Until now, if you wanted to use a smaller, lightweight notebook, you had to decide whether you wanted top performance (which meant carrying around an extra battery) or long battery life (with a slower system that pulled less power). Intel's Ivy Bridge processor family has the potential to deliver both.
The new processors are designed to push the performance envelope while keeping power use in check. The new quad-core chips use a 22-nanometer manufacturing process (previous chips used a 32nm process) and what Intel terms the "world's first 3-D transistor."
The Ivy Bridge processors also integrate the circuits for working with PCI Express 3.0 and USB 3.0 devices into the chip's silicon. These functions used to be handled by separate chips, each of which consumed power.
The way Ivy Bridge displays video has been improved as well. Compared to the HD 3000 graphics in the Sandy Bridge processor, Ivy Bridge's HD 4000 graphics engine has been more deeply integrated with the chip's processor cores, including 16 execution units versus 12 units. It also supports DirectX 11 games and software.
One of the main uses for the new processor will be in ultrabooks: slim, lightweight notebooks that comply with a number of specifications laid out by Intel (PDF).
The requirements for being called an ultrabook have changed slightly since the genre's introduction last year. In addition to an Intel Core processor, long battery life and a thickness of no more than 0.7 in. (or 0.8 in. with 14-in. or larger displays), these second generation ultrabooks also need to be able use Intel Identity Protection and Intel Anti-Theft technologies, resume quickly from sleep and support either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt for fast file transfers.
I was able to test two of the first notebooks to appear equipped with Ivy Bridge, both aimed at business users: the Fujitsu Lifebook U772 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X230.
Although only the former can be termed an "ultrabook" -- the ThinkPad X230 is, with a maximum depth of 1.3 in., too thick for that official designation -- both have at least one thing in common: high performance and long battery life. In testing, they each outperformed their Sandy Bridge predecessors, such as the Acer Aspire S3, by as much as 40% yet ran at least an hour longer on a charge.
The next step: Haswell
While Ivy Bridge processors are just starting to appear, Intel's next-generation Haswell processors are in the final stages of development. They will use the same 22-nanometer manufacturing process as the Ivy Bridge chips, but will extend the technology with a streamlined cache design and support for Thunderbolt devices.
The most meaningful advance, however, is likely to be Haswell's new power management system. According to Intel, the goal is to cut the power envelope of many of the chips from the current 17 watts to 15 watts, pushing battery life even further.
The Haswell processors are planned for sometime in 2013.
Fujitsu may have sat out the first round of ultrabooks, but its Lifebook U772 surpasses the initial offerings.
Fujitsu Lifebook U772
The black and gray laptop measures 12.9 x 8.9 in.; it's only slightly wider and longer than the Asus Zenbook UX31 ultrabook, yet it holds a 14-in. display rather than the Zenbook's 13.3-in. screen.
The Lifebook weighs in at 3.1 lbs.; with its small AC adapter, it hits the road at 3.5 lb. Inside is Intel's third-generation Core i5 3247U Ivy Bridge processor. It has 3MB of built-in cache, two processing cores and can handle four simultaneous threads. It runs at 1.8GHz, but with TurboBoost 2.0 it can sprint as fast as 2.8GHz when needed.
More to the point, the processor has the same maximum power rating of 17 watts as many second-generation Core i5 chips, but it runs faster and has more capable graphics hardware.
The Lifebook comes with 4GB RAM and can be configured with up to 8GB. The review system came with a 256GB solid state drive (SSD); Fujitsu offers a 128GB SSD option as well as 320GB and 500GB hard drives with 32GB of dedicated data cache.
As with most ultrabooks, you can neither upgrade anything inside nor swap the battery. The system does have an emergency reset button underneath if the system locks up and needs to be restarted. The system has a single fan underneath to keep things cool.
Bright display, dark keyboard
The system's 14-in.display is mounted nearly flush with the lid frame and has a tiny 0.15-in.-wide bezel around it. When using the Lifebook, the screen seems to float in space, but the display wobbled a bit if I accidentally pushed it.
However, I can't fault the display on any other measure. The colors are bright and rich. Like the ThinkPad X230, it can show 1366 x 768 resolution. It was able to show smooth and detailed HD video and never lagged while running games or showing presentations.
Underneath the display are the system's recessed keyboard and large touchpad. The 18.9mm island-style keys feel comfortable, but have no backlighting for those who work the night shift.
