|Introduction and Specifications|
Lately, it seems like Desktop Replacement notebooks don't get any respect, at least in our humble opinion. The trend for thin and light mobile computing is massive these days, with good reason. However, there is a market and usage model for these beefier, significantly more robust machines the deliver the multimedia horsepower, gaming prowess and a general computing experience usually found in a desktop, but in a form factor that can easily be moved from room to room and a variety of environments. Take the use case of a Home Theater PC, for example. Instead of an emaciated media streamer, current generation Desktop Replacement notebooks can connect to a stereo media receiver or HDTV over HDMI and offer a ton more gaming and HD video performance. Drop in a USB wireless keyboard/mouse and media center remote and you're set. And that's not to mention the wireless HDMI technologies coming to market in the very near future that will enable coffee table control from across the room. You get the idea. There's a market niche' for the Desktop Replacement notebook, one that most power users can appreciate, but the thin-is-in crowd isn't exactly buzzing about.
It's a similar scenario to what can be observed in the flagship graphics card market segment, where performance bars are set high along with pricing, but the vast majority of sales volume shakes out to more mid-range product offerings. NVIDIA is a market juggernaut in this high-end arena and when it comes to notebook GPUs, the company religiously fires a cadence of mobile graphics product to follow-up their desktop counterpart releases.
In March of this year, NVIDIA launched their GeForce GTX 480, aka Fermi desktop graphics card and though this new killer GPU is both big and hot, there was little question it offered record-breaking performance. Almost shockingly, only a calendar quarter later, they're now ready with that card's notebook-targeted variant, the GeForce GTX 480M. We have one of the very first notebooks to hit the market in-house with the new GeForce GTX 480M under its hood. Fittingly, NVIDIA turned to Clevo to ODM a machine that would house their new mobile gaming frame-rate crusher and it took residence in the Clevo D900F quite comfortably.
GeForce GTX 480M Urban Assault Vehicle - Clevo's 17.1" D900 Gaming Notebook
GPU Engine Specs:
As is the case with ATI's Mobility Radeon HD 5870, the GeForce GTX 480M is much more akin to NVIDIA's mid-range desktop GPU, rather than the 480-CUDA core equipped GeForce GTX 480 desktop chip. In fact, if you look closely at the specs, you'll note that the GeForce GTX 480M is in reality a clocked-down version of the GeForce GTX 465. Whereas the GeForce GTX 465's core speed is 607MHz, the GTX 480M's core speed is 425MHz, though both chips employ 352 CUDA cores. The GeForce GTX 480M's memory interface speed (data rate) has also been scaled down a bit from 3206MHz on the desktop GeForce GTX 465 chip, to 2400MHz for the notebook-ready GeForce GTX 480M.
The net result is a notebook GPU solution that is currently unmatched in terms of high level specifications versus competitive notebook graphics chips, but also draws a lot less power than the nearest desktop equivalent chip in NVIDIA's line-up. TDP for the GTX 480M is 100 Watts, versus the faster clocked desktop version GeForce GTX 465 at 200 Watts. In comparison, AMD's Mobility Radeon HD 5870 has a 50 Watt TDP and offers a higher texel fill rate (28 Gtexels/sec versus 18.7 for the GTX 380M) but less memory bandwidth (64GB/sec versus 76.8GB/sec for the GTX 480M). But enough with the speeds and feeds, let's give you a closer look at the goods.
|Clevo D900F Externals and Internals|
To say the Clevo D900F is a desktop replacement notebook would be an understatement. The machine is based on a 17.1-inch display and weighs in at nearly 12 pounds (11.9 to be exact) of pure badassedness. This notebook is really a desktop machine in notebook skins and is actually built upon Intel's X58 Express chipset and with a standard LGA 1366 CPU socket under the hood. It's bulky for sure and you can't stay untethered from the wall for very long, but if you really want your gaming rig to follow you around your domicile, this machine definitely serves up quality and performance.
