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Intel Arrandale Core i5 and Core i3 Mobile Unveiled
Date: Jan 04, 2010
Author: Dave Altavilla
Introduction and Specifications

Looking back at silicon innovation over the past decade, you'll notice three primary design targets that tend to dominate industry motivation and trends - power consumption, price and performance.  As processor technologies evolve and new technologies are invented, there are rare moments in time when an innovation can hit upon all three design targets, unless of course you're in marketing and actually believe all that Kool-Aid you're feeding the customer base.  Usually, true innovation is required to deliver lower power, lower cost and higher performance together, though through simple optimization and iteration, you can typically capitalize on one or two of the three. 

For many years now, notebook architectures have followed a relatively iterative track.  New processor cores were developed for notebooks and companion chipsets were delivered to support these new CPU core architectures. In reality, high-level architecture didn't change much really until Intel's Mobile Core i7 (Lynnfield) series processor came to market.  With an integrated memory controller, Intel's Clarksfield architecture, took Intel's 3-chip mobile platform, to a two-chip approach that was primarily a performance play more than anything else but also drove some cost out of the solution as well.

Late this year however, Intel began to roll out the beginnings of a more innovative design approach for the market with their new Pinetrail platform.  With even higher levels of integration, the new Atom N450 is comprised of not only an on-chip memory controller but also a graphics core as well, built into a single-chip, monolithic (single die) solution.  Not only does the platform offer a bit more in terms of raw performance coupled with generally lower power consumption but with reduced design complexity, will offer a lower cost model moving forward.  Of course, with the popularity of netbooks lately, this latest release bodes very well for Intel but the notebook market, though infused with a robust high-end platform recently with Core i7 Mobile variants, needed something more highly integrated as well. 

What Intel is rolling out today with the Core i5 Mobile processor, is once again radically different.  Like Pinetrail for netbooks, Intel's new Arrandale processor combines both an integrated memory controller (DDR3) and GPU (graphics processor) on the same package as the main processor.  Though it's not a monolithic device but is built upon multi-chip module packaging, it does allow these primary functional blocks to coexist in a single chip footprint or socket.  Targeted more to the mainstream market, Intel's Core i5 Mobile processor should by all rights offer the "trifecta" of semiconductor technology innovation - higher performance, lower power and a better cost model.  Since this is an early product launch announcement, lower pricing will have to shake out at the retail level before we can judge but we certainly can look at the other two aspects of performance and power consumption here and determine if Intel has delivered something truly innovative.  Let's have a look...

Intel Core i5 "Arrandale" Mobile Processors
Specifications & Features

The Core i5 5XX series of processors is built with the two-die multi-chip package seen above and the actual processor core (left) is smaller than the graphics and DDR3 memory controller die (right), primarily since it's built on Intel's new 32nm manufacturing process, versus the 45nm process that the GPU and memory controller are built on.  The Core i5 5XX series is a dual core processor design with Intel HyperThreading technology on board, that allows it to process 4 threads simultaneously, presenting the operating system with four CPU resources (two logical and two physical cores).  Also, like Intel's Core i7 Mobile processor, this chip supports Intel's Turbo Boost technology on a per-core basis, allowing dynamic clock gating for higher clock speeds with lightly threaded workloads and lower, balanced clock speeds for multi-threaded applications that would benefit more from additional threading resources.  Let's have a closer look at the system architecture next.
Arrandale Processor Details

Intel's new Core i5 Arrandale processor architecture is now comprised of a two-chip solution, where higher levels of functional integration bring the graphics processor, additional PCI Express connectivity and a DDR3 memory controller all on-board the CPU package itself.  Additional IO connectivity is then brought out via a traditional Southbridge IO controller hub chip, seen in the block diagram below.

