With netbooks in 2012 on the verge of extinction, ultrabooks stealing the limelight and slates flooding the consumer market, can die-hard netbook fans find refuge in the 11.6" form-factor? More relevant, can Intel's much-touted ULV parts deliver the goods and kick AMD to the curb? Read on to get my take on this latest ultra-portable.
PROS: Class-leading CPU/GPU performance, impressive battery life, runs cool and dead silent, priced well with online coupon
CONS: Heavier/bigger than a 10.1" netbook, availability sparse, no configuration options, sub-par speakers
It's pretty apparent that I have been impressed with netbooks ever since my review of the 8.9" HP 2133 mini note as far back as 2008. My stellar experience with the 11.6" Nile-based HP dm1z in 2010 further proved the capability available from such a small footprint. Indeed, you would need to pry my 10" N570-based HP 210 Mini from my cold dead hands - it is STILL that good.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn't so enthusiastic. Many manufacturers left the netbook bandwagon this year for good, despite Intel's continued support with Cedar Trail. While CPU performance in AMD's Brazos hasn't set things on fire, Intel's N2800 Atom is next to impossible to find. HP's current 10.1" Mini 210-4000 series lacks a 1366x768 display option, for example, severely hampering real-world usability. Are things doomed for folks looking for a device to fill this niche space where small size meets productivity? Fortunately, Intel has a solution in the form of ULV Sandy Bridge.
Intel's ULV mobile variants for Sandy Bridge only became available near the end of 2011, yet they have become extremely desirable for combining very low-power consumption with solid 2C/4T processing performance. Sandy Bridge architecture is significantly different to that of either Brazos or Atom, and includes an on-die HD3000 integrated GPU suitable for DX10 and HD playback/encoding. Throw all this capability inside a 11.6" footprint or smaller, and you have the perfect next-generation netbook/ultraportable that can give existing Brazos and Atom solutions a serious run for their money. Likewise, users who invested in Nile and have been looking for a comparable replacement should be particularly interested in what ULV Sandy Bridge can bring to the table.
Sad to say, but HP doesn't offer a CTO option on ULV Sandy Bridge, so the 11.6" Pavilion dm1-4170us I have here today comes only as configured below:
-Charcoal black lid and base
-Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
-Intel Core i3-2367M CPU (1.4GHz, 3MB cache) with HD3000 integrated GPU
-4GB DDR3 RAM
-500GB 5400RPM HDD
-11.6" 1366x768 HD Brightview LED display
-802.11b/g/n WLAN with Bluetooth
-MSRP $479-499 (depending on the mood at hp.com)
Let's get the price analysis out of the way first. $479 isn't a bad deal for what HP is providing, but apply a $50 hp.com coupon and the price now comes down to just $429. That's now a much better deal than the $400 you would have paid for a top-spec Atom system, giving you twice the RAM and HDD space along with a 64-bit OS. Compared to an E450 Brazos-equipped dm1 at the same $429 price, Intel's processor offers twice the number of threads along with Quick Sync support. Now remember back to the $525 sticker price of the Nile-based dm1 from 2010. It becomes apparent that below the $500 mark the ULV Sandy Bridge-based dm1 dishes out by far the best bang for the buck.
Sure, you can get many other notebooks for the same price or less, but you will find them larger and heavier than what the 11.6" footprint gives you. Similarly, finding competing 11.6" and smaller netbooks is becoming harder, as manufacturers have moved away from the netbook market. For users who demand maximum mobility but refuse to sacrifice performance, $429 is as good as you're going to get.
Much like the smaller 210 Mini, and as shown in my Glamor Shots piece from last week, the dm1-4170us has a single bottom panel sans vents or screws. You remove it by moving the battery lever, giving you access to the entire internals for HDD and RAM as well as the radio stack. Again, this approach allows effortless access to the CPU fan for replacement and dust cleaning, something I would like to see other notebook manufacturers address.
|10" netbook on top, 11.6" dm1 below|
|Too big to fit in a standard netbook case|
For another actual scenario, I also refrained from using my 10" netbook for a good month while examining the dm1-4170us... and then one day picked up my 210 Mini to do some work on. The smaller size and weight of the 10" netbook was immediately noticeable. I really do place a big importance on mobility, so for me the choice comes down to being as small and light as possible. For many users, however, 11.6" will still be small and light "enough" to be a very good choice, especially compared to larger 13"+ notebooks and older netbooks with less-than-stellar performance.