The fit and finish of the D900F is excellent and it comes with a myriad of connectivity options including HDMI and mini-Display Port outputs, 4 USB 2.0 ports, eSATA, an Express Card slot, SD/SDHC Flash card slot and of course Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n WiFi and modem networking capabilities. The D900F has a full sized keyboard with numpad, a spacious touchpad and high gloss, almost "urethane-like" finish to it that does attracts smears but polishes up easier than most notebooks with a quick swipe of a soft cloth.
Under this glossy exterior is where all the magic happens however and once the magic gets revved up you know keeping it all cool took some creative engineering. In this case, three barrel or "squirrel cage" fans, as they are commonly known, cool an elaborate network of copper heat pipes and fine-pitched finned radiator heatsinks. Then fans draw air in underneath the system and push it out over the heatsinks. The far right side assembly in the shot above is in place to cool the CPU, while the other two fans cool a pair of heatsinks/pipes that keep the GPU cool. With a 100 Watt TDP chip in a notebook, you need this sort of exotic cooling.
What's perhaps even more surprising is that this GeForce GTX 480M MXM module came equipped with a full 2GB of GDDR5 memory on board. As you can see, the rest is a fairly organized and cleanly laid-out design, with X58 system controller and memory in the middle, feeding the two data-hungry beast processors to either side of them. Excuse the thermal paste on the Core i7 940 chip. We figured you've seen one of those before and we wanted to leave the application in tact.
|Vital Signs and PCMark Vantage Tests|
|For testing purposes, we've focused our system cross-reference numbers on two primary machines, both with somewhat different configurations but directly competitive GPU (NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 480M and AMD's ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870). As a result, the view here is not a direct correlation but rather a reference point for you to consider. In our gaming test, systems are heavily GPU-dependent, so the emphasis on other subsystem components and the CPU is much less pronounced. In these tests, we have assembled as close to an "apples-to-apples" comparison as we could deliver, given the test systems available. For the PCMark Vantage, we've provided one additional reference system to give you a general view of system performance relative to Intel's previous generation CPU architecture.
The CPU-Z and GPU-Z shots we have for you below show our dynamic duo in action, though the Core i7 940 processor in this notebook is throttled down in idle mode.
As you can see in the left screen capture, the Core i7 940 stock frequency identified in the spec field is 2.93GHz though its multiplier has been dropped to 12 idling on the desktop here. In the right-hand shot, details of the GeForce GTX 480M can be seen, with its 352 unified shaders, 32 ROPs, 256-bit memory bus width and a whopping 2GB of GDDR5 memory.
This test result is one you should take note of, just for a frame of reference. Bear in mind that the CPU, chipset and memory platform architecture of the Clevo D900F is that of a standard Intel X58 chipset-based system, while the Asus G73, for example, is built upon a standard notebook architecture based on the Intel PM55 Express chipset. As a result, there's no question the Clevo D900 has a distinct advantage in terms of its CPU and system memory bandwidth. However, in the heavily GPU-intensive, high resolution gaming benchmarks as we'll be covering in the pages ahead, the D900's system-level advantages would only amount to a few percentage point gain at best and perhaps in some cases where the GPU is the limiting performance factor, no measurable gain at all.
|Next we fired up 3DMark Vantage, which also has a bit more dependency on CPU performance, since it does have a module in the test suite specifically for software based rendering. Regardless, since this test is so widely known, we thought it made sense to throw it into the mix. From here on out, we'll be dialing up the eye candy full tilt on real game titles, which will place virtually all the emphasis on the GPUs being tested.
Here the GeForce GTX 480M-infused notebook punches out a roughly 20% higher 3DMark score versus the Mobility Radeon HD 5870-enabled Asus G73 notebook. Though the NVIDIA GPU has its PhysX advantage in this test as well and again, we'd caution in this test that there is a system-level advantage factored into the scores. So, we'll journey on to real-world, GPU-intensive game tests next.
|Unigine and H.A.W.X. Testing|
In this test, we've set the Unigine engine to employ a moderate level of tessellation effects when rendering its scenes. Tessellation functions are a strong suite for NVIDIA's Fermi architecture and in general NVIDIA's tessellation engine in GeForce GTX 400 series GPUs is significantly stronger than that of AMD's Radeon HD 5000 series. Though this test only employs a moderate level of tessellation, the GeForce GTX 480M offered ~ 25 - 30% higher frame rates versus the AMD's fastest mobile GPU currently.
