Intel Core i7 Mobile CPU (Clarksfield) Review
Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: With the release of the mobile version of the Core i7 processor, Intel has further entrenched its hegemony of performance notebook processors. When it comes to performance notebooks, sometimes it feels that Intel is only ever competing with itself--the quandary for the consumer is often whether to buy older, less-expensive Intel technology or go with newer and faster, but pricier Intel solutions. Regardless, there is little question that the Core i7 Mobile (Clarksfield) architecture is notably faster than the Core 2 (Penryn) architecture it is supplanting.
Clarksfield is the next generation of the Nehalem microarchitecture and brings with it a number of new technologies to the Intel-based mobile platform, such as a three-level cache, integrating the memory controller and PCI Express interconnects onto the processor die, as well as getting rid of the Northbridge chip. Clarksfield also represents the return of Hyper-Threading to the Intel notebook platform, which it hasn't seen since the Mobile Pentium 4 (not counting netbook-based Intel Atom processors). And whereas only a handful of the higher-end Penryn processor are quad core chips (two dual-core processors coupled together), all of the Clarksfield processors are quad core and utilize a monolithic die.
Perhaps the biggest news that the arrival of Clarksfield brings with it is the new-and-improved Turbo Boost Technology (new to the Intel mobile platform, improved as far as the Nehalem microarchitecture is concerned), which allows the processor to jack up its clock speed, depending on how heavily it is being worked by multi-threaded tasks. When the workload is light or the only major workload is single-threaded, the 2.0GHz Core i7-920XM processor shuts down all but one of its four cores and bumps the clock speed of the remaining core up to an impressive 3.2GHz. And this is where we actually see a bit of irony. In the last few years, the focus has shifted away from faster and faster clock speeds and onto multi-core solutions. But where Clarksfield's performance truly shines is when it is operating in single-core mode. Perhaps there is something to be said for raw CPU speeds after all.
To get this level of performance, however, you will have to pay for it. Manufacturers pay a whopping $1,054 for the Core i7-920XM processor, in lots of 1,000 units (larger quantities come with higher discounts). Add in the rest of the notebook components and factor in the manufacturers' and OEMs' markups, and you've easily got a $3,000 notebook. This price of the Core i7-920XM is comparable, however, to the $1,038 that Intel currently charges (as of September 6, 2009) for the Core 2 Extreme Mobile QX9300 processor (the Core 2 Extreme Mobile X9100 sells for $851).
The Core i7-820QM and Core i7-720QM processors are more reasonably priced ($546 and $364, respectively), which will equate to more affordable notebooks. In fact, Dell has just started selling a Core i7-720QM-based notebook today with a starting price of $999:
Dell Studio 15
- 1.6GHz Intel Core i7-720QM
- 4GB Dual Channel DDR3 at 800MHz
- Windows Vista Home Premium (64-bit) – eligible for Windows 7 upgrade
- 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4570
- 250GB 7200RPM Hard Drive
- Slot load CD/DVD Writer (DVD+/-RW)
- 15.6-inch HD (1366x768) WLED display with built-in 2.0MP webcam
- 6-cell Battery
For the most past, the pricing for the Core i7-820QM and Core i7-720QM actually represent better values than the current pricing for Core 2 Quad Mobile processors: $851 for the Core 2 Quad Mobile Q9100, and $348 for the Core 2 Quad Mobile Q9000.
It will probably take a while for Core i7-based notebooks to completely push Core 2 notebooks out of the marketplace--especially as the inventory of Core i7 notebooks ramps up and subsequently pushes down the price of Core 2 notebooks. For those looking for premium mobile performance, the Core i7-920XM will undoubtedly provide the fastest mobile performance available today; but gamers be forewarned: Even with the respectable 3D graphics performance that a Core i7-920XM-based notebook can provide in concert with a top-end mobile GPU, you're not going to see true desktop-like gaming performance. For those looking for a better balance of performance and price, Core i7-820QM and Core i7-720QM-based notebooks stand to offer the best bang-for-the-buck, while still delivering unprecedented performance in a notebook.