Since Intel unveiled its Core i7 quad-core mobile processors at IDF a couple weeks ago, several PC companies have announced mainstream and desktop replacement laptops using these Clarksfield chips. Many sites have reviewed the new platform--known as Calpella--in whitebox notebooks, but so far I haven't seen many reviews of real Core i7 laptops, partly because the industry is waiting on Windows 7.
Clarksfield is Intel's first mobile processor that uses the Nehalem microarchitecture, which means it has an integrated memory controller and supports DDR3, a faster type of memory that uses less power. These mobile versions also have an enhanced version of Turbo Mode, which dynamically boosts the clock speed of individual cores on certain tasks; HyperThreading (four cores and eight threads); and up to 8MB of shared cache. So far Intel has released three Clarksfield chips: the 2.0GHz Core i7-920XM, 1.73GHz Core i7-820QM and 1.60GHz Core i7-720QM. These are the fastest laptop chips Intel has ever manufactured with prices ranging from $364 to more than $1,000.
You won't find ultra-thin 13-inch laptops with these Core-i7 chips because they are simply too big and hot. But you'll still get some choice in terms of size and weight. The laptops already announced range in display size from 15-inches--where there are several models--all the way to Toshiba's Qosmio X505, which weighs more than 10 pounds and has an 18.4-inch display.
Here are some of the options from smallest to largest display:
Part of MSI's G series gaming laptops, the MSI GT640 has a 15.4-inch (1680x1050) display and Core i7 processors, and the company claims it is the "best performing notebook computer for gaming." MSI hasn't announced pricing, but we know the GT640 will offer up to 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GTS 250M graphics with 1GB and Blu-ray. With its black and red aluminum case, the GT640 weighs in at nearly 6 pounds.
Of the four Clarksfield laptops Dell is selling, three have 15.6-inch displays: the Alienware M15x, Studio 15 and Studio XPS 16 (they differ in terms of resolution and brightness). Not to be outdone by MSI, Dell bills the Alienware M15x as the "most powerful 15-inch gaming laptop in the universe," while the Studio and Studio XPS are geared more toward entertainment. The starting configurations for all three laptops include the Core i7-720QM and a 250GB hard drive. The Alienware M15x has a new design--carried over from the larger Alienware M17x--and starts at $1,499 with 3GB of memory and Nvidia GeForce GT 240M graphics with 512MB. The Studio 15 starts at $999 with 4GB of memory and ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4570 graphics with 512MB. And the Studio XPS 16 starts at $1,249 with the 4GB of memory and ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4670 graphics with 1GB. All three also offer the Core i7-820QM, but only the Alienware M15x can be configured with the top-of-the-line Core i7-920XM, for a whopping $950.
The HP Envy 15--part of a new premium laptop line that borrows its name from the moribund Voodoo Envy 133--is also a Core i7 system based on a 15.6-inch display. The Envy 15 is one of the more portable Core i7 laptops measuring one inch thick and weighing 5.2 pounds, and it has a sleek etched magnesium case and a large glass touchpad. But it also starts at $1,799. The exact specs are unclear (HP is taking pre-orders, but it doesn't ship until October 18), but novel options such as up to 16GB of memory and dual solid-state disks would push the price even higher.
The Asus G51J and G60J have nearly identical specs. Both offer either the Core i7-720QM or Core i7-820QM, up to 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 260M graphics with 1GB, one or two hard drives, and either a DVD burner or Blu-ray player. The difference is the display--the G51J has a 15.6-inch display (1920x1200) and the G60J has a 16-inch (1366x768) display. The Asus M60J is identical to the G60J, except that it has GeForce GTX 240M graphics with 1GB. All three notebooks have the same dimensions and weigh 7.3 pounds. Asus has not yet announced the pricing.
Moving up the ladder, there are two 17-inch models, the Dell Studio 17 and MSI's GT740. The Studio 17's display measures 17.3 inches and has a resolution of 1440x900. It starts at $1,099 with the Core i7-720QM, 4GB of memory, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650 graphics with 1GB, a 250GB hard drive and a big 9-cell battery. MSI announced the GT740 yesterday, and it hasn't disclosed the pricing or exact specs (since it is part of the gaming line, it's safe to assume it will be relatively high-priced). But we know it will have a 17-inch display, up to 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GTS 250M graphics with 1GB, a 250GB or larger hard drive and either a DVD drive or Blu-ray. One nice surprise is that it is relatively lightweight (for a full desktop replacement) at 7.1 pounds. By comparison the Dell Studio 17 has a starting weight of 7.9 pounds with a 6-cell battery.
That's nothing compared with the Qosmio X505, which has a travel weight of nearly 12 pounds including the power brick. Then again, if you want a laptop with an 18.4-inch display with a full HD resolution (1920x1080), you're probably not a frequent flier. The design is identical to the older Qosmio X305, but Toshiba has toned down the color scheme--this model is mostly glossy black with some red accents. The Qosmio is the one Clarksfield system that has actually gotten a couple of hands-on reviews. PC Magazine posted a review within days of Intel's announcement, but it is based on a pre-production model with the Core i7-820QM and dual 400GB 5,400rpm hard drives. This week Laptop Magazine published a review based on a final configuration with the Core i7-720QM, 6GB of memory, a 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive and 64GB SSD, and a Blu-ray player.
Both reviews found the overall performance was significantly better than what was arguably the fastest desktop replacement available, the Alienware M17x (PC Magazine wrote that the Qosmio X505 "made a mockery of the Core 2 Extreme processor in the Alienware M17x"). The caveat is that the Qosmio X505 has the Nvidia GeForce GTS 250M with 1GB, a very good but not top-of-the-line card, and Toshiba does not currently plan to offer higher-end GPUs. As a result, gaming laptops such as Alienware M17x, which can be configured with two GeForce GTX 280Ms, will still outperform the Qosmio X505 on 3D games, but these highly-specialized configurations cost thousands of dollars more. The Qosmio X505, as tested by Laptop Magazine, will cost $1,899.
These days, with netbooks and even some budget laptops under $400, that still qualifies as a very high-priced laptop. Considering this is easily Intel's most powerful laptop chip, though, the starting prices on this first crop of notebooks of $900 to just under $2,000 seem reasonable. Intel is hoping that there are enough users out there that still care enough about performance to spend more. If not, there's always the 32nm Arrandale just around the corner.