H.A.W.X. is more of a straight-up DirectX 10 title and AMD specifically spent time tuning it for its DX10.1 rendering path as a showcase for their early lead in the technology. As a result, this specific benchmark shows a much tighter spread with only a minor, frankly negligible edge afforded to the new GeForce GTX 480M.
|Far Cry 2 Game Tests|
|Far Cry 2 is the sort of test that separates the men from the boys, or so to speak, when it comes to crushing GPU performance. We dialed this test up high to watch the GeForce GTX 480M sweat a bit.
In reality, the Clevo D900 and GeForce GTX 480M didn't sweat these test settings much at all and maintained completely playable frame rates even at 1080p HD resolutions with 8X AA settings enabled. At lower 720p resolution with higher AA settings, the GTX 480M offered 60% higher frame rates. However, at 1080p res with lower 2X AA image quality settings, the gap was only measured at a 36% advantage for the new NVIDIA mobile GPU. It's apparent here, that the GeForce GTX 480M's higher memory bandwidth is coming into play and perhaps to a smaller extent its larger 2GB frame buffer as well.
|S. T. A. L. K. E. R. - Call of Pripyat|
|For notebook GPUs, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Call of Pripyat could very well be "the new Crysis". It was punishing on both of our competitive notebook configurations.
With the built-in game test and benchmark tool dialed up to 1920X1080, frame rates for either GPU are basically unplayable. That said, the GeForce GTX 480M offered 25% higher frame rates in general and over 30% higher frame rates with higher levels of AA turned on.
|Dirt 2 Gaming Benchmark|
|Dirt 2 is another game title that AMD has spent a lot of time showcasing, so it should be interesting to see how the Mobility Radeon HD 5870 stacks up against the GeForce GTX 480M in this DX11-based racing sim.
With Dirt 2 we see a relatively similar performance profile for the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 480M and the Clevo D900F gaming notebook. The GTX 480M clocked in with roughly a 30% performance advantage over the Mobility Radeon HD 5870 but there was a decidedly different picture painted with respect to anti-aliasing performance. At higher 8X AA settings, the gap narrowed to around a 22% edge for the GTX 480M. Regardless, all settings we tested for the new notebook-targeted NVIDIA power plant were well within playable frame rate limits.
|Battery Performance and Power Consumption|
|When we considered that the new GeForce GTX 480M notebook graphics processor has a specified TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 100 Watts, we almost cringed at the thought of measuring battery life on this Clevo machine. Call us masochists but we're suckers for good data. We even put the machine on the other end of a power meter, just to get a sense of power draw off the D900F's rather honkin' large power brick.
The Clevo D900F's battery is no joke. It's a 12-cell 6600mAh smart lithium block that would otherwise power a standard notebook for a week (okay, maybe that's an exaggeration). We've compared the machine to a few more notebooks we have in our battery life database and the D900F brought up the rear by 5 minutes less available time. In fact, the 9-cell powered Asus G73 offered 10 minutes more battery life with a battery that is 33% smaller. Finally, we should note that while this test is a "worst case scenario" that actually exercises the GPU continuously, the D900F also down-clocks the GPU a bit on its battery power setting (as do the other systems in the above performance graph).
Of power consumption, heat and noise -
So how much does this machine draw under full load? In short, a lot; as in almost crazy amounts of power for a notebook. After all, the D900F is pretty much a full-fledged desktop PC stuff into a notebook form factor. We measured the machine's power brick drawing 135 Watts at idle on the desktop and a little over 200 Watts under full gaming load. Obviously, this isn't what you'd call a "laptop," that is unless you prefer your lap rather uncomfortably warm. The D900F, with the GeForce GTX 480M within the confines of its notebook shell, needs to breath freely on a desk or table top. In fact, the machine's intake vents on the underside of the chassis are easily blocked, cutting off air-flow, if you place this notebook on your lap even for a moment, causing its cooling fans to spool up to much higher speeds.