The H55 Express Southbridge connects to the processor over two physical interfaces.  DMI or Intel's Direct Media Interface offers serial connectivity to CPU resources for things like SATA, USB and PCI Express interfaces, while Intel's FDI or Flexible Display Interface offers connectivity to the graphics core for HDMI, DVI and DisplayPort interfaces.  In addition to it's dual channel DDR3 memory interface, as we mentioned, the processor also has 16 lanes of PCI Express Gen2 connectivity for discrete graphics.  This design approach will allow dynamically switchable solutions to be built with third party GPUs from the likes of NVIDIA and AMD.

Left:  Intel's Core i5 Arrandale CPU - Right: Intel H55 Express Southbridge Chip

What's perhaps most impressive is the completeness of the feature set that this new Intel notebook architecture offers.  From HDMI to eSATA, HD Audio, Gigabit Ethernet and DDR3 system memory, there really isn't much left out of the rather simplistic two-chip, three-die solution, save for perhaps a SATA 6G interface.  Though it's arguable that notebooks wouldn't be better served moving to an SSD solution for the higher-end, especially when you consider the physical robustness they offer versus spinning hard disks.

Moving forward, we'd expect that Intel will execute on its traditional "tick/tock" integration strategy and consolidate the functionality of the Arrandale dual-die set into a single, monolithic device.  Known now only as Sandybridge, Intel's 32nm technology will afford them the ability to conjoin both CPU and GPU together on the same wafer, rather than just packaging them up, which will bring intrinsic gains in performance due to a tighter coupling of the functional blocks. 

Speaking of which, let's drop down a level to Intel's new HD Graphics block next.

Intel HD Graphics Engine

There is little question that Intel's previous generation integrated graphics core left more than a little to be desired, when it came to offloading the CPU of multimedia and gaming tasks.  In fact, gaming on an Intel IGP has been historically pretty much non-existent, unless Dora the Explorer online was your kind of thing.  It was only recently that Intel began offering a solid HD video experience on with their G45 series chipset and even then, you needed decent processor helping with some of the heavy lifting.   However, for this iteration of integrated graphics solutions, if Intel was going to bolt this technology directly to the CPU on the same substrate, they had to beef things up a bit and indeed they have.

Culled from Intel's slide deck, above is a comparison of Intel's previous generation graphics solution that resides on their G45 series chipset, versus the new graphics core that Intel is now calling "GMA HD" and that resides on the CPU package itself.  Intel has added an additional pair of engines or execution units as they call them, to the solution, in conjunction with some fairly major upgrades to the architecture.  Techniques and algorithms like Hierarchical Z-Buffer and Fast Z clear have been incorporated in competitive discrete GPU solutions from AMD and NVIDIA for many years now but are just making their way into Intel's IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor) solutions.  Specifically, these two features afford the GPU core more efficient operation in the rendering pipeline, allowing pixels that aren't needed to be cast out of the rendering workload early, in addition to clearing buffer memory more quickly for faster read/write operations.

The GPU core clock has also been turned up to 900MHz with dynamic clock gating support or "graphics turbo" that, like the processor core itself, allows clock speeds to be ramped up or down based on workload.  Finally, Intel has also added dual simultaneous HDMI output support for the platform as well.


There is also a buffed out the feature stack with GMA HD, with respect to HD video processing.  The solution now offers dual video decode for picture-in-picture TV tuners and other applications, along with higher 12-bit per component color depth in support of the full HDMI 1.3 specification.  DisplayPort support has also been dropped in, in addition to Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio.

All told the enhancements to the graphics and media capabilities of Intel's HD Graphics solution are significant and bring a very much welcomed new level of functionality to the engine that previously Intel simply didn't compete well in versus competitive IGPs on the market.  As you saw in our previous video demo of the product, Intel's capabilities have vastly improved in this area.  And of course, we'll also chart out some of the hard benchmark data for you on this, in the pages ahead.

