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Our first Ivy Bridge laptops: How do they perform?

Intel's new processors are about to make their debut. We test them out for the first time in a pair of laptops. Do they make great strides over last year's Sandy Bridge processors? Here are the results.

The Origin EON17-S and Asus N56V: Our first Ivy Bridge laptops. Sarah Tew/CNET

Laptops updated with Intel's latest Ivy Bridge processors are finally here, but is there as much to be excited about compared with last year's Sandy Bridge CPUs?

Intel hasn't made such dramatic claims this time around as far as pure processor speed, but there are plenty of other improvements including eight-way Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost 2.0, integrated USB 3.0, and native Thunderbolt support. The only two parts any mainstream consumer's likely to care about are the CPU gains and new Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, which promise to greatly boost gaming performance without dedicated graphics.

Soon enough our CNET Labs will be flooded with Ivy Bridge laptops, and we'll have more real-life examples of Ivy Bridge products than you can shake a stick at. Until then, we've tested two early examples of high-end quad-core Ivy Bridge Core i7 processors that Origin and Intel have sent us.

Unlike the truly generic integrated graphics-only product last year, the Asus N56V that Intel sent to us looks more like an actual retail unit, albeit one that may not ever match an actual production model. It has a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-3720QM processor, along with discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 630 graphics. Last year's "white box" only had integrated graphics. We were able to disable the Nvidia GPU and run Intel's HD 4000 integrated graphics exclusively, to see what the performance gains were.

The Origin EON17-S, which we formally reviewed, featured a faster 2.9GHz Core i7-3920XM processor.

The Asus N56V. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Asus N56V is a 15.6-inch laptop weighing in at 6 pounds, a middleweight system approaching the "desktop replacement" category. The slightly bronzed notebook has a 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution display, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB, 7,200rpm hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT 630M graphics. The speakers above the keyboard fired off loud and crisp sound, but I wasn't as concerned with system design in this case; I focused chiefly on Ivy Bridge CPU performance.

For comparison purposes, we looked at an extremely recent and somewhat similar Asus N53, a laptop with a Sandy Bridge-generation quad-core 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-2670QM and the same Nvidia dedicated graphics. We also compared these systems with a couple of equivalent Sandy Bridge laptops with midrange Nvidia GeForce 540M graphics. After running all our benchmarks, here's what our Labs editor Julie Rivera found.

CPU performance

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

The performance leap between Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge CPUs, even by Intel's claims, is supposed to be subtle. That's reflected on our benchmark comparisons across some equivalent systems from last year.

The Ivy Bridge-based Origin EON17-S and Asus N56V handled our benchmark tests faster than any previous Windows laptops. Obviously, these quad-core systems represent the highest end of the performance spectrum: I'm more curious how middle-range dual-core processors and ultrabook-oriented lower-voltage CPUs will fare when they emerge. However, this bodes well for Ivy Bridge laptops in general.

Graphics and gaming

Metro 2033 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,366x768, High, DX11, AAA, 4X AF  
1,920x1,080, High, DX11, 4X AA, 16X AF  

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x900, 4X AA, 8X AF  
Asus N56V (Ivy Bridge - Intel Core i7-3720QM) - Intel HD 4000
Intel (Sandy Bridge) whitebox - Intel HD 3000

Street Fighter IV (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,366x768, 2X AA, V Sync Off  

Intel claims that Ivy Bridge's Intel HD 4000 graphics offer up to double the performance compared with last year's Sandy Bridge integrated graphics. The results varied by game, but it did seem to hold true that the Intel HD 4000 graphics were markedly improved. Even more impressively, they held their own against Nvidia GeForce 540M graphics. Read more here on the gaming power of Ivy Bridge's integrated HD 4000 graphics.

One note, however: next-gen Nvidia and AMD discrete graphics will provide graphics potential of a much higher order, especially on top-end gaming laptops. People who want to see the future of PC gaming are still best off shopping for high-end graphics, but the average laptop buyer should be really happy about how Ivy Bridge laptops will game.

The Asus N56V also has next-gen Nvidia graphics in the form of a GeForce GT 630M GPU. The Nvidia graphics performed admirably, but both Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge laptops feature these GPUs. That mirrors what you'll see in stores over the next few weeks:

Battery life

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Asus N56V (Ivy Bridge - Intel Core i7-3720QM)
Sony Vaio VPC-F236FM (Sandy Bridge - Intel Core i7-2670QM)

Battery life shows off only a subtle gain between our two tested Asus systems: 226 minutes with the Ivy Bridge N56V versus 214 minutes with the Sandy Bridge N53. It's hard to tell what the battery life and power efficiency story is here, especially on a select pair of high-end systems. We'll have to wait for dual-core and ultrabook versions of Ivy Bridge processors to compare results down the road.

What does this mean for you?
What the average person will care about is: slightly faster processors on average, perhaps a more widespread use of Turbo Boost in mainstream laptops, and, hey, the average laptop will be better at playing games. Thunderbolt is also intriguing, but until laptops start actually having Thunderbolt ports -- and affordable peripherals become the norm -- no one will really care.

More-mainstream Ivy Bridge systems that are more mainstream will be arriving over the next few months, and these will really show what Intel's new processors can do.

Many laptop manufacturers will, in fact, be selling new products with new designs and even new Nvidia and AMD graphics, but not necessarily new Intel Ivy Bridge processors. They'll be subtly swapped out when CPUs become available, but for many shoppers, the Moment of Ivy Bridge may get lost in the shuffle and be hard to identify. (To know if your laptop has a newer Intel processor, make sure the four-digit number at the end of your CPU starts with a "3"; for example, Core i7-3720QM vs i7-2670QM.)

The takeaway I've gleaned from early time from these laptops is that the CPU gains are small, while the integrated graphics on mainstream laptops could finally be good enough for most people to use for their everyday gaming. However, these early systems show off fast quad-core CPUs that don't really mirror what the average user will buy. Apples-to-apples comparisons show some modest gains, but nothing like last year's dramatic Sandy Bridge leap. That being said, if you're shopping for a laptop now, you're probably better off waiting for an Ivy Bridge version of your system to appear.

Read our review of the Origin EON17-S; a deeper discussion of Ivy Bridge's gaming graphics capabilities; and our list of answered questions about Ivy Bridge.

Editors' note: This post has been updated to correct an HTML problem in the power consumption chart.