a few upgrades have been rolled into it this time around. It still allows you to quickly and easily convert videos for use online but 3D content creation has now been added alongside different upload options. More software partners have also been added, expanding Quick Sync’s influence to new applications.

Since the HD4000 within higher end Ivy Bridge processors adds a quartet of Execution Units, its overall performance when converting videos should be much improved over Sandy Bridge. However, the HD2500 likely won’t be all that much better than its predecessor.
 

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i7 3720QM Benchmarks: Synthetic

Testing Notes


So we’ve finally come to the section many of you have been waiting for but before going on, there’s some houseclean that need to be done. First of all, the review unit received was an engineering sample from ASUS that lacked a number of options that will likely be included with the retail units. This led to a reduced testing regime since Optimus wasn’t loaded, nor was there a PCB-installed GPU / PGU switch so there was no way to actually enable the processor’s graphics engine. In addition, it came with a high end 3720QM processor so we had a limited number of testing systems to compare it against. We’ll make sure to have a follow up review in the coming weeks with a final retail sample.

Due to the limitations, we benchmarked CPU-only applications which couldn’t be influenced by the graphics card or storage subsystem. Here are the test systems we used:

ASUS G75VW-3D (Engineering Sample): i7 3720QM, 16GB DDR3 @ 1600MHz CL11
ASUS G74SX-A1: i7 2630QM, 16GB DDR3 @ 1333MHz CL9
Lenovo W520: i7-2720QM, 16GB DDR3 @ 1600MHz CL11


i7 3720QM Benchmarks: Synthetic





With clock speeds that are a good 10% higher than the previous generation, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Intel’s Ivy Bridge is so far ahead. However, clock speeds aren’t the only thing that’s going on here since there have been a few background architectural improvements as well.

This just goes to show that Intel’s new manufacturing process has allowed for increased performance without an associated bump in power consumption and heat production.
 

SKYMTL

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i7 3720QM Benchmarks: Real World

i7 3720QM Benchmarks: Real World





The real world results show a continuation of Ivy Bridge dominance. Remember, the launch prices of both the i7 3720QM and the 2720QM are identical and their TDP profiles are nearly mirror images of one another. If anything, this goes to show how inter generational improvements have paid dividends for this new lineup of mobile processors.
 

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Initial Impressions

Initial Impressions


After Sandy Bridge set the bar for mobile processors, this latest generation had quite a bit to live up to. From a feature perspective, Ivy Bridge doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, nor is it a quantum leap forward in terms of performance. What has happened is the next logical step towards increased real world performance and a closer relationship between the CPU and onboard graphics controller without a corresponding spike in power consumption.

For the mobile market in particular, Ivy Bridge will likely mark a significant turning point. Processors can now offer more performance in a wider variety of applications and battery life should remain the same or even improve over Sandy Bridge's capabilities. This will be particularly important for the Ultrabook product space since these slim and light notebooks seem to always be fighting for a bit more power.

Naturally, standard notebooks and even gamer-oriented systems will benefit from what Ivy Bridge brings to the table. We saw some of this potential in our i7 3720QM benchmarks. Despite retailing for the same price as the Sandy Bridge chip it is destined to replace, it offers a significant improvement in every application. The 22nm Tri Gate design also seems to be paying dividends since we noticed the Ivy Bridge processor was more willing to boost up to higher turbo ratios than its predecessor. Whether or not this was due to cooling system differences between one system and another is anyone’s guess but both processors were continually running at nearly identical temperatures throughout testing.


CPU-oriented performance has always been Intel’s forte but with Ivy Bridge they’ve made a concerted effort to improve their chips’ graphics capabilities as well. Much of this architectural update concentrates upon GPU performance and while we couldn’t test the differences in this review, we’re positive both the extra Execution Units, pipeline changes and higher core clocks will result in impressive gains. Will this be enough to run toe to toe against lower end discrete cards and AMD’s higher end APUs? No, but the improvements are a step in the right direction and they bode well for the upcoming Haswell architecture.

Due to the quick nature of this article, we can’t make any direct conclusions at this point but from our initial impressions, Intel has made refinements where it counts and Ivy Bridge should put them even further ahead of AMD. Granted, the upcoming Trinity architecture could put up a fight on the low end of the spectrum but expect Ivy Bridge to be featured in nearly every notebook design for the next year or so. And with good reason too.
 
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