The Lifebook has the basic ports you'd expect of an ultrabook, including two USB 3.0 ports, a single USB 2.0 port, HDMI and audio jacks, and an SD card slot. It lacks a VGA port, but Fujitsu will sell a $169 port replicator that snaps onto the system's bottom and provides VGA and DVI ports, as well as a slew of others.
For business customers, the Lifebook has a Trusted Platform Module and fingerprint scanner. Fujitsu's Portshutter app allows a system administrator to block the use of the system's USB ports so that what goes into the Lifebook stays in the Lifebook.
The system includes 802.11n Wi-Fi, but to connect using wired Ethernet you'll need to use the included adapter cable. The system has Bluetooth for connecting with accessories.
The good news is that the system has Intel's WiDi hardware for wirelessly connecting with a TV or projector, but you'll have to download and install the software on your own.
The Lifebook scored 1401.1 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, more than a 40% increase over the Acer Aspire S3 ultrabook that was equipped with a previous-generation Core i5 2467 processor. The Lifebook also outperformed the ThinkPad X230 by a small margin, likely the result of using solid-state storage instead of a slower hard drive.
On the Cinebench processor tests, the Lifebook blew away the first generation ultrabooks with a 2.60 score, compared to 1.92 for the Aspire S3. It was, however, second best to the ThinkPad X230's result of 3.10.
Showing the power of the new HD 4000 graphics engine, the Lifebook scored 12.32 frames per second (fps) on the Cinebench graphics tests, nearly 60% percent ahead of the Aspire S3's score of 7.79fps (the Aspire was outfitted with Intel's HD 3000 graphics accelerator). Again, the Lifebook was slightly behind the ThinkPad X230, which scored 13.61fps.
With its 2,700mAh battery, the Lifebook ran for 4 hours and 43 minutes on a charge while continuously playing HD videos from a USB drive. That's an hour short of the X230, which had a much larger battery, but an hour and a half longer than the Aspire's 3,260mAh battery life.
At a Glance
FujitsuPrice: $1,725Pros: Slim design, good performance, Trusted Platform Module, Eco mode extends battery lifeCons: Expensive, Ethernet requires adapter, no VGA port, no keyboard lighting
While this probably translates into a full workday of on-and-off computing, if you're worried about making it through the day, the Lifebook has an "Eco" button that can stretch battery life by muting the audio and turning off the Wi-Fi while lowering the screen's brightness and dialing back the processor speed. To try it out, I waited until I had only 10% left on the battery and turned its Eco mode on. The system ran for nearly an hour more, twice as long as I expected.
The Lifebook comes with a one-year warranty, Windows 7 Professional and a 30-day subscription to Norton Internet Security.
At $1,725, the review unit that I looked at is definitely not inexpensive. Fujitsu also sells a model with a slower Core i5 3317U processor and a 128GB SSD for $1,149.
But if you find the cash, then you'll find that the Fujitsu Lifebook U772 is more than another pretty face -- it combines a beautiful design with top performance.
Although not an official ultrabook, the ThinkPad X230 is small and light and, with its Ivy Bridge processor, can be thought of as a netbook on steroids.
Clothed in the traditional ThinkPad-black case, the X230 looks a bit chunky next to the Fujitsu Lifebook or other ultrabooks; it has a thickness of 1.0 in. in front and 1.3 in. in the rear. The system compensates by only taking up 12.0-x-8.1-in. of desktop space, which is more than 10% less than the Lifebook.
Lenovo ThinkPad X230
The X230 weighs 3.4 lb., several ounces more than the Lifebook, although that's on a par with many first generation ultrabooks. If you add the AC adapter and power cord, it has a travel weight of exactly 4.0 lb.
The system is built around an Ivy Bridge Core i5 3320 processor that has two processing cores and can work through four threads. It has 3MB of on-board cache and has a base speed of 2.6GHz; it has the ability with TurboBoost 2.0 to increase its speed to 3.3GHz.
On the downside, the processor runs at a higher voltage than the Lifebook's chip and is rated to use a maximum of 35 watts of power, which is more than twice the power and thermal load of the Lifebook's processor.
The review system came with 4GB RAM and can hold up to 16GB. It came with a 320GB hard drive; Lenovo offers a variety of models with hard drives that can hold up to 500GB and SSDs with up to 256GB of capacity.
One advantage to the ThinkPad's more conventional design: You can open it up to add memory, swap drives or just change the battery on a long flight.
While the ThinkPad X230 uses the same HD 4000 graphics accelerator as the Lifebook U772, it has a smaller 12.5-in. screen. Like the Lifebook, the X230's screen offers 1366 x 768 resolution, with great color balance and brightness. On gaming and presentations, it was very impressive, with smooth video and crisp graphics.