Asus K42F Arrandale Notebook

The Asus K42F that provided the skins for our Core i5 M 540 processor testing is a reasonably straight-forward machine built with a cost-conscience exterior but quality components internally.  Frankly the machine has a lighter-duty feel to it with a keyboard that is a bit on the spongy side for our tastes, but it's what we've come to expect when Intel is configuring test machines. We should also note that this is a pre-production unit and that Asus claims there is a more firm keyboard design and other refinements that are now available on retail product.



The base configuration of the K42F, as you can see on the specifications sticker (bottom left) is for 2GB of system memory, though Intel actually beefed ours up a bit more with 4GB total.  The machine weighs in at 4.85lbs with its 6-cell battery and it strikes a nice balance between power and portability.  Fit and finish-wise, this notebook follows the Asus tradition of good tolerances and solid build quality.  It's glossy exterior was graced with a paint pattern that masks fingerprints pretty well actually as well.  Finally, this notebook also has both VGA output as well as HDMI and as we were able to demonstrate for you in our intro video, the output quality over HDMI is quite impressive, easily rivaling what we saw with NVIDIA's Ion platform.

You've heard of "three chords and the truth"?  Arrandale is three die, two chips and the cheap...

What's perhaps more impressive is the cost-efficiencies this new architecture brings to Intel's bottom line.  Pictured above here, Arrandale is housed in the small rPGA 988 socket with the H55 Express Southbridge below it and not much more than a few passive, power, analog and connector components around it that make up the motherboard area. Incidentally, there were about 3700 screws to pull to get this deep into the machine but we're not shy on working up a bit of perspiration for our beloved audience. Up in the top right corner of this picture is Intel's 802.11n WiFi radio solution that is a small mezzanine daughter card and of course you see two SODIMM sockets here for system memory.  Other than that, there really isn't much going on and it's surprising to see just how simplistic and elegant the design is that surrounds Intel's Core i5 Arrandale processor. 

On the other hand, at first glance we would have projected this notebook would drop in closer to $800, rather than it's $1K price tag, according to Asus, with a Core i5 520M under its hood.  However, we should underscore that this specific Core i5 SKU does come equipped with a combo DVD R/W/Blu-ray drive, which will ratchet up costs a bit.  Also, Asus informs us there is a Core i3 350M (2.26GHz, no Turbo Boost) variant of the machine that will come to market as well, that will be priced around $729, with a standard DVD Super Multi drive and an ATI Radeon HD 5470 GPU tacked on for a bunch more gaming horsepower.  Regardless, it appears Intel is commanding a premium for the Core i5 Mobile processor currently, though we're hopeful street prices will drift southward after launch and once in the channel with all the major OEMs.  After all, we're talking about a 32nm processor core here and a 45nm GPU and Memory controller chip.  The cost structure is in place for more competitive pricing.

Test Setup and Vital Signs

Looking around under the hood of an Arrandale notebook was an interesting ride but our evaluation wouldn't be complete without a full sweet of performance numbers.  Below is how our test machine was configured and all test machines used for reference metrics, though obviously built on different Intel architectures, utilized the same amount of system memory (DDR2 or DDR3, depending on the platform), as well as the same Intel X25M SSD as its OS drive. Here's what CPU-Z tells us about the Asus Arrandale notebook we tested...


We actually had a tough time getting the Core i5 540M processor to settle down long enough in CPU-Z such that we could pull a screen shot at the processor's stock 2.53GHz core speed.  The CPU actually employs a base X19 multiplier with a 133MHz reference clock, though as you can see here, even at near-idle conditions, the core was in turbo mode with a 20X multiplier.  It was pretty interesting actually, watching the core bounce up and down so much depending on workload.  Arrandale is easily the most dynamic processor to date for Intel in this regard.  Though it only has two physical cores to manage, clock speeds vary widely depending on what you're running at the time. 

On another note, as you can see, Arrandale is built with 64K L1 instruction/data cache and 256K L2 cache per core, along with 3MB shared L3 cache.

