Review: 11 inch Ivy Bridge + Kepler (Clevo W110ER)

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I am big into PC gaming, and so I have always used a desktop for that, while having a small laptop for productivity on the go (a MacBook Air currently). I have never seriously considered merging the two, given the price premium and just plain bulkiness of gaming laptops. An acquaintance of mine at Fragment Computers (a fairly new computer boutique) offered for me to try out their new 11 inch gaming laptop, built on the Clevo W110ER barebones using Ivy Bridge with Nvidia Kepler graphics, in order to provide some real world feedback. After spending some time with it, I came away impressed, but with significant reservations. This is not an endorsement by any means, and I am not trying to advertise anything; I would just like to share my experiences with the community here.

Hardware:

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It is easiest to first describe what this laptop is not. It is not an ultrabook, nor does it pretend to be. It also obviously does not have the generous dimensions of a 15 inch laptop, however some comparisons (thinkness) can certainly be made. This is targeted as a gaming laptop, but there is no gaming culture styling to be found; it does not appear to be constructed by an alien race.
What it is, is a quite handsome, albeit thick, very compact laptop. Within the 11" market, you are primarily looking at ultra-thin ultra-portable ultrabooks, making this notebook look positively chunky by comparison. That is not all bad news however; it allows for a plethora of ports (Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, headphone out, mic in, 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, and your regular charging port), along with a substantial heatsink – more on that later.
The body of the laptop, with the exception of the bottom, is covered in a lovely textured soft-grip plastic. It really has a nice feel to it that gives a sort of elegant, high end impression. Featuring nice lines combined with well-placed angles, the result is laptop that is very subtly beautiful.
In following with a nice design, the build quality also appears to be quite good. There is no noticeable bending or creaking even when held in one hand by a corner. I suppose this is a good thing, seeing as the whole package weighs in at a solid 4.5 pounds – not a lot when compared to larger notebooks, but certainly hefty if compared to ultrabooks. Additionally, the screen hinges have a very solid feel to them, with no screen wobble when handling the laptop.

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Lots more pictures here!

Dimensions: 11.30" (w) x 8.15" (d) x 0.50~1.46" (h)
Weight: ~4.5 lps.

Screen / Speakers:

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The 11.6 inch 1366 x 768 glossy display is not bad by any means, but also not the best 11.6 inch 1366 x 768 glossy display I have used either (MacBook Air). The gloss is a matter of personal opinion, but I never found reflections to be too much of a problem. While I often see commenters bashing any laptop with a 1366 x 768 resolution, I see little reason to complain in this example. At this size, pixels are not distinguishable from a normal viewing distance, and anything higher would result in very small UI elements. Color reproduction is decent, although not perfect. After some quick calibration, it comes close, but I am not going to recommend it for graphic design work. Viewing angles are surprisingly good; the display is readable from almost all angles, with only a bit of dimming looking from the sides. Brightness is equally sufficient; it is bright enough for sunlight, and can also get dim enough for use in the dark. Overall, it is a nice looking display with which I have no complaints, but nothing stands out as particularly special either.
More than the rest of the hardware, I am particularly impressed with the speakers. Expecting the tinny quiet sound you get from most small laptops (ultrabooks), I was pleasantly surprised. These speakers deliver loud, clear sound that you would expect from a much larger laptop. Don’t plan on throwing out your stereo system yet, but you can at least enjoy a few tunes out loud on the go, when the occasion arises. Sound effects in games came out particularly clear. Bass leaves something to be desired, but the games were still quite enjoyable with the built in speakers.

Keyboard / Touchpad:

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I’ll start with the good news: The chiclet style keyboard has an excellent feel. Each key has both sufficient resistance and springiness, in addition to a nice semi-grip feel. The key travel is excellent. For comparison, typing feels nearly as nice as a MacBook keyboard (but read on).
The bad news: It is not a full sized keyboard. They keys are ever slightly undersized, and you will notice it. As Apple has shown, it is possible to put a full sized keyboard on an 11" laptop, but that certainly does not appear here. Fortunately, I found myself adjust to the key size quickly. Having typed this whole review on this keyboard, I can say both my speed and accuracy are largely unaffected, but I still find the slightly smaller keys uncomfortable.
On to the Synaptics touchpad: The texture on the touchpad is the exact same as the palmrest, a soft-touch, textured plastic. Some people will like the texture, but I imagine many will not. I found the texture to make for a surprisingly practical and accurate pointing experience, but I am quickly reminded by just how nice a touchpad can feel when I switch back to my MacBook Air. The regular two finger scrolling, pinch to zoom, and rotate, all work like you would expect – they work. Scrolling is not the enjoyable experience that it is on a Mac, but it seems like a matter of software that could solve this. Palm rejection is fair, but I did find the cursor to jump a couple of times while writing this review. Most of the time though, my palms never seemed to even touch the touchpad, by the simple virtue of it being very small, which brings me to my next point. The touchpad is just plain too small. Looking at the design, I can’t see how they could have put a larger touchpad in it, but again, Apple manages to do just that with their 11 inch Air. As a final thought, considering the primary purpose of this laptop is gaming, you will more than likely be using a mouse most of the time anyway, so this may be a moot point.

