Thursday, September 30, 2010

Intel Light Peak - Lighting up 10 Gbps links in 2011

First off, Light Peak speeds remain the same as we've previously seen at 10 gigabits/s, though opportunity to scale to 100 gigabits/s remains a promise for the future. Intel had two demonstrations setup illustrating Light Peak's potential as a bus for huge amounts of traffic. First up was a Compal notebook connected to an Avid HD I/O box, which was in turn connected to two more devices. An external Western Digital dual drive solution with a Light Peak connector, and an HDMI adapter driving 1080P video content.

According to Intel, Light Peak enabled Avid to move mixing control to the Compal notebook software suite. Bandwidth is now sufficient to pass uncompressed extremely high sampling rate audio streams between the notebook and the Avid HD I/O box.

All of those white cables coming out of the Avid box on the left side are Light Peak. Note that they look a lot like USB - more on that in a moment. Light Peak connects the Avid HD I/O box and its lossless audio streams, a raw 1080P HDMI video stream, Western Digital external hard drive, and another uncompressed video played back on the Dell LCD to the left in this demo. This demo is clearly targeted at selling studio artists on Light Peak.

The Light Peak to HDMI converter box has also shrunk considerably. It's now a bit smaller in profile than a credit card:

There's no external power adapter here either, just Light Peak to HDMI for the TV. The Compal notebook has been shown around a bit before, but the connection is again seamlessly integrated into the notebook by all appearances. Check out the gallery for all the pics from this demo:


When You Want A Little Gaming: The AVADirect Nano Gaming Cube

Usually the review hardware we handle is offered to us, cherry picked by the OEM or dealer as something they want to draw some attention to. The Nano Gaming Cube from AVADirect is different: this one is personal. Our review unit has been shopped around to other sites, but no one bothered to really put it through its paces or even take pictures of the inside of the thing just to figure out what kind of prestidigitation had to occur in order to produce a Mini-ITX gaming system. I had to see it for myself. It may be a curio, it may be impractical, but it's also damn tiny for what's inside it.

AVADirect Nano Cube Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-750S @ 3GHz (166MHz Bclk with x18 multiplier)
(spec: 4x2.4GHz, 45nm, 8MB L3, 82W)
Chipset DFI Lanparty Motherboard with P55 chipset
Memory 2x2GB Kingston DDR3-1333 (expandable to 8GB)
Graphics Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 5870 Vapor-X 1GB GDDR5
(1600 Stream Processors, 870MHz Core, 5GHz Memory, 256-bit memory bus)
Hard Drive(s) Corsair Nova 128GB SSD
Optical Drive(s) Pioneer Slim DVD+/-RW
Networking Intel Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC885 HD Audio
speaker, mic, line-in, and surround jacks for 7.1 sound
Front Side Optical Drive
2x USB 2.0
Headphone and mic jacks
Top Nothing
Back Side 2x PS/2
S/PDIF and TOSlink digital audio jacks
6x USB 2.0
Gigabit Ethernet jack
Speaker, mic, line-in, and surround jacks
2x DVI-D
AC Power
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 8.7" x 13" x 5.1" (WxDxH)
Weight N/A
Extras AthenaPower 470W MiniITX Power Supply
Modified SilverStone Sugo SG06 Case
Overclocked from warehouse
Warranty 3-year limited warranty and lifetime phone support
Pricing Priced similarly to configuration (9/13/2010): $1,582

The configuration of the Nano Cube is a thoughtful one, starting from the low-voltage processor. An Intel Core i5-750S at stock runs at a low clock speed of 2.4GHz, but also has a TDP of just 82 watts. With two active cores under Turbo Boost, that speed jumps up to a respectable 3.2GHz; the 750S overall seems to sit nicely in between Intel's mobile quads and the higher wattage standard desktop chips. For this build, though, the 750S runs at an overclock of 3GHz, all the time. It won't turbo up to 3.2GHz, and this might not have been the right call as we'll discuss later.

This juncture might be a good place to mention that our review unit is a bit out of date, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The DFI board is less than ideal and hopelessly outdated as far as the I/O goes on the back, but newer boards available shore up its shortcomings. The Gigabyte board available brings USB 3.0 to the table along with all the ports you've come to know and require, and the Zotac boards integrate much needed wireless networking. Since we're in Mini-ITX land, though, we're still stuck with just two memory slots, which in our build are populated with a pair of Kingston 2GB DDR3-1333 DIMMs. AVADirect also offers a newer Silverstone SG07 chassis, which is slightly longer but comes with a 600W PSU, removing the need for the $60 AthenaPower PSU used in our test system.

The rest isn't that exciting. AVADirect continues their tradition of equipping review units with 128GB Corsair Nova SSDs, and we can't complain, though we might suggest going with a larger mechanical drive just to have the storage space required for gaming: 128GB just isn't enough. There's also an attractive slot-loading DVD writer, and a staggering 470-watt Mini-ITX power supply from AthenaPower. The company isn't exactly reputable but they're pretty much the only ones making small power supplies with enough juice to feed a Radeon HD 5870.

