What Laptop Reviews Aren't Telling You

Are reviews that exclude tests for throttling giving a complete picture of a mobile PC’s performance?

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The modern Laptop PC is smaller and lighter than it’s ever been and is literally packed to the limit with some of the most advanced components available. Enthusiast-class laptops carry enough horsepower to be legitimate desktop replacements. The price tags on mobile equipment has always been higher than the equivalent performing desktop gear because of the size difference . Countless dollars and engineering man-hours are poured into the compact designs to extract the most performance possible from a diminished footprint. The battery that powers our laptops is typically seen as the major compromise that makes high-performance, portable computing possible, but within strict limits. We can take our laptop PCs anywhere, but the work or play that can be accomplished is limited by battery capacity. Top-shelf CPUs and GPUs eat power and dump heat and are designed to run as fast as possible when presented with a load. When the power delivery and cooling solutions attached to these chips can no longer keep up, your laptop will throttle performance to stay within safe electrical or thermal limits. This additional compromise presented by laptops is not often considered by prospective buyers.  Is a laptop performance review helpful if benchmarks that take throttling into consideration are not included?

In an informative opinion piece posted on NotebookCheck, Douglas Black calls for the tech journalism community to alter the way laptop reviews are presented so that potential buyers have the full story on a given machine’s performance. Black mentions that it was a topic he had considered covering for some time and made the choice to write his piece now after the site’s review of the Microsoft Surface Pro and subsequent news of severe throttling issues that plagued Microsoft’s new machine. That look at thermal throttling on Microsoft’s hybrid tablet showed as much as a 30 percent performance penalty when the laptop hit its thermal limits during extended Cinebench runs.

PC gamers that want to play their libraries on the go are paying hefty premiums to get laptops loaded with the latest Core i7 processors and cutting-edge GPUs. Less than one year ago, ASUS announced a laptop that appears to have been designed as a monument to man’s arrogance. Featuring 2 nVidia GTX 1080 GPUs and an overclocked Core i7 CPU, the Predator 21 X is pretty much a space heater you can toss in your oversized backpack. Sure, the internal components can drive the Predator’s 120Hz display at maximum settings with AAA titles, but how long can it sustain that performance once the heat output of the unit inevitably results in throttling? You would have no way of knowing before spending $9000 on the Predator 21 X because none of the top three reviews (The Verge, PCMag, or LaptopMag) listed on a Google search of the device mention throttling, thermals, or how those would affect performance during extending gaming sessions.

For those that recently purchased new laptops for gaming or other intensive purposes, have you noticed throttling during use? Would a laptop shown to throttle in normal testing dissuade you from buying? Hit us up in the comments!

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

From The Chatty

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    July 17, 2017 6:00 AM

    Chris Jarrard posted a new article, What Laptop Reviews Aren't Telling You

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      July 17, 2017 6:05 AM

      You'll never believe!

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      July 17, 2017 6:11 AM

      It would be great. I searched high and low for a reasonably priced quad core laptop for my work machine, as I need to compile fairly regularly and the extra cores make a huge difference. I dont mind it turning into a wind tunnel when it needs to, but when it throttles down I might as well not even have the extra cores.

      I feel laptop designs have been slacking on thermal management because the CPUs do such a good job these days of not cooking themselves. Shaming the manufacturers is probably one of the only ways to start changing this.

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        July 17, 2017 7:42 AM

        Two core i7s are a bane on the world... I really wish Intel would stop that practice. Only the HK and HQ suffix parts have four real cores and it's super confusing.

        I can imagine trying to req. parts with some asshole over the phone, or your internal IT support staff going something like this:

        "I need a quad core for my work, compile times are painful with only 2 cores"
        "Here's one *rifles of some i7-U part*"
        "That's only a two core part"
        "This is a powerful 4 thread CPU!"
        "Fuck. Off."

        Or you order a quad and your IT staff hands you a 2 core part that's designed to be ultra portable...

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          July 17, 2017 7:58 AM

          Yeah it was so hard to figure out what was a true quad core and what wasnt. If I wasnt able to pick my own specific model I doubt I would've gotten a proper quad core machine.

          Intel is really misleading with their mobile parts.

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            July 17, 2017 8:05 AM

            I wonder when the mobile version of ryzen comes out. Now you'll have the opposite problem. Here is the 16 core, 32 thread processor in your laptop.

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        July 18, 2017 4:30 AM

        I needed one for work too and found the XPS 15 9560 or Precision 5520 (same laptop mostly). I ended up with the Precision and it doesn't run fans unless I've got all the CPUs at 80%+.

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      July 17, 2017 6:22 AM

      I recently purchased a new laptop and found the CPU temps would get uncomfortably high in quasi stress tests (3DMark time spy). I undervolted the CPU using throttlestop and was able to get an 11C degree drop. Interestingly, it's causing the GPU to run ~2 C warmer because the fans don't spin up as much.

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      July 17, 2017 6:24 AM

      StopClickBait: It's thermal throttling.

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      July 17, 2017 8:07 AM

      Slightly unrelated, but I think the single-most important spec when comparing specs for a GPU is the memory bus bandwidth.

      That number pretty much sums up the "class" and size of GPU you're getting. Of course, there's going to be some variation in performance, but each higher number definitely correlates to a "tier" of performance. A 128-bit bus card, for example, has always been the "close but no cigar" size for me and is the starting point of entry-level GPUs. Once you get to the 192-bit or greater, that's going to be a strong performer.

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        July 17, 2017 8:09 AM

        There are a few notable exceptions to this rule. For example, a long time ago the Radeon 2900 XT came out with a 512-bit "Ring" bus, but was handily outperformed by the GeForce 8800 GT at the time, and that card was 192-bit bus. Plus it ran too hot.

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          July 17, 2017 8:24 AM

          Nvidia has been drastically more bandwidth efficient for years now. AMD closed some ground with Polaris vs. Pascal, but still requires a fair bit more bandwidth.

          ex.
          1060 vs RX480: 192bit vs 256bit, comparable products more or less
          1070 vs RX480: 256 vs 256, but the 1070 is an entire product class above
          etc.

          It used to be 512bit vs 256bit with the 290X vs. GTX 980 being comparable in performance.

          Power use is a similar story, but that's another topic.

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        July 17, 2017 8:57 AM

        If HBM stuff ever hits the laptop market that's going way out the window potentially. Bus width and memory speed combine to make what you're looking for primarily.

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      July 17, 2017 8:19 AM

      I've seen mentions of thermal throttling in a lot of Surface Pro reviews. Not sure about other laptops but I've definitely seen it on a fair amount of ultra portables

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      July 17, 2017 8:55 AM

      Crabs, are the throttling issues only when the lappie isn't plugged in?

      Ie. Does cooling keep up when the battery is full power and plugged in? If it is an issue of plugged vs unplugged, then it just deserves an asterisk.

      If the lappie throttles when plugged in, the yes, it deserves much more attention.

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        July 17, 2017 9:33 AM

        Yes most Ultrabooks throttle when plugged in due to how thin the case is and move to quieter fans.

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        July 17, 2017 10:08 AM

        I'll let you know when ASUS sends me a Predator 21 X.

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      July 17, 2017 9:40 AM

      No issues w/ throttling (thermal, current, power) on my new Lenovo ThinkPad P71 w/ i7-7700HQ and Quadro P3000 graphics. This thing rips....