The Holy Grail of performance notebooks has long been upgradeable graphics. Both Alienware and Dell both attempted it and have since backed off on it. Now Asus thinks it may finally have a notebook family that claims to offer user upgradeable graphics.
The company showed off prototype designs of its C90s to a select press crowd this week. Externally, the C90S looks like a standard 15.4-inch screened notebook save for a large vent on its butt. But unscrew four screws, slide the bottom off and the differences become apparent.
The first major difference is the standard LGA775 socket that accepts standard desktop Core 2 Duo chips. Although the company can’t guarantee that your CPU will overclock, it has an automatic mode built in that will clock a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo to 2.41 GHz or a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo to 2.93GHz.
The C90S sports a standard LGA775 socket that can take many dual-core Core 2 Duo chips.
Asus said using a desktop processor makes it far cheaper to build a fast notebook as it will have both a front-side bus advantage and a clock speed advantage. Intel’s fastest publicly announced mobile Core 2 processor tops out at 2.33GHz on an 800MHz front-side bus. When you factor in price, Asus C90S gets really sexy. A 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E6600 costs just $316 but can hit overclocked speeds of 2.93GHz. A 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo T7600 mobile part will set you back $637.
Although Asus pitches it as mainly a desktop replacement notebook, the company claims battery runtimes of a C90S in the “power-saving” mode is 81 minutes running PC Mark looped which is just slightly less than a comparable notebook configured with a mobile Core 2 Duo CPU with a discrete graphics. Users would manually set the power mode between a fanless “quiet-mode,” the “power-saving” mode, and the gaming mode which would overclock the CPU to its highest levels.
Portable gaming away from the AC umbilical cord is horribly short though as Asus said the overclocked Core 2 and a high-end GPU will drain the battery in 14 minutes. To keep the notebook cool when overlcocked, a very large exhaust port and four fans move air at a healthy clip. In quiet mode though, the company said the notebook is surprisingly well mannered and not the same lap scorchers that Pentium 4 desktop notebooks were.
The Asus C90S uses four fans to keep its desktop Core 2 Duo cool.
On the graphics front, Asus thinks it has solved the upgradeable graphics question by using an updated Nvidia MXM Type II modules. Asus officials told us the main modification to the existing MXM Type II spec is to include a heat-spreader in the design. Although MXM laid out physical and electrical specs for graphics modules, module makers were free to move the RAM around. That made it difficult for notebook manufacturers to standardize their heatpipes. Now, Asus officials say, Nvidia has agreed to manufacture MXM modules with a heat spreader that clamps on the GPU and RAM modules. Now all the notebook makers have to do is attach their heat pipe to the heat spreader on the module.
Asus officials tell us this small change will make it possible to buy a C90S with a current graphics part and upgrade to a DirectX part when they’re introduced. It’s likely, the company says, that users will be able to upgrade graphics for sometime. The only thing that would break this model is thermals. Current MXM Type II’s top out at 25 watts. If a future GPU produces more than this, a notebook designed to only wick away 25-watts would not work. The company also said it was committed to supporting the notebook and was working on a way to make graphics modules available to end users.
Asus said that it’s not leaving ATI out of the game. The company said it has commitments from AMD to get its upcoming graphics parts in MXM Type II format as well so a user could easily switch from Nvidia to AMD.
The C90S is the first notebook that we know of to include an ESATA port as well as an HDMI 1.3 port.
The C90S uses the older 945P chipset but a newer version dubbed the C90P is due this summer and will feature Intel’s upcoming “Bearlake” chipset. Later this year, the company plans to roll out a C80P and C80S versions featuring 17-inch screens, DDR3 and dual mobile graphics parts from AMD and Nvidia. Next year, Asus plans to release a monstrous 19-inch version as well. The C90S and C90P are limited to dual-core support due to thermal restrictions but Asus’ goals are to stuff a quad-core Intel part inside eventually.
What are Intel’s feelings on the rebel project? Asus told us Intel was aware of it but didn’t view it as an issue as the notebooks are desktop replacement units. If Asus hits a homerun with the desktop Core 2 Duo parts, could we see a redo of the desktop Pentium 4 chips in notebooks? Back then, OEMs complained to us that Intel’s mobile Pentium 4 proc prices were killing them so they had no choice but to jam desktop P4’s inside monstrously hot and heavy desktop replacements. What started as a few notebook vendors doing this soon turned into a flood and the Pentium 4M was thrown under the bus. Eventually Intel even introduced a mobile version of the Pentium 4 that was not quite Pentium 4 yet not Pentium 4M.
We got to take apart a pre-production C90S and it is as easy as Asus claims it is. Remove four screws, slide off the bottom and you have easy access to the GPU, CPU, hard drive, 802.11n Wi-Fi card and digital TV tuner. You can literally remove and replace the CPU and GPU in less than five minutes if you’re in a hurry.
But here’s the sticky part, although this notebook seems to have DIY all over it, Asus isn’t sure how the notebooks will be sold to the masses yet. The company believes that you’ll most likely buy this notebook from a store who will have a trained employee in back building it to order. There’s a chance the notebook will end up in web stores where you bring your own parts, but that’s note on the roadmap right now.