Oh yeah, there's a stonking big Sapphire Vapor-X Radeon HD 5870 in the case. That third-party cooling system is pretty much essential for cooling the 5870 inside the tiny SilverStone Sugo SG06 case; that, and the ventilation on the side that brings cool air from outside the case into the card. Fitting the Radeon into the case is really the crowning achievement of the AVADirect Nano Cube, and the case actually feels stuffed.


AT&T Will Be Exclusive Carrier for Windows Phone 7

New Windows Phone 7 Series smartphones from Samsung, LG and HTC will be exclusive to AT&T, starting Oct. 11. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 debut on AT&T is critical in a competitive market led by Apple and Android devices. With Microsoft's share of the mobile market at five percent, analysts are skeptical that Windows Phone 7 will revive it.

Microsoft plans to unveil smartphones that run its Windows Phone 7 Series operating system on Oct. 11. The software giant is partnering with AT&T to roll out new devices from Samsung, LG Electronics, and HTC.

The Wall Street Journal cited people familiar with the matter in detailing the planned New York launch and smaller events in other key cities. Microsoft is hoping to rebound in an increasingly competitive smartphone operating-system market where Apple and Android devices have been gaining ground on established players.

"This is a very critical launch for Microsoft," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "Developers have actually been pretty positive about the platform. People who have seen the phone are pleasantly surprised about how good it is and are hoping for an alternative to the other devices that are out there, specifically Apple. The success is going to depend an awful lot on the hardware end."

Windows Phone 7 Defined

The Journal said AT&T has an exclusive on Windows Phone 7 devices, which won't include any hardware from Microsoft itself. Microsoft tried its hand at smartphone manufacturing with the KIN, which sold on Verizon Wireless and failed in the first six weeks. But KIN didn't sport Windows Phone 7.

Windows Phone 7 works to consolidate common tasks and services in shared hubs so consumers don't have to move in and out of smartphone apps. It's no surprise that Microsoft's search engine Bing is built into the phone.

Every phone that uses the operating system will offer a dedicated hardware button for Bing to give users one-click access to search from anywhere on the phone. And a special implementation of Bing search provides intent-specific results, delivering the most relevant web or local results, depending on the type of query.

Microsoft has developed what it calls dynamically updated "live tiles" that show real-time content Relevant Products/Services. This flies in the face of traditional static icons that offer stepping stones to an application. With social networking in mind, the Start screen lets users create a tile of a friend and get a readable, up-to-date view of the friend's latest picture and posts.

Another Phone 7 differentiator is hubs, which bring together applications, services and related content from the web into a single view to streamline user tasks. Microsoft has developed six theme-based hubs: People, Pictures, Games, Music and Video, Marketplace and Office. The operating system will come with Zune integration Relevant Products/Services.

Too Late for Microsoft?

Some analysts are skeptical that Phone 7 will breathe new life into Microsoft's mobile Relevant Products/Services strategy. Gartner reports Microsoft's share of the smartphone operating-system market has dipped to five percent. Microsoft held 9.3 percent just a year ago. But Enderle said it's never too late in the smartphone game.

"Apple entered the smartphone market way late. And we had smartphones in the market for several years before Apple brought out the iPhone. We clearly had some players that were thought to be unstoppable -- Nokia and Research In Motion -- and Apple swept in without any trouble at all and carved out a segment," Enderle said.

"Now Nokia, the most powerful wireless Relevant Products/Services company in the world, is on the ropes. If nothing else, this demonstrates that the smartphone market is anything but stable," he added. "Smartphone penetration is still a relatively small percentage of overall cell phones. It's still anybody's game."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alienware's M17x: Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire Is A Go

The second incarnation of Alienware’s M17x is creating lots of excitement amongst mobile gaming enthusiasts, but does it really beat a field of premium models? We put it up against solutions from Eurocom and AVADirect to find out what CrossFire can do.

A lot of folks in the press cheered about the release of Alienware’s second-generation M17x notebook a year ago. But more than a few enthusiasts spurned its use of G92-based graphics (alright, you can count us among those disappointed enthusiasts).

And yet, the new chassis was just one step this formerly cutting-edge brand took to rebuild its reputation in the enthusiast notebook market. The company left plenty of room to grow as mobile technology advanced. As such, we now get to welcome AMD's Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire update.

We like Alienware’s special-edition Nebula Red finish, in spite of our notions about alien spacecraft always being grey (since uncharged paint stays behind during transdimensional shifts). Of course, we wouldn’t even bother discussing the finish outside unless hardware inside made a compelling case for a full system review. Not surprisingly, it does.