Asus Arramdale-Based K42F Notebook
Hardware Specifications - As Tested

  • Intel Core i5 M 540 2.53GHz (3.06GHz Max Turbo Frequency
  • 4GB DDR3-1066 (2x2GB) SDRAM
  • Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD
  • 14-inch 1366x768 LED backlit display
  • Intel 80GB X25-M SATA SSD
  • DVD-Multi Recorder/Blu-ray Combo Drive
  • Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200 Wireless
  • GbE Ethernet
  • 63 WHr Battery
  • Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
  • VGA and HDMI output
  • 3 USB ports
  • Kensington Lock port
Firing up the Asus K42F for the first time, we were met with a responsive and snappy desktop experience that Windows 7 rated a 4.6 on a scale of up to 7.9.  Here, desktop Aero performance was our limiting factor, followed by gaming graphics.  However, Intel's previous generation GMA 4500 series typically scores in the mid to low 3s, while an NVIDIA Ion-based (Geforce 9400M) machine pulls down low 4s to a low 5 range for the 3D gaming section.  In other words, as far as Windows 7 is concerned, Intel's graphics subsystem is nearly on par with competitive IGP solutions from NVIDIA and AMD.  We'll see if this actually pans out the in the benchmarks to follow however.

Update January 6, 2010: Due to an issue with out K42F sample's memory, our initial benchmark results were lower than expect. We have since re-run our tests and updated the scores as necessary.

Testing with SiSoft SANDRA

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2010, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2010 suite: CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, and the Memory Bandwidth tests.

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2010
 Synthetic Benchmarks


In these synthetic, high-level tests that SANDRA performs on the CPU, the Core i5 540M shows surprisingly good scores, besting even Intel's Core 2 Q6600 and AMD's Phenom 9650 quad-core processors in the Arithmetic and Multimedia CPU tests.  In terms of memory bandwidth, the system's DDR3-1066 memory, coupled with the new on-chip memory controller offer 9GB/s of memory bandwidth according to SANDRA, which is somewhat on the low side as compared to the Core i7 Mobile Clarksfield with DDR3-1333 memory we tested not long ago, that offered nearly 2X the memory bandwidth. 
Futuremark PCMark Vantage

Next up, we ran a number of different test systems through Futuremark's PCMark Vantage system performance metric. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Most of the tests are multi-threaded (up to three simultaneous threads), so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a multi-core CPU.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

The Core i5 540M completely trounced the Core 2 Duo X9000-based system in all but the gaming and memories test, though the legacy machine has roughly a 300MHz clock speed disadvantage at stock frequency.  Recall the Core i5 540M has Turbo Boost capabilities to 3.06GHz as well however.  The Core 2 Duo Penryn system we tested here also has discrete graphics as well, so likely that's where its edge came from in gaming.

LAME MT and H.264 Encoding

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.

Audio Encoding

In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a painfully long Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.

Thanks to its relativley high clock speed and Nehalem-derived architecture, which offers more performance than the Core 2 clock-for-clock, the Core i5 540M leads the pack in multi-threaded mode, though in the single-threaded run it hangs on to the second spot.

x264 Video Encoding Benchmark
H.264 HD Video Encoding

The x264 benchmark measures how fast a system can encode a short, DVD quality MPEG-2 video clip into a high-quality H.264 HD video clip. The application reports the compression results in frames per second for each pass of the video encoding process.  The test is also multi-threaded, so it can take advantage of the additional resources afforded by multi-core processors.

Here the Core i5 540M shows a bunch more muscle over its Core 2 Duo ancestor.  The 2.53GHz Arrandale-based Core i5 is 35 - 38% faster than the Core 2 Duo Penryn chip. The Core i7 920XM is anywhere from 18 to a wopping 51% faster in this test over the Core i5 540M but the Core i7 is a true quad-core with hyperthreading and thus has up to 8 threads of processing resources available to it.

