Intel's 'Sandy Bridge' for laptops tested

The CNET Labs team has been benchmarking a "Sandy Bridge" test laptop provided by Intel. Read on to see how the new technology does against last year's highest-end laptops.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

A mobile version of the Intel Sandy Bridge CPU. Intel

Much has been made of the latest generation of Intel CPUs, previously dubbed "Sandy Bridge." Post-announcement, the chips are now known as the second generation of Intel's Core i-series processors, and use the same Core i3/i5/i7 names as the 2010 versions.

But under the hood, much has changed. As we reported from CES, "highlights of the second-generation Core processors, built around a new 32nm microarchitecture, include more energy-efficient performance and improved 3D and graphics performance. Intel claims that with this new generation of CPUs, content creation is up to 42 percent faster and gaming up to 50 percent faster than with previous generations."

The CNET Labs team has been benchmarking a test laptop provided by Intel. Known as a white-box system, this is a generic laptop loaded with the 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-2820QM, one of the higher-end new Intel CPUs. As a custom-built laptop with a quad-core CPU and solid-state hard drive, this system might be what one would call a ringer, and you won't find this specific build for sale anywhere. (For laptops more likely to end up on store shelves in the near future, check out our collection of the coolest laptops of CES 2011.)

Naturally, Intel has provided a list of suggested benchmark tests and workloads, all designed to show off the new Sandy Bridge components in the best light. Instead, we've run CNET's standard laptop benchmark tests, including our grueling battery drain test (the bane of PC makers around the world). Despite not using Intel's suggested applications and tests, the Sandy Bridge white-box laptop performed very well, even when up against the slate of recent high-end laptops we compared it with.

The charts below outline how the new Core i7-2820QM system did when up against current-gen Core i7 laptops, including HP's Envy 17and Toshiba's Qosmio X505. In our single-app tests, the new quad-core Core i7 performed excellently, winning in some of the tests by a wide margin.

The real challenge was in the video game tests, which would make use of the newly revamped Intel HD graphics system, designed to make dedicated discrete graphics cards unnecessary for many users. In our not-too-challenging Unreal Tournament III test, it cranked out excellent frame rates, but keep in mind that the native resolution of the display on our test unit topped out at 1,600x900 pixels (as noted in the chart below). In a newer game, Street Fighter IV, the Sandy Bridge laptop ran at about 27 frames per second. Still, these are impressive results for a laptop without a discreet video card, and leads us to think that retail Sandy Bridge systems will be fine for World of Warcraft, Portal 2, and other scalable games.

Our test unit also ran for a very long time on its battery, using our standard video playback battery drain test--certainly much longer than previous Core i7 laptops, which are typically power-hungry gaming/multimedia rigs. Again, this may change significantly when we see actual retail systems, but it's a good sign. This system (which again, lacked dedicated gaming hardware or a massive 19x10 display) was very power efficient as well, and should cost about a quarter as much to run per year as a tricked-out HP Envy 17.

Once we get actual shipping versions of laptops with Intel's new quad-core Core i7 processors (mainstream dual-core versions are still a ways out), we'll be able to do more-formal testing and issue official reviews. In the meantime, check out the charts below for a taste of the future of laptops. A preview of the first desktop systems with the new CPUs can be found here. (Note: Benchmark testing was conducted by CNET Labs laptop expert Julie Rivera.)

Intel Sandy Bridge white box
Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-2820QM; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; Intel HD 3000; 160GB Intel SSD

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
Samsung RF710
HP Envy 17-1003

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
HP Envy 17-1003
Samsung RF710

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
HP Envy 17-1003
Samsung RF710

Unreal Tournament III (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x800, 0X AA, 0X AF*  
1,440x900, 4X AA, 8X AF*  
1,920x1200, 4X AA, 8X AF*  
HP Envy 17-1003 @ 1,280x768 / 16x9 / @19x10
Toshiba Qosmio X505-Q850 @ 16x9 / @ 19x10
Asus NX90JQ @ 1,280x720 / @14x10 / @ 19x10
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box @ 16x9
Samsung RF710 @ 16x9

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
Samsung RF710
HP Envy 17-1003

Annual power consumption cost
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
Samsung RF710
Asus NX90JQ
HP Envy 17-1003