- Review Date: 04/26/2012
- Bottom line: The Asus N56VM is the first laptop we've seen with Intel's "Ivy Bridge" inside, and the new processor doesn't disappoint.
- Pros: Blazing Ivy Bridge processor. Full HD display.
- Cons: Neither graphics processor is on par with the sizzling CPU. Somewhat bulky.
With the advent of Intel's third-generation Core "Ivy Bridge" processors, we can hope to see price cuts and tempting discounts on systems with second-generation "Sandy Bridge" CPUs. That's too bad. You're going to want an Ivy Bridge laptop anyway. The first laptop we've seen to show off one of the new mobile processors is the Asus N56VM ($1,199 list), a 15.6-inch desktop replacement. The chip is the Core i7-3720QM, a 2.6GHz quad-core, eight-thread processor with 6MB of cache. The laptop also comes with a full 1080p (1,920 by 1,080) display and two graphics solutions—the CPU's new Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics and the Nvidia GeForce GT 630M, a low-end discrete GPU. Neither of the graphics solutions is up to the raw speed level of the Core i7-3720QM, making the N56VM's performance a little lopsided, but overall the new processor makes a powerful debut, while the laptop proves a desirable one.
At presstime, Asus said the N56VM would initially be available in Europe and Asia. The first configuration sold in North America will be the slightly different N56VZ-DS71 ($1,299 list), which will feature a 2.3GHz Core i7-3610QM processor, Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics, a backlit keyboard, and Windows 7 Home Premium instead of our test unit's Win 7 Professional.
At 1.1 by 15 by 10 inches (HWD), the N56VM is a solid, slightly ponderous (5.9 pounds) slab with a handsome dark gray, almost black brushed aluminum lid with light-up Asus logo. Open, its black keys and silver aluminum keyboard deck make it look a little like a MacBook Pro, albeit with a tray- instead of slot-loading optical drive. The bottom is black plastic.
The chiclet-style keyboard has a soft, precise feel that we found quite comfortable for high-speed typing. As with many 15.6-inch laptops, it offers a numeric keypad whose keys (like the dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys) are a little skinnier or smaller than the regular keys. Two function keys are supposed to govern keyboard backlight brightness, but we couldn't detect a backlight in the ambient light of the Labs. There's a large (4.5- by 2.75-inch) touchpad with clickable lower corners rather than real mouse buttons; moving, tapping, and pinch-to-zoom and three-finger-flick gestures worked smoothly in our tests.
The screen's 1,920 by 1,080 resolution makes text and icons a bit small (we alternated between viewing them at 100 and 125 percent via Control Panel), but nicely sharp. The display is bright and clear, with vivid colors and broad viewing angles (broader horizontally than vertically). Two Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speakers provide above-average audio if not booming bass.
In addition to Bluetooth and 802.11g Wi-Fi, the N56VM supports Intel's Wireless Display (WiDi) for beaming the laptop's audio and video to an HDTV set equipped with an aftermarket Belkin or Netgear adapter. Except for the WiDi software and a couple of Intel and Nvidia utilities, the Intel-supplied test unit was not only bloatware-free but software-free, with nothing preloaded on the 750GB, 7,200-rpm Seagate hard drive except Windows 7 Professional.
Next to the Blu-ray drive on the laptop's right side are two USB 3.0 ports and headphone and microphone jacks. On the left you'll find an audio jack for a subwoofer; VGA, HDMI, and Ethernet ports; and two more USB 3.0 ports, one able to recharge handheld devices. An SD/MMC memory card slot is up front.
The N56VM's removable 56Wh battery lasted 5 hours 21 minutes in our MobileMark 2007 rundown test. That's right in the middle of desktop-replacement territory.
Though it's only third from the top of Intel's new third-generation quad-core mobile processors (behind the 2.7GHz Core i7-3820QM and 2.9GHz Core i7-3920XM), the Core i7-3720QM is one seriously fast CPU. How fast? Well, we began our testing expecting it to do better than Intel's second-generation mainstream quad-cores like the Core i7-2670QM in the HP Envy 17. Turns out it not only embarrassed those processors, but kept pace with Sandy Bridge flagships like the Core i7-2960XM in expensive gaming laptops like the Alienware M18x.
The Asus N56VM pulverized our Photoshop CS5 test with a time of 3 minutes 2 seconds and hotfooted it through Handbrake in just 1:11. Its PCMark 7 score of 3,644 is the kind we'd expect from a top-of-the-line laptop with a speedy SSD, not a conventional hard drive.
With such a fire-breathing CPU, the Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics come across as underwhelming by comparison, though in fact they're a big part of the Ivy Bridge story, designed to elevate popular games to the playable 30-frames-per-second threshold (at least with modest resolution and detail settings) that Sandy Bridge's HD Graphics 3000 couldn't reach. Sure enough, when we used Nvidia's control panel to default to the integrated graphics rather than the N56VM's Nvidia GeForce GT 630M, the laptop managed 32.3 fps in Crysis and 32.7 fps in Lost Planet 2 at 1,024 by 768 resolution. The GeForce GPU, however, proved substantially faster—63.9 and 47.1 fps, respectively.
Similarly, the integrated graphics approached the respectable-showing 10,000-point mark with 8,511 points in 3DMark 06, but the Nvidia graphics outstripped them with 11,741. Neither graphics solution proved up to the challenge of gaming at full 1,920 by 1,080 resolution with antialiasing and other eye candy activated—in Unigine's demanding Heaven 3.0 benchmark test, the Intel graphics managed 11.6 fps to the Nvidia graphics' 14.5 fps.
Given the screaming speed of the Core i7-3720QM processor, the best match would be a higher-end GPU such as one of Nvidia's GeForce GTX rather than GT series. But this first look at Intel's HD Graphics 4000 makes us look forward to trying them out in other Ivy Bridge portables (ultrabooks, anyone?).
Actually, we're eager to try out more Ivy Bridge portables, period. There's a flood coming from Asus and other vendors, but with its blazing performance and first-rate screen and keyboard, the Asus N56VM has set the bar high.
Compare the Asus N56VM with several other laptops side by side.