Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mobility Radeon Vs. GeForce M: The CrossFire Advantage

Nvidia sells the fastest mobile graphics processor you can buy, but notebook manufactures can fit two of AMD’s top modules in in the same space. Eurocom’s X8100 Leopard answers the question: can two Mobility Radeon HD 5870 modules beat a single GTX 480M?

Using custom components to make alternative hardware work with existing platforms, mobility specialist Eurocom builds some of the most sophisticated notebook configurations in the high-end market.

The company’s latest engineering triumph adds the most powerful gaming and professional graphics configurations to a Clevo X8100 chassis that was originally designed to house a pair of Nvidia G92-based cards. Now, the GeForce GTX 480M and a pair of Mobility Radeon HD 5870 modules top the company's gaming options.


An 18.4” screen means the X8100 Leopard is far from compact. Most of its internal space is devoted to hardware like the dual MXM Type-III graphics bays and three dedicated hard drive bays that, when factored in alongside a specially-available optical drive bay adapter, enable four hard drives to support RAID 10.

Eurocom X8100 Component List
PlatformIntel PGA988, PM55 Express, MXM-III Discrete Graphics
CPUIntel Core i7-940XM Quad-Core 2.13-3.33 GHz, 2.5 GT/s QPI, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache, 45 nm, 55 W
RAMKingston 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 SO-DIMM, CL7, 1.5 V, Non-ECC
GraphicsDual ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870, 1 GB GDDR5, CrossFire
Single Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M, 2 GB GDDR5
Display18.4" "Full HD" Glossy TFT, 1920x1080
Webcam2.0 Megapixel
AudioIntegrated HD Audio
SecurityBuilt-in Fingerprint Reader
Hard DriveCrucial RealSSD C300 256 GB, MLC, 2.5-Inch, SATA 6Gb/s SSD
Up to four 2.5" drives supported internally in RAID 0, 1, and 10
Optical DriveLG CT10N Blu-ray Reader / DVD Writer Combo Drive
Media Drive7-in-1 Flash Media Interface
Wireless LANIntel Ultimate-N 6300, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n, 11/54/450 Mb/s
Wireless PANOptional Internal Bluetooth V2.0 +EDR Module (not included)
Gigabit NetworkBuilt-in 10/100/1000 Mb/s Ethernet
IEEE-1394Integrated IEEE-1394 FireWire 400 controller
Peripheral Interfaces
USB4 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB 3.0
Expansion CardInternal Only
HDD1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
AudioHeadphone, Microphone, Line-In, Digital Out Jacks
Video1 x Dual-Link DVI-I w/VGA Adapter, 1 x HDMI
Power & Weight
AC Adapter220 W Power Brick, 100-240 V AC to 19 V DC
Battery14.8 V 4650 mAh (68.82 Wh) Single
WeightNotebook 11.8 lbs, AC Adapter 2.2 lbs, Total 14.0 pounds
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit Edition, OEM
WarrantyStandard 1-Year Warranty (Add $259 for 3-Year Extended)
Price$4196 with Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire
$4385 with GeForce GTX 480M

The X8100 Leopard can change its spots from red to green by supporting the full range of Radeon, GeForce, and Quadro FX graphics cards. The only caveat is that two first-generation Fermi processors are too hot for this chassis, even when reduced to mobile graphics specifications. Two Radeon HD 5870 graphics modules reach the cooling limits of X8100 chassis, and adding Intel’s high-flying i7-940XM takes us to its power limits. Anyone who needs the cooling benefits of a thicker chassis to support more powerful hardware should consider desktop hardware-based notebooks like Eurocom’s new Panther 2.0.

The Leopard comes with a high-gloss finish on most surfaces, perfect for showing off your favorite finger prints. While many of these surfaces are gleaming black, the lid appears to have a “black chrome” insert under a layer of clear acrylic. The flashlight is not included.


A plethora of left-hand ports reduce cable clutter for right-handed mouse users. Included on this edge are DVI-I, USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI-out, a flash-media drive, USB 3.0, HDMI-in, IEEE-1394, and a buyer-selected optical drive.


That's right, we said HDMI in. The X8100 Leopard is designed to display external device output via HDMI pass-through, a feature that could be especially handy to anyone whose living quarters lack the room for a separate TV. The connector isn't purely passive, as it allows still shots, but it does require Windows to be running before any input can be displayed. Input resolutions and timings are mostly limited to the same standards used for televisions.


The Leopard is designed to blow heat away from the user, its large vents leaving only enough room for a single power connector on the rear edge.


Right-edge audio ports include headphone, microphone, line-in, and digital out. A coaxial connector supports an optional TV tuner card, and the top USB 2.0 port on this side doubles as eSATA 3Gb/s.


Nothing more than a blue outline visually separates the touchpad from the palm rest. Buttons and a fingerprint scanner separate an otherwise seamless surface.


The Leopard’s webcam is hidden smartly, behind a smooth panel the covers both the LCD and its frame.


Eight programmable buttons are added to a full-sized keypad which, fortunately, is not seamless.


A lighted power button is hidden on the side of the Leopard’s right top-panel hinge.

