Tutorial #23: Taming the beast (Dell XPS 7590 Core i9)

One of the significant purchases I made over the past 6 months is the Dell XPS 7590 with Intel's Coffee Lake Core i9-9980HK, Samsung's 32 GB DDR4-2667 RAM, Toshiba's 1 TB SSD, Nvidia's GTX 1650 and the crème de la crème that is the 4K OLED panel made by Samsung. But before you get any ideas, this is not a device that I would have otherwise purchased but for the fact that I found a single piece listed on Amazon 2 days prior to its official launch of the device at a price that was lesser than the 2019 Acer Helios 300. The risk was worth it as it came sealed with a valid 12-month Premium Plus support from Dell. There are instances in one's life where one doesn't mind getting lucky and this was certainly one of those.

Normally, I would be prompt in reviewing devices within the first few weeks of purchase. However, in this case I think I am too biased towards the device to perhaps put up a worthwhile review. Hence, I thought it better to post a tutorial that would be of some assistance to fellow users. One thing that I am certain of is that the hardware has outgrown the XPS chassis design over the years and the Core i9 pushes things a bit too far in terms of what the chassis is capable of handling thermally. Hence, I went on an optimisation quest with the intention of lowering the temperatures and increasing the overall efficiency of the device. I will own up to the fact that I don't intend to use the device on battery at all unless I am forced to but for that eventuality I decided to find a compromise which would at least provide stock performance at lower battery consumption as against higher performance when operating directly on AC.

The tool of choice in this case for the CPU is Throttlestop which offers significantly more tweaking potential than Intel's Extreme Tuning utility. As for the GPU, the mainstream tool to use is MSI Afterburner. However, in case of this GPU, I found that the temperature limit setting on MSI AB was locked for some reason even after unlocking all the advanced options and the Auto Overclocker resulted in far too frequent game crashes. Hence, I instead went ahead with Asus GPU Tweak II which allowed the GPU temperature target to be set upfront. By default, this is set to 75 Celsius and I instead bumped it to the stock value of GTX 1650 which is 87 Celsius. However, the idea in general is to still not exceed 75 Celsius during most strenuous tasks but to provide the headroom to exceed that if needed.

With this background, in the interest of time, I have decided to simply post the screenshots of the various screens from the tools since further elaboration on each parameter can be found on their respective forums. In case of the GPU, I eventually stuck with simply pushing up the clocks by 10% as undervolting using the frequency curve resulted in far too many instability issues. Is this the most optimum setting possible, most probably not. However, I believe this is the best setting I could identify with trial and error, as attested by the 88 unexpected reboots on record. I could certainly push the clocks and voltages quite a bit more but in general it led to instability and I am certainly no fan of BSODs. Another point to note is that while Asus GPU Tweak II can be set to start on reboot, Throttlestop requires additional effort in setting up the task scheduler which is what I have indicated below.

Starting Throttlestop on Login:

Throttlestop settings for AC profile:

Throttlestop settings for Battery profile:

Now to focus on the fruits of the labour or the pudding so to say. I am not a fan of benchmarks in general but in this case, I needed something to comparatively measure the impact of the changes and a few basic benchmarks provide the easiest reference in this case. Note that I ran all the benchmarks with only the discrete GPU enabled with the overclock settings, so it represents the worst possible scenario in case of thermals.

This might not be the first benchmark utility that springs to mind but for the fact that it allows comparative analysis for similar hardware components and is of considerably short duration. In this case, the CPU came up at 97th percentile and the GPU at 100% percentile which, considering the fact that is mostly going up against much bulkier gaming laptops with much better thermals, is noteworthy. Overall, the CPU efficiency is excellent with the tweaks providing higher performance at lower power. The discrete GPU however doesn't scale up in terms of efficiency and while it is possible to get more performance out of it, it comes at a significant cost in terms of power and heat.

Cinebench really pushes the CPU and is thus a good test of its ultimate performance. A sequence of 2 consecutive runs also pushes the CPU to its thermal limits. Not surprisingly then, the 1st run score of 3684 is more than 20% better than stock and even the 2nd consecutive run scores better than the stock settings with lower average temperatures.