Alienware M17x Component List
PlatformIntel PGA988, PM55 Express, MXM-III Discrete Graphics
CPUIntel Core i7-920XM Quad-Core 2.00-3.20 GHz
2.5 GT/s DMI, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, 45 nm, 55 W TDP
RAM4 GB (2 x 2 GB) Samsung M471B5673FH0-CH9 SODIMM
DDR3-1333, CL9, 1.5 V, Non-ECC
GraphicsDual ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870, 1 GB GDDR5, CrossFire
Display17" Glossy TFT, 1920x1200
Webcam2.0 Megapixel
AudioIntegrated HD Audio
SecurityFace Detection Software
Hard Drive2 x Seagate ST9500420AS, 500 GB, 7200 RPM, SATA 3Gb/s, RAID 0
Optical DriveLG CA10N Blu-ray Reader / DVD Writer Combo Drive
Media Drive8-in-1 Flash Media Interface
Wireless LANIntel Ultimate-N 6300, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n, 11/54/450 Mb/s
Wireless PANInternal Bluetooth V2.0 +EDR Module
Gigabit NetworkBuilt-in 10/100/1000 Mb/s Ethernet
IEEE-1394Integrated IEEE-1394 FireWire 400 controller
TelephonyIntegrated 56K V90/92 Fax/Modem
Peripheral Interfaces
USB5 x USB 2.0 (One shared with eSATA)
Expansion Card1 x ExpressCard 54
HDD1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
AudioHeadphone, Microphone, Line-In, Digital Out Jacks
VideoVGA, HDMI, DisplayPort
Power & Weight
AC Adapter220 W Power Brick, 100-240V AC to 19V DC
Battery14.8 V 4650 mAh (68.82 Wh) Single
WeightNotebook 12.3 lbs, AC Adapter 2.1 lbs, Total 14.4 pounds
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit Edition, OEM
WarrantyStandard 1-Year Warranty (Add $299 for 3-Year Extended)

Delivered more than two months ago, Alienware’s Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire update languished while we collected hardware that'd serve as a suitable comparison. The new M17x looks great in both photos and specifications, but does it really outperform its $3000+ rivals?

A continuous plastic sheet covers the M17x 17” display, its frame, and an integrated webcam. Alienware bests most competitors by retaining the classic 1920x1200 panel resolution, even as the rest of the industry downshifts to 1080p.


The keyboard, touchpad, and front-vent lighting feature a user-configuration color palet of Quasar Blue, Astral Aqua, Mars Red, Terra Green, and Plasma Purple.


A touchpad above the keyboard provides hardware control, eliminating the need for switches that we've previously seen wired to the sides of other notebooks.


An impressive selection of video outputs allows M17x users to easily attach VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort monitors. Also found on the left edge are gigabit Ethernet, dual USB 2.0, an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, and an IEEE-1394 FireWire mini-port.


The M17x's power connects at the back, while the remainder of this edge is used for ventilation.


On the right edge, Alienware includes the ExpressCard 54 slot missing from its recently-reviewed supersized competitor, but does not include that competitor’s USB 3.0 ports. A similarly-capable flash media drive is found between those interfaces, and a more convenient slot-loaded BRD/DVD-RW combo drive is located beneath them. Towards the rear, twin headphone connections allow M17x users to share music and movies privately with a friend.

The M17x was originally scheduled to go up against AVADirect’s Core i7-820XM notebook, but arrived with a faster Core i7-920XM processor. In order to make this a fair comparison, we held onto the system until Eurocom’s i7-940XM units arrived. Today, we get to see how well Alienware’s $3900 configuration fits between $3100 AVADirect and $4100 Eurocom competition.

Test System Configuration
Alienware M17x CPUIntel Core i7-920XM PGA988, 2.00-3.20 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
AVADirect W880CU CPUIntel Core i7-820QM PGA998, 1.73-3.06 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Eurocom X8100 CPUIntel Core i7-940XM PGA988, 2.13-3.33 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
Alienware RAM2 x Samsung M471B5673FH0-CH9 (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24, 4 GB Total
AVADirect RAM2 x Kingston KVR1333D3S9/2G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24. 4 GB Total
Eurocom RAM2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 7-7-7-20 4 GB Total
Mobility Radeon
2 x AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5870 1 GB, CrossFire
700 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000
GeForce Mobile
Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M 2 GB
425 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2400
Alienware Hard Drive2 x Seagate ST9500420AS, RAID 0
500 GB, 7200 RPM, 16 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s
AVADirect Hard DriveCorsair CSSD-V128GB2-BRKT, 128 GB MLC, SATA 3Gb/s SSD
Eurocom Hard DriveCrucial RealSSD C300, 256 GB MLC, SATA 6Gb/s SSD
SoundIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking
PowerFSP 19 V 11.57 A (220 W) Power Block
14.8 V 4650 mAh (68.82 Wh) Battery
OSMicrosoft Windows 7 64-bit
GraphicsAlienware Version 8.692.2-100203a1-095371C-Dell
Eurocom Version 8.75-100527a-100755E-Clevo
AVADirect Version 257.07
Desktop Version 10.3
ChipsetIntel INF

Each notebook manufacturer customizes its graphics drivers to fit the unique designs of its graphics modules. Though Alienware’s driver appears older than Eurocom’s, it was still the released version available at the time of our September tests. Its parent company Dell therefore takes the credit for any effect the lower-numbered driver has on gaming performance.