Speaking of those fans, the D900F, at idle on the desktop, is a reasonably quite machine for a DTR notebook, but under heavy load, its cooling system is noticeably louder than many notebooks of this class that we've tested. We wouldn't say it's dramatically louder but enough that if you're looking for quieter machine of this class, you definitely will want to consider something with less juice coursing through its veins.
|Performance Analysis and The Wrap|
|Performance Summary: NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 480M mobile GPU turned out to be the fastest notebook graphics processor we've seen to date, which is no surprise considering NVIDIA currently holds the single-GPU title on the desktop front as well. The GeForce GTX 480M was significantly faster in nearly all gaming benchmarks we performed with the one exception of H.A.W.X., where the chip clocked in barely ahead of the Mobility Radeon HD 5870 by a negligible margin. In every other case, from cutting-edge DirectX 11 titles like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat and Dirt 2, to demanding DX10 titles like Far Cry 2, the GeForce GTX 480M was on the order of 30% faster on average, with much larger gains shown in Far Cry 2, where the chip was up to 60% faster than its counterpart from AMD. All of this performance, however, does come at a cost of power consumption, heat and a bit of noise; which also was expected of course. The GeForce GTX 480M's thermal footprint (100W TDP) is also 2X that of the Mobility Radeon HD 5870.
Taking stock in the final analysis of the NVIDIA's new GeForce GTX 480M, we're not shy about falling back on a tired, old cliche'. The GeForce GTX 480M notebook GPU "is what it is." This mobile GPU is a direct derivative of the desktop GeForce GTX 400 series, specifically the GeForce GTX 465 with its 352 CUDA cores, but with aggressive power gating when idle and top core clock speed 180MHz+ lower than its desktop-targeted sibling. Comparatively, the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870 is more akin to the Radeon HD 5750 on the desktop for AMD, with it's 700 stream processors. Whereas AMD delivers less than half the GPU in their flagship mobile part versus their top desktop chip, NVIDIA is delivering a device enabled with 75% of its compute resources but with a dramatically slower clock speed.
The net-net here is that NVIDIA's new mobile chip is decidedly bigger, stronger and faster but also seriously more power-hungry and more challenging to cool. Comparing the two offerings is kind of like comparing a punishing, up-the-gut running fullback to a wide receiver; both get the job done, just in decidedly different ways. The fullback might need to take every third play off but the wide receiver might get drilled into the dirt by an outside linebacker, on a short route. In notebook speak, one of these GPUs is built for longer term, moderate-duty workloads, while the other is built for shorter bursts of intensity. Though if the machine is tethered to a wall outlet, you don't have to worry about taking many plays off, you just have to contend with a bit more heat and noise.
All told, the new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 480M is an impressive notebook graphics processor that's not for the faint of heart. If you're not concerned with being DX11 capable and don't mind a multi-GPU setup, there is better performance to be found in a previous generation GeForce GTX285 SLI-enabled notebook or the just announced but yet untested combination of Mobility Radeon HD 5870s in CrossFire we just showed you here. In addition, we've also been informed that build-outs from Eurocomm and others will also include a pair of GTX 480M chips in SLI as well. However, costs scale up significantly with dual-GPU notebook designs and there is always added complexity with multi-GPU setups from a software standpoint. So, in short, if you're the type that is a die-hard NVIDIA fan or you just want the fastest single notebook GPU configuration you can find that also supports the latest in DX11 rendering features, then the GeForce GTX 480M and the Clevo D900F is for you, provided you don't mind a notebook that draws power like a desktop PC. Then again, in this class of machines, that's why they're called "desktop replacement" notebooks.