This benchmark was run at the Extreme preset. As I have already mentioned previously, pushing the GPU doesn't really yield huge benefits in this constrained form factor as the any performance benefits come with equally higher power consumption and heat generation. However, as can be seen in the results, a 3% performance boost in Heaven comes with lower CPU temperatures and the GPU power consumption is lower even though it hasn't been undervolted. So, a win-win overall.

Lastly, how do these modifications fare with a modern game. I happen to have Hitman 2 installed at present, so I thought I'd give it a go with the in-built benchmarks which I frankly didn't find to be entirely consistent across different runs. But I believe it should give at least give an idea of what the laptop is now capable of, even though it is not meant to be a gaming laptop.
I set all the details to the maximum possible apart from lowering it a notch to 'High' for 'Level of Detail', 'SSAO' and 'Shadow Quality', besides turning 'Motion Blur' to 'Off'. The Mumbai benchmark produced a score of 70.95 FPS with CPU averaging at 79C and the GPU at 70C. The more demanding Miami benchmark chewed out 54.04 FPS with CPU/GPU temperatures averaging at 78C/69C respectively. A more than serviceable gaming machine if I may say so.

Musing #48: Impact of Spectre/Meltdown patch (With Intel's March Microcode Update)

Spectre and Meltdown have been all over the news in the past few days. While the seriousness of the bug cannot be understated, the speculation on the performance impact of the patch, especially on older processors, has been particularly worrisome. Google and Intel have put forth some assurances, but the end result is yet to be seen.

As my desktop is equipped with the generations-old i5-3470, I have to brace for whatever performance degradation comes with the patch. Unfortunately, with ASRock having released the last BIOS update for my motherboard in 2013, one can only hope to receive an official update. For the time being, the only option is to rely on Microsoft's Windows 10 patch which only partially mitigates this issue.

Even then, it offers a first glimpse at the performance that has to be scarified in lieu of security. Intel has stated that the impact will vary based on the task and hence there is no easy way to determine the impact of the patch. I went with Cinebench R15 and CrystalDiskMark to quickly capture the impact on some everyday tasks.

As can be seen in the screenshot below, the performance impact seems to be quite significant with the post-patch score being nearly 7% lower. This is by all means a huge impact and cannot be disregarded.

Tutorial #11: Thermal control of Core M 5Y10 (Broadwell)

The first generation Core M was an engineering marvel in terms of the power it managed to fit within the 4.5W TDP envelope. In terms of performance, it sat somewhere in between the 5th generation U-series Core i3 and i5 which bear TDP of 15W but blew both of them out of the water when it came to efficiency. The fanless design not only cut down the weight of the tablet but in fact removed a significant point of failure. My gut feeling is that whirring fans are not a good fit for use cases which involve significant movement à la tablets. On the flip side, the processor package is nothing short of a toaster with its sky high temperature under sustained full load.

This led me to fire up Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) on my Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140. Normally, devices in a portable form factor like tablets and laptops leave very constrained thermal dissipation and hence are not good tuning candidates. Hence, unsurprisingly, only the voltage and turbo power controls are on offer in the case of the Core M. After trying out over two dozen profiles, I settled on the following three detailed in the table below wherein I have listed the changes made to the default (reference) settings. Profile 1 aims at a temperature of mid-60s under turbo boost which is akin to what you may find in fanned processors. Profile 2 has turbo boost set to the TDP and allows for sustained usage without thermal throttling. Profile 3 on the other hand is the default profile but with stable under-volting that reduces the temperature just enough to limit instances of thermal throttling under sustained full load.

To check the impact of these profiles, I have used the benchmark within XTU (XMarks) as well as the CPU stress test (duration of 1 min). Additionally, I have used the CPU Mark and 3D Mark tests of PassMark as they seemed to be particularly responsive to the changes. Lastly, any CPU test would be incomplete without CPU-Z and hence its bench also makes an appearance.