Bear in mind that AMD now offers universal drivers for its mobile products, following Nvidia's example. These aren't always guaranteed to work, though. On two different occasions, we've been unable to install the GeForce drives on Clevo-based notebook models. Most recently, this was the case with the GeForce GTX 480M tested here. You're of course welcome to try these universal packages when they work, but to keep our comparison even, we used the latest driver from each system vendor at the time of writing. Note that Alienware released a newer driver after testing on its unit was completed. With that said, you'll notice that Alienware already dominates the benchmarks, so performance can only get better from here.

We also retained the desktop performance data from our first Mobility Radeon 5870 review to see if high-end gaming notebooks can reach the performance expectations of mainstream gamers. This is no trivial feat, since notebook components must be designed to generate minimum heat. The desktop platform is based on a Core i7-920 CPU, Radeon HD 5850, and 6 GB of DDR3-1333 CAS 7.

Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2Campaign, Act III, Second Sun (45 sec. FRAPS)
Test Set 1: Highest Settings, No AA
Test Set 2: Highest Settings, 4x AA
CrysisPatch 1.2.1, DirectX 10, 64-bit executable, benchmark tool
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Very High Quality, 4x AA
DiRT 2Run with -benchmark example_benchmark.xml
Test Set 1: High Quality Preset, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset, 4x AA
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of PripyatCall Of Pripyat Benchmark version
Test Set 1: High Preset, DX11 EFDL, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, DX11 EFDL, 4x MSAA
Audio/Video Encoding
iTunesVersion: x64
Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 min
Default format AAC
HandBrake 0.9.4Version 0.9.4, convert first .vob file from The Last Samurai (1 GB) to .mp4, High Profile
TMPGEnc 4.0 XPressVersion:
Import File: Terminator 2 SE DVD (5 Minutes)
Resolution: 720x576 (PAL) 16:9
DivX Codec 6.9.1Encoding mode: Insane Quality
Enhanced multithreading enabled using SSE4
Quarter-pixel search
Xvid 1.2.2Display encoding status = off
MainConcept Reference 1.6.1MPEG2 to MPEG2 (H.264), MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG2), Audio: MPEG2 (44.1 KHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 Kb/s), Mode: PAL (25 FPS)
Adobe Photoshop CS4Version: 11.0 x64, Filter 15.7 MB TIF Image
Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Autodesk 3ds Max 2010Version: 11.0 x64, Rendering Dragon Image at 1920x1080 (HDTV)
Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus 9.0Version: 9.0.663, Virus base: 270.14.1/2407, Benchmark: Scan 334 MB Folder of ZIP/RAR compressed files
WinRAR 3.90Version x64 3.90, Dictionary = 4,096 KB, Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
7-ZipVersion 4.65: Format=Zip, Compression=Ultra, Method=Deflate, Dictionary Size=32 KB, Word Size=128, Threads=8
Benchmark: THG-Workload (334 MB)
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark VantageVersion: 1.0.1, GPU and CPU scores

Before we move on to the all-important game tests, we wanted to see what effect Alienware’s surprise lead in Sandra might have in CPU-constrained applications. We begin with Apple iTunes, which has proven itself to be poorly threaded and frequency-bound in most of our previous reviews.

The 3.2 GHz M17x should fall slightly behind the 3.33 GHz Leopard, unless the Leopard isn’t using its maximum Turbo multiplier effectively. We checked it, and found that while the system did occasionally reach 3.3 GHz, it more often ran at 3.2 GHz under light single-threaded loads.

Whether a result of cooling or programming, better engineering puts the lower-clocked M17x ahead of the faster X8100 in HandBrake. Though the difference is small, the victory of a less-expensive part is significant in this well-threaded application.

DivX results are atypical for the M17x, and that’s a problem we’ve seen before in our System Builder Marathons. We don’t change anything during the benchmark’s installation, but will point out that this particular benchmark only shows inconsistent results rarely. Xvid shows realistic results while running under the same TMPGEnc installation.

The super-expensive notebooks almost catch the desktop in MainConcept, and the X8100 again appears to throttle its CPU slightly.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 appears significantly CPU-restricted on the X8100 Leopard, while the M17x unleashes its same-spec graphics cards.

Anti-aliasing shifts much of the load limit back to graphics, allowing the X8100 Leopard’s newer graphics driver to outmaneuver the M17x at our maximum test setting. Note that at 1080p, both “big” notebooks blow past the mid-priced desktop.

