Ivy Bridge League: Pioneer DreamBook UltraSlim U14 review

We’ve been hearing plenty about Intel’s upcoming Ivy Bridge processors in recent months and now we’re getting a look at how they perform in notebooks. Packing a 14in widescreen LCD the U14 tips the scales at 1.71kg and like many other ultrabooks comes with a non-removable Lithium Polymer battery here rated at 7.4V/8000mAh. For a model with aluminium top and bottom panels it’s a bit heavier than we expected and well above the Dell XPS 13z’s 1.36kg weight although the latter only has to carry a 13.3in LCD panel. The U14 is still decently portable however and weighs less than HP’s recent glass-plated 14in Envy 14 Spectre at 1.82kg.

Under the bonnet

Inside is Intel’s new Chief River-codenamed HM77 chipset — a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317M dual-core processor. The U14 doesn’t go berserk with the memory using just a single 4GB stick of DDR3-1333 memory but that’s still enough to get the unit’s Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit) OS hitting its straps.

On our benchmark testing the U14 was the fastest ultrabook we’ve seen just pipping the ASUS Zenbook UX21E and Dell’s XPS 13z. But two factors are really key in the comparison. The first is the UltraSlim U14’s processor: this Ivy Bridge Core i5 chip is only a mid-range option yet it beats both the ASUS and Dell models’ top-drawer Core i7-2600 series CPUs.

The other notable factor is price. While the UX21E sells for $1499 and the XPS 13z has a $1699 price tag the UltraSlim U14 goes for just $982. Take a look at any current sub-$1000 ultrabook and it’ll almost certainly be running a slow second-generation Core i3-2367M chip.

Fab changes

We’ve spoken about Ivy Bridge being made using Intel’s new 22-nanometre lithographic process and new tri-gate transistors earlier on but to quickly reiterate Intel has a ‘Tick-Tock’ production schedule where new architecture appears on the Tock and is followed by a die shrink on the Tick side. Ivy Bridge is the Tick and the UltraSlim U14 is where we see the benefits of the die shrink and new transistor technology becoming apparent. A die shrink usually gives a CPU maker two options — they can either run a CPU at the same clock speed as before but obtain lower power consumption; or they can increase the clock speed get more speed and maintain existing power usage levels. Compared with previous-generation Core i5 2400-series CULV (consumer ultra-low voltage) chips this new Ivy Bridge variant appears to be getting around 20-25% better performance from a 6% clock speed rise. Normally you’d expect that extra performance to come at the expense of battery life. However the UltraSlim U14 still managed to sneak over four hours on our battery testing. Now with only one notebook as a test we’re not quite ready to stick our necks out and proclaim Ivy Bridge a rolled gold winner for notebooks but the results so far are very promising.

Solid features

Elsewhere the U14 gives excellent value with a 500GB Hitachi 5400rpm hard drive which you can also swap for a solid-state drive (SSD). What we didn’t see was the small 20 or 30GB SSD found in Acer and other ultrabooks which makes Intel’s instant-on Rapid Start Technology (RST) boot up the notebook in seconds. Still Pioneer Computers is claiming 1.5 seconds from sleep to the Windows desktop.

What we’re most impressed with though is the peripheral port action. Three USB 3.0 ports is a great way to start but the U14 also includes a full-size HDMI output plus a VGA port. Ethernet ports are usually the first casualty in ultrabooks but Pioneer has somehow shoehorned one here on the right side rear. You can also throw in 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth wireless adapters and an SD card reader for good measure.

The three USB 3.0 ports are significant and mark the first time Intel has integrated the latest USB technology into its silicon. Before now notebook makers were required to run third-party NEC or VIA Technology solutions to give users USB 3.0.

Graphics performance

The one slightly disappointing aspect was the new HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics engine. On testing with DiRT 2 at just 1024 x 768-pixel resolution the U14 could only manage 17.21fps which just isn’t playable — although we’ve seen near to 40fps with the desktop version of the same GPU. It appears that Intel is only clocking the GPU engine in this low-voltage processor at 350MHz whereas the desktop version gets cranked to 650MHz. Rumours are this mobile variant will automatically clock up to 1100MHz like the desktop version but we just didn’t see it in the results.

To be fair our test unit was likely to be an early sample so we’re not ready to write it off just yet. And to be fair a 1.7GHz dual-core CPU with 3MB of cache just isn’t going to match the new 3.5GHz quad-core Core i7-3770K desktop chip so we’d expect the notebook’s gaming performance to be less regardless. Just how much less it is in these mobile parts we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see.

A promising start

Still we think the UltraSlim U14 augurs well for Ivy Bridge and the mainstream notebook market particularly the $800-$1300 segment where most of the sales damage is done. Traditionally these notebooks have offered the best performance per dollar rating in the market. What we’re hoping is that Intel doesn’t have another first-generation Sandy Bridge ‘moment’ that sparked a massive US$700 million recall. That recall spawned from an issue with its chipset SATA II ports; this didn’t necessarily affect notebooks but no-one wants a recall all the same.

If this UltraSlim U14 is any guide though the signs for Ivy Bridge notebooks look good — 20-25% extra performance with no noticeable drop in battery life. We’ll be keen to see how things translate to new Core i7 mobile parts particularly the quad-core chips.

Available from Pioneer Computers retailing for $982.
APC rating: 9/10 (Editor’s Choice)