If you've ever wondered what it's like to cram the most performance possible inside a 11.6" footprint, Intel's ULV Sandy Bridge is currently where it's at. The Core i3-2367M 2C/4T CPU delivers significantly more performance than any Brazos or Atom processor. Running 7Zip's built-in benchmark, I managed to hit a score of 4013, that's almost a 60% increase over the N570 Atom, also a 2C/4T processor. Similarly, 3DMark06 returned a score of 2874, again almost twice that of the numbers seen with Nile, and leagues ahead of Atom's integrated graphics.
|ULV Sandy Bridge delivers the goods|
Another example of how well the dm1-4170us performs comes from it's gaming performance. While the N570 Atom was limited to DX9 titles, the HD3000 integrated graphics handles DX10 very nicely. Civilization V for example can be played at 1366x768 with all settings cranked on high - a far cry from playing Civ III on an Atom N570. Other current games such as Dirt 3, AvP, Batman: Arkham City, Metro 2133 and Crysis 2 will all load and play at minimum settings, a feat impossible on most platforms without a discreet graphics card.
Showing off further still, Intel's HD3000 graphics solution has another trick up it's sleeve - Quick Sync. Using the identical 1080p WMV-HD playback source as tested previously, CPU usage measured around 12%. That's almost half of the processing performance used by the N570/Broadcom Cystal HD implementation, and less than a quarter of what the K625/4225 combination required to do the same exact task. Needless to say, the built-in HDMI port will come in very handy for many.
The most striking example, however, of just how much of an impact Quick Sync has on performance involves transcoding and encoding tasks. Using ArcSoft's Media Encoder 7.5, I grabbed the same 3-hour-length VOB source and converted it over to a single H.264 MP4 file. With CPU only at work, this took 82 minutes, whereas utilizing the Quick Sync area on the silicon got the job done in just 47 minutes. That's a phenomenal improvement, and goes to show that even at 11.6 inches, you don't have to sacrifice performance when it comes to doing serious productivity.
How does that performance translate into heat and noise, you ask? You might think that the compact 11.6" chassis is also sacrificing when it comes to cooling performance, but quite the opposite is the case. With a very warm 28C ambient temperature, running F@H SMP client the CPU barely tops 70C, while under more normal working conditions temperatures settle around the 58C mark. Given that there are no fan vents on the bottom, the underside does get somewhat warm when stressed as all the heat is exhausted through two slim vents on the side, and passively via the gaps on the chicklet-style keyboard. More normal use, especially on battery, leaves the base and rest of the chassis hardly warm. The single small fan does make itself heard under gaming and heavy CPU use, but it's certainly not anything annoying or obnoxious. Running a normal workload in a typical home/office environment, the dm1-4170us is practically impossible to hear, and is quiet enough to be used at night without a problem.
New with the dm1-4170us is HP's CoolSense feature. With the help of a built-in accelerometer, the software controls fan speeds, ramping up and providing additional cooling when it detects movement, such as when you are using the notebook on your lap. The small downside is that it may also throttle CPU speed to get to that cool temperature, meaning a noticeable hit on performance - no big deal most of the time, but a definite hit on FPS during 3D gaming. Fortunately you can easily turn CoolSense off to regain any performance hit without any overheating issues to worry about.
The HP dm1-4170us does offer some notable additions to what you may find on a smaller netbook. The 11.6" 1366x768 display allows you to multitask without problem and get a decent amount of productivity done. There's a HDMI port included to take advantage of the HD video capability and separate headphone and mic jacks. As with past units, HP includes the Quick Web feature to boot into a simplified GUI with full web access, email, photos, music and Skype capability. You also get to enjoy a slightly larger keyboard, although a backlit option would be very welcome for a few bucks more. Unlike my 210 Mini though, GPS and 3G connectivity options aren't available on this model.