Yes, they can play Crysis, even at the panel’s native resolution!

…but perhaps not with AA enabled…

We’ve noticed Alienware’s better use of CPU performance potential and Eurocom’s slightly newer graphics driver before, but DiRT 2 is the first game to show a significant deficit due to the older driver. Both systems are completely playable at 1920x1080, fortunately.

Crank up the visuals, add anti-aliasing, and watch as both notebooks continue to push smooth frame rates at 1080p.

Eurocom’s improved driver doesn’t appear to make much difference in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. A frame rate minimum (from our test notes) of 17-18 FPS for both Alienware and Eurocom at our highest test setting would prompt us to drop AA in order to keep the super-high details.

While we used a rather basic mid-priced desktop as a reference point for today’s top-performing notebooks, it’s clear that the notebooks have a big lead in portability. It’s also clear that nobody is going to carry around a huge PC, separate monitor, and enormous uninterruptable power supply in their backpack.

Thus, while any gaming notebook’s battery life is certainly less-than-spectacular by mobile standards, all three portables are stellar by desktop standards. Alienware has the biggest battery but, unfortunately, the slowest-charging circuit.

Alienware could have gone further, but a hidden setting in firmware prevented it from operating at anything less than 12% charge. Windows is set to initiate power savings at 7% and hibernate at 5%, but we simply stopped our tests at 7% on the other two units.

And now for the weird part: the desktop’s single graphics card appears to consume less energy than the pair of low-wattage cards used in both notebooks. The reason we say "appears” is that there’s no way to measure exactly how much of the desktop’s additional energy is going to the platform that supports its card, and we can only guess that’s it’s more than the 18 W difference in “full GPU load” measurements.

Efficiency is a comparison of energy to work, and the M17x works nearly as well as the mid-level desktop. Eurocom’s X8100 Leopard is slightly behind, in spite of its higher-model processor and higher-numbered graphics driver.

An amazing parity of efficiency is found between AVADirect’s $3100 notebook and Eurocom’s $4100 version. Alienware leads slightly, while the desktop falls far behind.

While we used a rather basic mid-priced desktop as a reference point for today’s top-performing notebooks, it’s clear that the notebooks have a big lead in portability. It’s also clear that nobody is going to carry around a huge PC, separate monitor, and enormous uninterruptable power supply in their backpack.

Thus, while any gaming notebook’s battery life is certainly less-than-spectacular by mobile standards, all three portables are stellar by desktop standards. Alienware has the biggest battery but, unfortunately, the slowest-charging circuit.

Alienware could have gone further, but a hidden setting in firmware prevented it from operating at anything less than 12% charge. Windows is set to initiate power savings at 7% and hibernate at 5%, but we simply stopped our tests at 7% on the other two units.

And now for the weird part: the desktop’s single graphics card appears to consume less energy than the pair of low-wattage cards used in both notebooks. The reason we say "appears” is that there’s no way to measure exactly how much of the desktop’s additional energy is going to the platform that supports its card, and we can only guess that’s it’s more than the 18 W difference in “full GPU load” measurements.

Efficiency is a comparison of energy to work, and the M17x works nearly as well as the mid-level desktop. Eurocom’s X8100 Leopard is slightly behind, in spite of its higher-model processor and higher-numbered graphics driver.

An amazing parity of efficiency is found between AVADirect’s $3100 notebook and Eurocom’s $4100 version. Alienware leads slightly, while the desktop falls far behind.

It might have taken us a few weeks to find a notebook worthy of comparing to Alienware’s highest-model M17x, but we think it was worth the wait. This $3900 model outperformed its $4100 competitor in a wide range of applications, and that sets us up for a revealing bang-for-the-buck comparison.

Using the cheapest system in today’s comparison as a reference point (100% value), the M17x beats the X8100 by around 10% in performance-per-dollar. Things get far closer when we compare only game benchmarks, but Alienware faithful will look forward to even bigger gains when its parent company Dell finally releases a graphics driver that’s at least as new as its competitor’s (Ed.: there actually is a newer driver available to M17x owners, as of the end of last month). Alternatively, you can give AMD's Catalyst 10.8 package a shot. The one specific game benchmark that pointed out Alienware’s older validated driver was still completely playable at full resolution and details though.

And this is the point where people must begin arguing about features. The X8100 comes with an enormous 18.4” display, but a 16:9 widescreen ratio means it has little if any more surface area than the M17x’s 16:10 ratio 17” version. And while Eurocom buyers can still brag that their wider screens make small text easier to read, Alienware owners can counter that the extra 230,400 pixels enabled by the machine’s 1920x1200 display make it easier to edit photos.