Performance:

I will let the numbers speak for themselves in this section; but in brief, this is one aspect that this notebook excels. The Crucial solid state drive lends actual boot up times under 20 seconds consistently, and wake from sleep times in the couple of seconds range. Processing is done by a preview Ivy Bridge mobile i5 (3360M), so these benchmarks need be taken as entirely preliminary. Covering graphics duties is the new 28 nm Kepler based Nvidia GT 650M. This is an upper-midrange gaming GPU, and currently the only mobile chip in Nvidia’s lineup based on their new architecture. Rounding it out is 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM.
For the purpose of comparison, I have selected benchmarks from some of the laptops tested by The Verge, along with some from AnandTech. Keep in mind that some of these are ultrabooks with ULV processors and integrated graphics, while others are larger laptops with higher powered parts.

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Gaming Performance:

Now that we have theoretical performance out of the way, let’s look at real world gaming performance. In brief, all modern games are playable, however the most demanding titles (Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2 as examples) require lowering the graphics quality to medium / high to achieve smooth framerates. Less demanding titles (Portal 2 as an example) play excellently at very high framerates, with graphics settings maxed out.
Testing info: This is not as scientific of a test as you will get from a professional review, but should serve to give a good indication of performance. I used Fraps to track framerates over action sequences in single player modes of each of these games. I tried to pick sequences that were fairly consistent in terms of gameplay, but also featured significant action to give a fair representation of real play.

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Battery / Heat / Noise:

The battery life is a problem. With just light web browsing, text editing, and such, I literally got 3 hours 40 minutes from a full charge down to dead. This is inexplicably bad, especially when you consider its gigantic 62.16 W-h lithium ion battery, 35 W Ivy Bridge CPU, and solid state drive – These are all things that normally contribute to excellent battery life. This 3:40 is also a far cry from the advertised 5 hours. Given the hardware and the advertised battery life, it seems that there might be a software solution to get significantly more life out of it. As another note, I got 1:05 of gaming battery life (Portal 2, high settings). While also short, it is less surprising; I have yet to see a gaming laptop that can be used for its intended purpose unplugged.
Heat is an interesting issue, or non-issue depending on how you look at it. Load temperatures are excellent for a laptop: I ran 4 threads of the Prime95 stress test (100% CPU usage on both cores), and tracked temperatures with Core Temp. The absolute maximum I saw was 82 degrees C. In real world testing (gaming), core temperatures peaked just over 90 C and averaged in the 80’s C. While hot, that is still below throttling temperature. To test GPU temperatures, I ran the 720p FurMark benchmark, reaching a maximum temperature of only 71 degrees C. Altogether, those are quite good load temperatures for any laptop. There is a catch though – Idle temperatures. The GPU idle temperatures are a very low, since it goes unused most of the time. CPU idle temperatures however hang out around 60 degrees C. That isn’t going to damage anything of course, but it is still hot, and makes me uncomfortable. At idle, the CPU fan all but turns off, with the rational of saving battery (lot of good that did), resulting in high temperatures. While the potential to keep everything cool is obviously there, whatever bit of software that is in charge of it obviously is choosing not to.
This, along with the solid state drive, results in a nearly silent laptop for everyday use. [When starting up cold, the CPU fan actually is off until it is needed, making it actually a silent system for a few minutes.] This all changes as soon as you load up a game or even an HD movie (to a lesser extent). The fan is loud, although I have yet to see a gaming laptop where that is not the case, making it mostly excusable. Possibly annoying for some people, I did not find it to be distracting while gaming.

Wrap up:

The Clevo W110ER from Fragment Computers is without a doubt a niche product (this applies to the W110ER’s from other boutiques as well). It excels as an 11 inch gaming laptop, given by the fact that it is an 11 inch laptop that performs superbly in games. Beyond that use though, I find it difficult to recommend for anything else. It is portable, the display is nice, the keyboard is also nice (but too small), and the touchpad works. The only problem is that many ultrabooks do all of those better, without even mentioning battery life. If you are looking for an 11 inch gaming laptop, you will be thrilled with the performance, but if gaming is not a consideration, there are many better ultra-portables out there. And finally, spec'd out for a retail price of $1280, you are looking at strong performance for the price (in an ultra-portable), but with all of the compromises mentioned before.

Good Stuff:

  • Killer gaming performance
  • Very small form factor
  • Lots of ports
  • Good speakers

Bad Stuff:

  • Thick and heavy for size
  • Very small form factor
  • Poor battery life
  • Keyboard and touchpad undersized

My unofficial, subjective, quantitative score:

Design: 7
Keyboard: 6
Touchpad: 6
Display: 7
Performance: 9
Gaming performance: 9
Battery life: 3
Heat: 8
Noise: 7

Average: 6.9



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