Test System Configuration
CPUIntel Core i7-940XM PGA988
2.13-3.33 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
RAM2 x Kingston KHX1333C7S3K2/4G (2 x 2 GB)
DDR3-1333 CAS 7-7-7-20 4 GB Total
GeForce Mobile
Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M 2 GB
425 MHz GPU Core, GDDR5-2400
Mobile Driver Version 257.07
Mobility Radeon
2 x ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870 1 GB, CrossFire
700 MHz GPU, GDDR5-4000
Mobile Driver Version 8.75-100527a-100755E-Clevo
System 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 Ultimate 64-bit
Desktop GraphicsAMD Catalyst 10.3
ChipsetIntel INF

Since our previous Mobility Radeon HD 5870 system used a slower CPU, we tested the current system in both CrossFire and non-CrossFire configurations. We physically removed the second graphics module for non-CrossFire mode to better-evaluate power consumption.

In addition to the new notebook performance data, we retained the desktop performance data from our first Mobility Radeon 5870 review to see if an extreme notebook can yet match the performance expectations of mainstream gamers. The 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
TMPEGEnc 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
PCMark VantageVersion: x64, System, Productivity, Hard Disk Drive benchmarks
SiSoftware Sandra 2010Version 2010.1.16.11, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / MultiMedia, Memory Test = Bandwidth Benchmark

While standard media-oriented applications might not appear important in a graphics configuration comparison, we’ve heard that CrossFire management can have a slight impact on a few of these tests. We also wanted to see how the top-end-mobile Core i7-940XM would stack up against our lowest-frequency desktop Core i7.

Lower is better for encoding times, and the mobile processor uses Intel’s top Turbo Boost mode to overwhelm the single-threaded Apple iTunes bench.

A lower non-Turbo speed hinders the mobile platform in the superbly-threaded HandBrake encoding test.

A lack of development has kept Xvid from taking advantage of four-core, eight-thread processors, and it appears that both the desktop and mobile processors run the same speed throughout that application. DivX usually isn’t the best example of a multi-threaded application, yet it beats Xvid in revealing the notebook processor’s heavy reliance on light-load Turbo Boost frequencies.

MainConcept shows, once again, that when all four cores are busy, the mobile processor isn’t able to use Turbo Boost to its advantage.

Intel’s flagship Core i7-940XM can’t feed data fast enough to a pair of Mobility Radeon HD 5870s, chopping Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 performance at 112 frames per second. Slightly less CPU overhead allows the GeForce GTX 480M to break past it at 720p. But all solutions are fast enough to push the screen’s native 1080p resolution.

Nothing more than a single Mobility Radeon HD 5870 is needed to play the game, even with AA enabled. AMD's CrossFire’s configuration at least looks better in the charts.

Crysis is the first game that we expected would actually need the second Mobility Radeon HD 5870. We had to drop it to “High” details just to make the other systems playable, and the CrossFire configuration pushes these same settings to 49.5 FPS at the screen’s native resolution.

Very High settings could have been an option, but not with AA enabled. We don’t want to play at 720p if we don’t have to, and many of us would rather give up AA than sacrifice detail levels.

DiRT 2 plays smoothly on the slowest system at 1080p and high details, while the CrossFire config is anxious for more.

The CrossFire configuration really shines at DiRT 2’s highest settings, while its GeForce GTX 480M rival bites the dust at anything higher than 720p.

The latest S.T.A.L.K.E.R. installment doesn’t need any fancy hardware to play reasonably well at its high-quality preset.

Adding AA to the Ultra preset is a different matter, as it nearly kills every system at settings higher than 720p. We did check the minimum frame rates as well, and only the CrossFire configuration stayed above 20 FPS at 1680x1050.

Since we just mentioned our middle test resolution for the first time, we might also want to mention that its 16:10 aspect ratio doesn’t match the monitor. Though 1600x900 is an option for both the flat panel display and the competing GeForce GTX 480M, AMD's Radeon (Catalyst) drivers don’t support it.

One of the big advantages Eurocom cites for the Mobility Radeon HD 5870 CrossFire configuration is its 55 W TDP per card, compared to 100 W TDP for a single GeForce GTX 480M. The idea is that you can get a performance gain greater than 10% from a power gain of less than 10%, while simultaneously improving thermal characteristics by spreading the heat across multiple die.

Yet we’re fairly certain that those TDP numbers are for the GPU, not the entire card, and that AMD and Nvidia use different methods to determine TDP. Rather than dwell on rated specs, a closer look at actual power consumption is needed.

The single GeForce GTX 480M configuration falls between the single- and dual-Mobility Radeon configurations in power consumption. That means the CrossFire configuration uses far more than 10% additional power compared to the single GTX 480M. That power is converted to heat, so Eurocom’s decision to forgo an SLI configuration appears wise.

The GeForce GTX 480M does have lower idle power, which makes it a slightly better choice for non-gaming on-the-go tasks like checking email.

We’ve seen how two Mobility Radeon HD 5870s generally outperform a single GeForce GTX 480M, but a chart of the average performance difference will further prove the point.

Eurocom’s X1800 Leopard is the first notebook we’ve seen to approach mid-priced gaming desktop standards in 3D performance, slamming the runner-up GTX 480M. Nearly as impressive is that two Mobility Radeon cards cost $189 less than a single 480M, while providing 43.5% more performance.

We probably could have guessed this six months ago, but the GF100 isn't really a GPU you want in a mobile system, even cut down to 352 CUDA cores and running at 425 MHz. Of course, the company recently unveiled a more complete GeForce 400M family composed of GF104, GF106, and GF108 GPUs. We've seen GF104 and GF106 improve Nvidia's position against AMD on the desktop. Perhaps those same derivative GPUs will help lend the company's mobile parts better performance, more conservative thermal properties, and lower cost, too.

Our special thanks goes to Mark Bialic of Eurocom for making the comparison of two vastly-different graphics configurations possible from the same notebook platform.

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