Cinebench R10 and POV-Ray

Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It is very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.

Cinebench R10
3D Rendering

This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.

In Cinebench R10, the Core i5 540M shows that it's 16.3% faster than the Core 2 Duo 2.8GHz chip for single-threaded workloads and 30% faster in multi-threaded workloads.

POV-Ray Performance
Ray Tracing

POV-Ray, or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is a top-notch open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard 'all-CPU' benchmarking tool on the  test machines, and recorded the scores reported for each. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput; higher scores equate to better performance.

A similar but slightly wider spread is seen here in POV-Ray, with an 11% - 37% edge afforded to the Core i5 540M based system versus the Core 2 Duo.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

Next we delved into some light duty gaming tests with 3DMark Vantage, to see how Intel's new GMA HD graphics core performs.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming
 3DMark Vantage

Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10. 3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10 though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware. We tested the systems here with 3DMark Vantage's Entry preset option, which uses a resolution of 1,280x1,024.  As this exceeded the native screen resolution of the Asus Core i5 notebook, we conducted this test with the notebook sending its video out to an external display.

3DMark Vantage "Entry" Preset Test Results

When we tested the Core i5 with the performance preset, 3DMark Vantage offered us a score in the mid 160s but at entry level settings, 3DMark offers a bit more favorable ratings.  Regardless, GPU test results were only in the single to low double-digits here.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage - CPU Performance
Synthetic DirectX Gaming

 3DMark Vantage
3DMark Vantage's CPU Test 2 is a multi-threaded test designed for comparing relative game physics processing performance between systems. This test consists of a single scene that features an air race of sorts, with a complex configuration of gates. There are aircraft in the test that trail smoke and collide with various cloth and soft-body obstacles, each other, and the ground. The smoke spreads, and reacts to the planes as they pass through it as well and all of this is calculated on the host CPU. We disabled the benchmark's Nvidia PhysX in order to better isolate the performance of the CPU.

When we look at things from a CPU perspective, the Core i5 540M shines, out-pacing the Core 2 Duo previous generation Penryn architecture by a sizable 31%+ lead.

Gaming:HL2 and ETQW

 Performance with Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Gaming Performance

To touch on gaming performance, we chose two games that draw moderately on system resources, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. We then ran a pre-recorded demo of each at various low to mid range resolutions. The resulting performance achieved is indicated in frames per second in the graph below.  Does Arrandale have a bit gaming under the hood? See for yourself.

Unfortunately neither of these titles were playable at the notebook's native screen resolution of 1366X768, though Half Life 2, was pretty fluid at resolutions of 1024 and lower.  That said, turning down graphics quality a touch here and there does allow playable frame rates at 720p resolutions, though you'll be missing some of the eye candy in titles like Quake Wars. In short, Arrandale does have a bit of casual gaming under the hood but the experience is one that you would expect from an IGP solution.  If you really want to game, grab a Core i5 Mobile machine with a discrete GPU.

Video Performance

To test Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator HD video playback capabilities with Arrandale, we played an H.264 encoded, 1080p HD video clip with both Windows Media Player and QuickTime 7.  Though we don't have screen grabs of Blu-ray disc playback performance here, we would  offer that the results were very similar to what you'll see in the movie trailer screen shots below.

1080p H.264 QuickTime Playback

1080p H.264 Windows Media Player Playback

Arrandale doesn't even break a sweat here and CPU utilization ranges from about 3% in Windows Media Player, to about 27% in the QuickTime playerEither way, playback was perfect and image quality was excellent, though QuickTime currently doesn't support Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD IGP as of yet In the future you can expect similar performance from both player platforms.