Perhaps the most sought-after yardstick of how well ULV Sandy Bridge performance stacks up can be derived from battery times. HP ships the 11.6" dm1-4170us with a 6-cell 55WH 5100mAh li-ion battery pack that is rated for 9.5 hours - slightly less than with an Atom system, but with far more performance under the hood. Size-wise, it's pretty much dead on with the 6-cell from my 10" netbook. Using max battery settings with all wireless off, WMV playback came in at 5 hours 16 minutes with VOB playback slightly longer at 5 hours 34 minutes. Those times are significantly better than what I observed with Nile, yet only maybe an hour worse than my N570-based Atom netbook. Turn on wifi, and you'll see 4 hours 45 minutes of Hulu playback likewise.
|dm1 battery on top, 210 mini below|
Incidentally, if you've been thinking of surfing the web with the dm1-4170us after reading all this good news, Intel's ULV Sandy Bridge won't leave you looking for an outlet any time soon. My tests showed an unplugged run time of 6 hours 23 minutes on max battery settings, a very respectable number given the performance on tap. Swap out the supplied 5400RPM HDD for a low-power SSD such as a Samsung 830 series or Crucial m4 and you can expect to get an additional 30-60 minutes on top of that, very closely matching the leanest of Atom systems for battery life - now that's impressive. Carry a spare 6-cell battery with you, and expect to get a solid 12 to 14 hours of serious productivity work done. This is exactly where having a removable battery beats newer ultrabook designs, and why hard-core mobile road warriors will love this notebook.
ULV Sandy Bridge's improved power efficiency means that HP doesn't need to offer an extended capacity battery to get these amazing run times. It's also nice that HP is not offering a puny 3-cell battery as standard and marketing the 6-cell as a high-capacity variant. Working with two 6-cell batteries will net you more unplugged run time than a single 9-cell would anyway, never mind being cheaper and less bulky to tote around. The only thing you miss out on is getting that 2nd battery at a discount, since you cannot configure your order with HP, although you may have luck with other retailers or one of HP's resellers.
|Software crippled by poor speakers|
Also, HP does not allow a configure-to-order option, only offering the fixed configuration you see listed here. While it may be nice to choose items such as RAM and HDD/SDD, the fact that you can easily access these components and upgrade yourself makes it less of an issue.
A bigger issue may be that of availability. I was fortunate to still grab mine from HP.com, but a recent search shows that HP is no longer selling this unit. While you can still find it at other vendors online and in stores, prices may not be as favorable, and in some cases list as high as $599. For those thinking of picking up a dm1-4170us, you should definitely do your research on price and availability, especially with vendors that promise to price-match.
Regular readers here at lgpOnTheMove will remember my review of the Nile-based dm1z. I wrote back in 2010 how AMD gave Intel a major wake-up call with Nile, and rightly so. 15 months later, Intel has answered that call with ULV Sandy Bridge. Within the span of just a short 2 years Intel has taken back the netbook/ultraportable performance crown, in effect beating AMD at it's own game. Meanwhile with the Pavilion dm1-4170us, HP has provided a notebook worthy as a successor to even the best N570 and N2800 dual-core Atom systems, outperforming both Nile and Brazos in the process. I have to pose the question - is it now AMD's turn to wake up?
|Similar yet different - dm1 vs. 210 Mini|
Buy into Sandy Bridge today or wait for Ivy Bridge? There's still no indication of when we'll see manufacturers offer a 11.6" notebook with ULV Ivy Bridge on board, or indicate price. (EDITOR'S NOTE: HP's Elitebook 2170p, the only ULV Ivy Bridge 11.6" in HP's lineup as of writing, has a starting price of $999) With manufacturers pushing the tablet and ultrabook segment while abandoning Atom, it would almost seem that notebook models smaller than 13" are being sidelined. I say almost because there's every indication that ULV Ivy Bridge notebooks will arrive in the coming weeks and months, eventually replacing models such as the one I have here.
From a technical standpoint, there's also no reason why manufacturers couldn't integrate ULV Ivy Bridge into a 10" footprint and keep existing netbook designs alive, but I'll leave that discussion for another day.
With all that said, however, the HP dm1-4170us is definitely the best 11.6" notebook available for purchase, and the notebook I would choose hands down over an AMD Brazos system (including Brazos 2.0). If you've yet to experience the beauty of Sandy Bridge, waiting a few more weeks for an Ivy Bridge model would be my advice to you. On the other hand, if you absolutely need it now and don't want to pay a price premium for Ivy Bridge, ULV Sandy Bridge is the king when it comes to performance-for-value and certainly won't disappoint. 2012 is definitely a great year to be buying a new notebook, because whichever way you swing, it's a win-win!