Perhaps the most powerful argument in favor of the X8100 is its inclusion of USB 3.0. Those ports are so common on high-end laptops that the lack of such an important feature moving forward could be considered a mark against Alienware, overall. Yet, an even stronger argument can be made against the X8100’s lack of any ExpressCard slot. Alienware M17x owners could use theirs to add a USB 3.0 controller of course, but an even more significant “killer app” is the possible addition of a 3G ExpressCard modem. After all, who would want to leave a USB modem sticking out of a notebook as large and heavy as either of these?

And so Alienware at least matches its closest rival from the hardware perspective, while providing better overall performance, efficiency, and value. Our only regret is that we weren’t able to find a competing model for today’s review while this M17x unit still had its factory-fresh smell.


CyberPower Gamer Xtreme 8500: How Far Can SLI 450's Go?

I'll cut right to the chase and say "Xtreme" doesn't cut it for the CyberPower Gamer Xtreme 8500 we have on hand. Pretty much everything targeted to gamers these days promises some measure of extremity or extreme-ness, and usually that just amounts to a ceaseless amount of gloss, poor choices in system balancing, and exorbitant price tags. There isn't anything too extreme or excessive about this unit; what we have is something that looks a little flashy, a little glossy, but ultimately very well-tuned. Hopefully, it'll feel good for the price, too.

CYBERPOWER Gamer Xtreme 8500 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-875K @ 3.85GHz (160MHz Bclk with x24 multiplier)
(spec: 4x2.9GHz, 45nm, 8MB L3, 95W)
Motherboard ASUS P7P55D-E Pro Motherboard with P55 chipset
Memory 2x2GB Kingston HyperX DDR3-1600 @ 1600MHz (expandable to 16GB)
Graphics 2x eVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTS 450 SuperClocked 1024MB GDDR5 in SLI
(192 CUDA Cores, 882MHz Core, 1764MHz Shader, 3.8GHz Memory, 128-bit memory bus)
Hard Drive(s) Intel X25-V 40GB SSD (OS drive)
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gbps (Data drive)
Optical Drive(s) Samsung 8x BD-ROM/DVD+/-RW
Networking Realtek Gigabit Ethernet
Audio VIA VT1828S HD Audio
speaker, mic, line-in, and surround jacks for 7.1 sound
Front Side AeroCool Touch 2000 Fan Controller
Optical Drive
MMC/SD/CF/MS reader
Top 2x USB 2.0
eSATA port
Headphone and mic jacks
Power and reset buttons
Fan controllers
Back Side 2x PS/2
S/PDIF and TOSlink digital audio jacks
6-pin FireWire ports
6x USB 2.0
2x USB 3.0 (blue)
Gigabit Ethernet jack
Speaker, mic, line-in, and surround jacks
4x DVI-D
2x Mini-HDMI
AC Power
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 18" x 17" x 8" (WxDxH)
Weight 16 lbs (case only)
Extras 750W Corsair TX750 Power Supply
Asetek 570LX 240mm Liquid Cooling
XION Predator Case
Touch-based fan controller
Flash reader (MMC/MS/CF/SD)
Overclocked from warehouse
Warranty 3-year limited warranty and lifetime phone support
Pricing Quoted Price: $1,499
Price as configured (9/13/2010): $1,715

Let's start with the sexiest part of the 8500 (I refuse to type the word "Xtreme" any more than I have to): the impressive factory overclock on the Intel Core i7-875K. Socket 1156 may be on its way out, but the 875K is sending it out with a bang. A combination of overclocking the base clock of the chip and raising its multiplier has produced a very healthy 3.85GHz overclock, up from a stock speed of 2.93GHz. Modern games paired with powerful graphics solutions can still produce bottlenecks at the CPU; CyberPower seems to have done everything they can to ensure this isn't an issue. To ensure the extra heat associated with such a hefty overclock is handled properly and quietly, an Asetek 570LX liquid cooling system is built in.

Strapped to the i7-875K is 4GB of choice Kingston HyperX DDR3 running at 1600MHz. While going up to 8GB is getting more affordable by the day, 4GB is still an industry standard and the configuration shouldn't suffer too badly for it. What's really interesting is the pair of spanking new eVGA GeForce GTS 450 SuperClocked cards slotted in a ASUS P55-based motherboard (a board that comes with all the modern trimmings, by the way). These cards both ship from the factory with an extra 100MHz on the core. Ryan wasn't hugely impressed with the GTS 450 and I can't blame him, but a pair in SLI have the chance to produce an excellent alternative to more expensive single-GPU setups. (Our GPU testing indicates performance better than HD 5850 and GTX 465, and similar to GTX 470 and HD 5870—win some, lose some but never by a huge margin.)

The rest of the build seems fairly smart and well-balanced: while write performance on the 40GB Intel X25-V SSD is pretty poor and the capacity might be too cramped for some to use as an operating system drive, read performance and random access are both stellar. That SSD is backed up with one of the new SATA 6Gbps Western Digital terabyte drives with 64MB of cache to be used as a data drive. Rounding things out are a blu-ray combo drive and a media card reader on the front panel, and a generous 750-watt Corsair power supply. The remaining two drive bays on the front are taken up with a touch-based fan controller that is perhaps better left untouched.