Battery Performance

The Asus K42F came with a 63Wh 6-cell battery.  Though 8-cell batteries are available for the K42F, tacking on only a couple more ounces in weight.  Below we ran our standard Battery Eater Pro test which loads both the CPU and GPU until the battery runs out of power. During the test, wireless radios were enabled, audio was on, and the screen was set to always on in the power settings control panel of windows.  The following benchmark is more of a worst case scenario test setup.  Since it continually taxes the graphics processor as well as the CPU, you could argue that battery life may in fact be longer under lighter duty workloads, like simple word processing for example. 

Battery Info & Performance
Testing with BatteryEater Pro

The K42F with its Core i5 540M processor and 6-cell battery lasted only a little over an hour and a half untethered, though obviously with a stock clock speed of 2.53GHz, the processor being worked in this test is significantly more powerful than the other reference machines we've included in this chart. 

In terms of actual power draw, with a power meter tapped on to the Asus K42F, we saw idle power consumption hovering around an absolutely miserly 14.5 Watts and peaking at 50.3 Watts under load. For reference, a Core 2 Duo T2600 (2.16GHz) Sony VAIO machine we have here in the lab, with a 13.3-inch display, versus the K42's 14" display, draws anywhere from 23.5 Watts at idle to 53.5 Watts under full load.

What Intel has done with respect to performance-per-watt with Arrandale, is more than evolutionary; it borders on revolutionary.  That's what 32nm manufacturing processes will do for you though we suppose.  We're anxious to get our hands on a few of the various thin and light notebooks that will be coming to market based on low voltage Arrandale cores.  More on those other cores next.

Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary:   The new Core i5 540M Mobile processor and its accompanying Asus K42F notebook, was significantly faster across the board versus Intel's legacy Core 2 Duo Mobile processor architecture, even something as high-end as a Core 2 Duo X9000 2.8GHz chip.  The Core i5 excelled especially in highly threaded applications like our Cinebench 3D rendering and X264 video encoding tests.  In terms of power consumption, the Core i5 Mobile system we tested lasted about as long as similarly configured Core 2 Duo notebooks that were much more modestly equipped from a processor standpoint.  Performance-per-watt and overall power draw of the Core i5 notebook we tested was markedly better than any Intel notebook platform we've worked with to date.

Intel is introducing a wide range of mobile processors today, with several new models in the Core i7, Core i5 and Core i3 families of mobile products.  Here' s a quick run-down of high level specs and pricing...

When it comes to notebook platforms and processors, Intel has a proverbial stranglehold on the market right now and it's hard to see that changing anytime soon with what the company is bringing to market today.  In that regard, pricing on the other hand, is another thing all together.  Frankly, Intel just plain needs more competition here though we're sure they'd beg to differ.  Never the less, when we consider the specs of the class of machine we tested in the Asus K42F, we're left wondering why it's a little on the pricey side. The $999 price point is usually marked for higher-end machines with discrete graphics, more premium design aesthetics or both.  We're hopeful street prices will fall in line a bit more in the future. 

Beyond that, if we consider the one area that Intel was lacking in historically, with respect to their notebook platform architecture, we'd have to say that they've made significant strides as well with this release.  Arrandale, offers a very respectable 3D graphics, video and multimedia experience as compared to competitive IGP offerings on the market today.  The long and short of it is, if you aren't looking to get into high res or leading-edge gaming, Intel's new Graphics Media Accelerator HD engine in Arrandale will suit you just fine. 

For notebooks, let's face it, there is a niche' market at best for true gaming machines.  From a market-share standpoint, business class machines, mid-range multimedia notebooks and thin-n-lights comprise the lion's share of the pie.  In that light, Intel is sitting pretty with their new Arrandale core.  We say bring on the new low voltage Arrandale's too.  Thin is very much in these days.  18 Watts, with the kind of performance and efficiency Arrandale brings to the table, looks to be a sweet spot the market would be eager to get a taste of.

  • Killer performance-per-watt
  • Solid integrated graphics
  • Dual cores with hyperthreading
  • Turbo Boost single threaded speed to 3.06GHz
  • Appears pricey upon initial release

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