For those who burn the midnight oil, the X230's island keyboard is not only backlit, but illuminated from above by an LED spot light; by tapping the spacebar and the Function key at once you can turn it on or off. The X230's touchpad is smaller than the one on the Lifebook -- it felt cramped and its rounded edges were awkward to use.
The keyboard sits at a 4-degree angle; the 18.9mm keys felt responsive and were comfortable to type with. The system is a good choice for people who like having the choice of both a touchpad and the venerable TrackPoint for navigating Windows.
Despite its size, the ThinkPad X230 delivers a good assortment of ports. It has VGA and a micro-DisplayPort jack for connecting to a monitor or projector, as well as a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a single USB 2.0 port and audio connections. In addition to an SD card slot, the system has an ExpressCard slot that can work with either a 34mm or 54mm card. The only thing I missed was an HDMI connection.
The ThinkPad also offers an Ethernet port that doesn't require an adapter, and it comes with Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi. The system includes WiDi hardware for wirelessly driving a projector or monitor, including the required software.
The case is has a study feel -- not surprising, since, according to Lenovo, the ThinkPad X230 passed 8 of the 23 Mil-Std 810F tests for ruggedness, including low pressure, humidity, vibration, high temperature, temperature shock, low temperature and dust.
The ThinkPad X230 comes with a fingerprint scanner and Trusted Platform Module for secure log-ins.
Despite having a faster processor, the ThinkPad X230 was a step behind the Lifebook U772 in terms of overall performance, likely the result of the system using a mechanical hard drive rather than faster solid state storage. The system's PerformanceTest 7.0 score of 1,347.4 is nothing to scoff at, however, and is 30% faster than the Aspire S3, which was equipped with a second-generation Core i5 2467 processor.
At a Glance
LenovoPrice: $1,250Pros: Great performance, excellent battery life, keyboard backlightingCons: No HDMI, thicker than ultrabooks
The X230 dominated in the Cinebench testing. Its 3.10 score on the processor suite of tests and 13.61fps on the graphics tasks were better than the Lifebook results and more than twice the scores of the Aspire S3.
The Thinkpad X230's large 5,300mAh battery was able to go for 5 hours and 41 minutes on a charge while continuously playing videos off of a USB drive.
The system comes with Windows 7 Professional, a 30-day subscription to Norton Internet Security as well as Evernote note-taking software. Lenovo includes a one-year warranty with the system.
While it lacks the pizzazz and show-off factor of an ultrabook, the ThinkPad X230 actually is an excellent mobile machine with a great mix of performance and battery life.
Both the Lifebook U772 and the ThinkPad X230 travel light, perform well on the road and have most of the creature comforts we've come to expect from a notebook.
I love the performance, sleekness and thin profile of the Lifebook, and if that's all that matters, go out right now and buy one. You will be hard pressed to find a better ultrabook. However, at $1,700, it's not inexpensive -- and I missed the ThinkPad's keyboard lighting.
By contrast, the ThinkPad X230 is more plain looking, thicker and has a smaller screen, but at $1,250 it is much more affordable. The closest thing to a no-compromises small notebook, it ran for nearly an hour longer than the Lifebook U772 on a charge, was neck and neck on performance and has a truly innovative dual keyboard light that competitors are sure to copy.
2 Ivy Bridge laptops: Features
To see how the new Ivy Bridge notebooks perform, I used them both at my office and on the road for work and play over the course of a week. On top of writing, working through spreadsheets and researching on the Web, I used the systems to update a website, and to create and give presentations. I also played games and watched online videos. I used each on a road trip.
After measuring the thickness of each system at its rubber feet in the front and rear with a digital caliper, I weighed each on a digital scale with and without its AC adapter. Next, I looked over the assortment of ports. I placed each system on a mock-up of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if they fit.
In my office, I tried each out with a projector and then connected to my wired and Wi-Fi networks. Later, each was connected to a mobile hot spot as well as a public Wi-Fi network.
Overall performance was rated using PassMark Software's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics and memory, and compiles the results into a single score that represents its overall performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
I also ran Maxon's Cinebench R11.5's benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports separate scores for processor and graphics performance, and I averaged the results of three runs.
After loading PassMark's BatteryMon, I charged each system and measured its battery life with its power options set to Balanced and the system configured not to go to sleep. With a USB drive containing six videos connected to the system, I set Windows Media player to shuffle through the videos continuously while the software charted the battery's capacity. I reported the average of three runs.
2 Ivy Bridge laptops: Performance tests
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.
Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.