As can be seen from the table above, there is a compromise to be made between temperature and performance depending on what floats your boat. In my case, I decided to go with 'Profile 3' for now since sacrificing power in a mobile device is always a tough choice. Even then, it is an improvement over the default profile in terms of performance as well as temperature. Profile 2 seems like an especially good option in case thermal throttling is a major concern while Profile 1 plays it really cool if you cant't warm up to the idea of using the tablet as a finger heater. Overall, I am to this day impressed by the Core M package, enough to have it don a triple avatar.

Review #30: Dell Tablet Keyboard - Mobile for Venue 11 Pro (AliExpress)

I have been using the Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140 as a tablet for over a year and a half now and it has been a faithful companion. May be I will do a retrospective review on it sometime in the future, but for now the review is focussed on one of its accessories which I would argue is the most compelling one - the keyboard dock with a built-in battery. It completes the transformation of the tablet to a full fledged laptop, albeit one of compact proportions while giving a significant bump to the battery life.

As was the case when I purchased the tablet, I had to look overseas for the keyboard dock. I was ready to settle for a refurbished one since price as well as availability is a concern when purchasing an accessory for a device that is over 2 years old. Amazon.com had it listed at $160 (now at $110) and even then it wasn't available for shipping to India. Using third-party shipping services would have meant an expense close to at least $250, an option that wasn't worth considering. Hence, as always, it was time to take recourse to the fail-safe which more often than not happens to be AliExpress and sure enough it didn't disappoint.

While there were no "brand new" ones available, in true Chinese style, the products were listed as 99% new, 95% new, 90% new and 80% new with prices ranging from $55-70. The only way to relate this "newness" was through the pictures and since I wanted it to be as new as possible, I went with the 99% new option. Shipping of the product was not immediate and took 5 days, but thereafter the product was received within a month which is the standard time frame for delivery to India. I was a bit skeptical of using the Seller's shipping method but it turns out that the one used by the seller - Bpost International, is a dependable one.

If I were to attribute the "99% newness" to the looks alone, then I would say the description was right on the mark. There were no visible scratches on the product and it looked as good as new. The dock was immediately recognized on connection and the "Battery 2" percentage was immediately visible as being fully charged. My kitchen scale with its fairly generous margin of error puts the weight of the keyboard dock at 681g, a shade lesser than the tablet itself which weighed in at 717g. In practical terms, the keyboard dock needs to weigh as much as the tablet or else it would simply tip over. Thus, at 1.4 kg, this isn't perhaps the most lightweight laptop for its form factor, but it comes with the advantage of having dual batteries and a detachable touch screen.

My only disappointment with the purchase was that the 99% newness didn't apply to the battery within the keyboard dock. On first connection, I could see that the battery health was reported as less than 80% within the Dell Diagnostics utility and had thus already undergone a lot of discharge cycles. I have posted the current battery stats below which indicates that the full charge capacity of the battery dock compared to the design capacity is similar to the tablet battery which is over 18 months old. I guess I can't complain much in terms of the price I had paid compared to a new one but the post on AliExpress seems to be lacking in this regard.

As can be seen from the above battery stats, the dock adds about 70% of the tablet's battery capacity which translates well as far as battery life is concerned. It is difficult to pinpoint the combined battery life as it varies wildly depending on the use case scenario but the following stats should give an indication of what to expect. If watching Full HD videos encoded in H.264 is you primary use case, then you can expect the battery to last about 4 movies and a bit.

Moving on to the keyboard aspect of the dock, since the keyboard has to follow the tablet's form factor, the wide aspect ratio ensures that there is enough width available for the keys. Typing on this keyboard is a good experience and doesn't require any adjustments with respect to typing on an external keyboard. It is a bit odd to have the function keys as secondary but at the same time it is more practical as one is more likely to adjust the brightness and volume compared to the "F" keys. The wide aspect ratio on the flip side limits the height of the trackpad which is quite observable when scrolling. However, the trackpad itself is quite good and supports all the Windows 10 gestures out of the box like scrolling, zooming, app switching and minimizing to desktop. The only disappointment might be that the dock itself doesn't come with additional ports, though that would also mean losing connection to the USB devices when detached. Considering this is a tablet first, the decision seems practical enough.

On the whole, I am extremely pleased with the purchase as this "laptop" now perfectly complements my desktop, with the tablet completing a virtuous troika.