DOT Chief Blasts Report That Calls Texting Bans Pointless

An insurance industry report contends that state bans on drivers texting are pointless, but that view has been challenged by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. A previous report from the Highway Loss Data Institute found cell-phone use dangerous. HLDI chief Adrian Lund called for a new approach. An AAA spokesman said enforcing texting bans is more difficult.

The U.S. secretary of transportation is blasting an insurance industry report that says state bans on texting while driving are pointless, calling the report's assertion that drivers will find other distractions "ridiculous." The report by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) was released Tuesday.

Another report by its parent, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, looked at accident reports in some of the 30 states (in addition to the District of Columbia and the territory of Guam) that ban texting behind the wheel. It found no reductions in crashes after the laws took effect.

Off Course

But Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in his official blog, the Fast Lane, responded that the report proves nothing.

"There are numerous flaws with this 'study,' but the most obvious is that they have created a cause and effect that simply doesn't exist," he wrote. He noted previous data Relevant Products/Services from the same group that found people who use handheld devices while driving are four times more likely to injure themselves.

Laws against texting while driving were enacted in California in January 2009; in Louisiana in July 2008; in Minnesota in August 2008, and in Washington state in January 2008. In conducting the study, the HLDI calculated the rate of collision claims for vehicles up to nine years old during the months immediately before and after the laws passed. It then collected comparable data in nearby states without bans. The data was adjusted to control for possible changes in claim rates unrelated to the bans, such as longer commutes and seasonal travel.

"Texting bans haven't reduced crashes at all," said Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted. It's an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws."

Since a previous study by Lund's group suggested that cell-phone bans don't decrease the number of crashes, he said policy-makers need a new approach to the problem of distracted drivers.

Matter of Penetration

A New York spokesperson for the American Automobile Association, Robert Sinclair, said the insurance institute's findings were "ludicrous." He added that the data may not have shown a reduction in crashes because the number of people who text on a daily basis increases each year.

"It may just be a matter of penetration," said Sinclair. "We did a study on distracted driving back in 2003, and texting wasn't even an issue then. But it's ludicrous to expect to see instant results from laws. Should we say that laws against handheld cell phones or mandating child safety seats and against drunk driving are useless because people still get hurt?"

He added that texting bans, as opposed to laws against using a handheld cell phone while driving, which are in force in eight states, are more difficult to enforce because the activity is less visible to police.

"You're talking about a device that is on your lap rather than pressed up against the side of your head," Sinclair said.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gigabyte Crowns An Overclocking Champion For 2010

Gigabyte's GO OC finals came to a conclusion over the weekend. Europe's dominance of the overclocking scene was retained, while a Hong Kong native came up short. Check out how using obscene amounts of LN2 can bring you a couple thousand dollars.

Gigabyte’s six-month effort to find and crown a champion came to a conclusion in Taiwan this weekend during the Gigabyte Open Overclocking Championship 2010 (GO OC). What came between the 15 hopefuls who made it to the finals and the first prize? Several hours of liquid-nitrogen overclocking action.


9:28:26 - The finalists and media reps that flew in arrived at the contest venue, Huashan Creative Park. All the pre-chosen hardware was already set up in each contestant’s station, and the overclockers spent the next hour or so unpacking the components and breadboarding their rigs.


11:41:31 - A team gong strike by executives representing the chief sponsors and startling pyrotechnics marked the official start of GO OC. The finalists would attempt to attain the highest benchmark scores possible within the next four hours and 50 minutes. These extreme overclockers only had their experience, personalized tool sets, and luck (according to one competitor) to count on. At least all the players enjoyed an endless supply of liquid nitrogen.

12:08:48 - Mihatoiu Costin Matel from Romania (Matose) set the pace. His wPrime time of 2.827 seconds gave him a clear lead over Juan Sebastian Campos of Colombia (e-Killer; 2.969) and Nikočević Dušan from Serbia (Perica_barii; 3.000). They were the only three who posted times at this point, leaving the scoreboard mostly blank. Shortly after, Yeong Tak Kin from Hong Kong (stephenyeong) slotted into second by virtue of his 2.828 wPrime score.


12:41:03 - As other competitors started posting times, it became clear that Matose was the man to beat. By the time he ranked first in two benchmarks (PiFast: 14.080 seconds and MaxxMEM: 23,653 MB/s), stephenyeong maintained his placing with a 14.130 PiFast value, while Jeremy Clifton from the United States (sno.Icn) placed third (PiFast: 15.160, wPrime: 2.906, and MaxxMEM: 21, 720).

13:45:26 - Matose maintained his first-place ranking even as he lost a crown to Shahriar Barani from Iran. Shahryar_NEO set the MaxxMEM bar at 26,576.

14:20:20 - A welcome diversion, at least for the legions of photographers at the event: four Chinese beauties clad only in bikini tops and skimpy shorts, took the stage to introduce themselves.


14:41:13 - Matose finally lost his PiFast crown. However, the Romanian was a picture of consistency. While none of his benchmarks (PiFast: 13.920, SuperPI: 32.609, wPrime: 2.827, and MaxxMEM: 26105) ranked the highest, his scores were still high enough for him to maintain the overall lead. Yu Meng Yao of China (speedtime.wing) inherited top-dog PiFast status with 13.910. e-Killer grabbed the SuperPI crown with a 6:27.750 score. stephenyeong and American Michael Graf (mikeguava) were tied for first in the wPrime race with 2.749, while Belgium’s Pieter-Jan Plaisier (Massman) held the MaxxMEM fort with 26,741. With the competition more than halfway done, more benchmarks appeared on the scoreboard.

15:41:20 - By dropping .100 seconds from his PiFast time, stephenyeong pushed speedtime.wing down to third. With less than an hour left, the finalists scrambled to maximize their scores. By this time, stephenyeong started concentrating on producing a MaxxMEM benchmark, the only score lacking from his score line.

16:05:03 - A small crowd started gathering around stephenyeong, wondering whether he’d be able to generate a MaxxMEM benchmark. With a good score, the Hong Kong native would’ve built a big lead over Matose. However, the Romanian wasn’t sitting pretty, concentrating on upping his PiFast value.


16:19:31 - With a little less than 16 minutes left in the competition, Matose sealed the deal. By resolving his PiFast benchmark within 13.830 seconds, he managed to solidify his lead over stephenyeong. speedtime.wing ended up tying with Rekky (Jengkol) from Indonesia. However, by virtue of the former’s faster PiFast time, the rankings remain unchanged.

16:29:32 - Even with the scoreboard turned off during the final minutes of the competition to keep the winner a secret until the official awards ceremony, stephenyeong went down fighting. He finally managed to get MaxxMEM to finish properly. Unfortunately, his score wasn’t enough to overcome Matose. Game, set, and match for the Romanian!


16:56:21 - Rankings remained consistent during the last 15 minutes of the competition—even before the scoreboard went dark. The announcement that Matose was the GO OC 2010 World Champion was a formality. By this time, he had proudly waved the Romanian tri-color on stage and hoisted his trophy. The winner was flanked by stephenyeong and speedtime.wing, who placed second and third, respectively.

We’ll post screenshots of Matose’s setup soon, so stay tuned!


Netbook and Tablet Fever at IDF 2010

Here at IDF, Intel has been promoting the Atom platform pretty heavily, with the new dual core Atom N550 and all of the new Moorestown-based chips like the CE4200 and E6xx series. They’ve been demoing quite a few of the latest netbooks and tablets from their partners, including the OpenPeak Moorestown device we looked at on Monday, but for the most part the devices have been running Pine Trail, like the WeTab from yesterday's keynote.

On the netbook side of the mobile device booth, they had an array of some of the newer netbooks, all stuff that’s been already released. A couple were running MeeGo v1.0, and most of them had the Atom N450 underhood. The only really interesting ones were the Asus EeePC 1015PEM and the not-sold-in-America LG X140, both of which were fitted with the dual core N550. Intel was showing off the newfound 1080p playback ability for the dual core-equipped netbooks, a feat that previously required the Broadcom Crystal HD chip. Unfortunately, HD Flash video is still a no-go, and even videos playing from the hard drive max out the CPU and still manage to drop a few frames here and there. So dual core Atom netbooks can handle 1080p playback....kind of.

The tablets were more interesting, with a number of different Windows-based slates to go along with the MeeGo-based WeTab. All of them were running the N450, 1GB of memory, and 10.1” and 11.6” screens. The ExoPC slate was on hand, with its custom UI layer built on top of the standard Windows 7 desktop manager. The ExoPC was the tablet used in the WiDi demo from Paul Otellini’s opening keynote, which raises some interesting theories as to what kind of hardware requirements exist for WiDi capability. There was also a 4G-enabled ExoPC unit at Intel’s WiMAX booth. Beyond that was the rare sighting of a JooJoo tablet, along with some other Windows tablets designed by Chinese vendors.

I don’t think that Pine Trail is the right platform for tablets - Windows is too heavy and cumbersome as is to offer a good user experience, and a custom skin like Exo PC’s only adds to the performance hit that Windows brings with it. Even when running MeeGo, the battery life offered by Pine Trail tablets is pretty poor, usually only around 6 hours. This simply isn’t enough to deal with the level of mobility the tablet market demands, and as such we find ourselves looking at devices that are basically updated UMPCs. Moorestown and Oak Trail based tablets running lighter operating systems like MeeGo or Android 3.0 are where the future of Intel internet tablets lie.