Review #65: Asus TUF Gaming A15 Laptop (Ryzen 7 4800H | RTX 2060) ★★★★✭

 Team Red + Team Green - A killer combination!


Introduction:

Ever since Y2K, when AMD stole the limelight for a bit with breaking the 1 GHz barrier and releasing AMD64, AMD as a company failed to impress on me the need to purchase their products. I had opted for Intel just prior to the Athlon breakthrough and every upgrade cycle of 4-5 years led me to opt for Intel. Hence, I was simply enthralled at switching to Team Red after nearly two decades of being stuck with Team Blue. My GPU always has been Team Green but with the integrated Vega 7, there is a dash of Red over there as well.

The Choice:

During the holiday sale 2020, it was between this and the Acer Predator Helios 300 for the princely sum of "not quite" one lakh INR. I could see the reviews racking up for the Core i7 variant on Flipkart and I had even purchased the same but cancelled it as soon as I came across this Renoir masterpiece. It helped that Amazon also offered a much higher exchange price for an old laptop that was lying around, compared to Flipkart.

To put it straight, the Helios 300 has only one thing going for it compared to this one and that is the screen. On the flip side, this comes with a monster CPU, DDR4-3200, a 2000+ Mbps 1 TB SSD from Western Digital, a large 90 Wh battery, lighter weight, higher travel keyboard and about as good a cooling solution as the Helios. It also looks more professional than the Helios, so you can use it in formal environments without having people snickering at you. So overall, it is a win for the A15 over the Helios 300.

Display:

To address the elephant in the room, Asus gimped on the screen, using a Panda panel that has only about 65% sRGB colour gamut and >20 ms response time with quite some screen flex. It pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the 90% sRGB panel with 3ms response time on the Helios, but that is about it. I still managed to get popping colours out of it by increasing the saturation on Radeon Software and calibrating the display from within Windows. Sure, it throws accuracy out of the window in favour of something eye-pleasing but I am not looking to do any colour-work on it and even otherwise, I am looking to connect it to my 120 Hz 4K TV at home for gaming. I am unsure about it, but with the HDMI or DisplayPort output being driven by Vega, it should also support FreeSync directly compared to laptops having output routed through the Intel GPU.

Hardware:


The primary reason for getting this laptop is the Ryzen 4000 series. The 4800H puts the Core i7 to shame. I ran Cinebench after updating the system and without any tweaks. It registered nearly 500 on the single core and 4386 on the multi core, that even the Core i9-9980HK can't touch in most laptops, due to it being a blast furnace rather than a processor. The 4800H did not even touch 80 degrees on the Cinebench multi-core test. It did go past 90 on Firestrike but it never thermally throttled whereas the under-volted 9980HK in my earlier laptop hit 100 degrees within seconds and throttled like it was being asphyxiated.

The RTX 2060 is also the 2020 "refresh" variant with the 1.25V GDDR6 and higher TDP. It passed 15,000 on Firestrike on the first run but with the CPU running much cooler, it opens up the possibility of over-clocking the GPU farther than you can on an Intel machine.

Among other points, the machine ran without much noise on the benchmarks, but I expect it to reach whirring heights with demanding games, something that is to be expected of most gaming laptops. I haven’t checked the battery life and probably never will over the life of the laptop, as I always used it plugged, but the 90 Wh battery with the 4800H will provide a longer battery life than any Intel gaming laptop. The lonely USB 2.0 port on the right-hand side is a bit of a let-down but I have my fingerprint reader permanently plugged in so that I can use Windows Hello. Not having TB3 is also disappointing but I can’t see myself needing it over the lifespan of the laptop as DLSS will most probably help with higher resolutions in the near future.

Tweaking:

As expected, the UEFI on the laptop is barebone. AMD also doesn't support Ryzen Master on laptops, leaving it to OEMs to decide on the thermal envelope. That leaves Ryzen Controller as a tool of choice as it has experimental 4000-series support but with it currently being limited to STAPM settings, it is more likely to be needed to extract more performance rather than to lower temperatures, and thus is not the need of the hour.

However, as I mentioned previously, there is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of extracting more performance from the GPU. As the following 3DMark screenshots indicate, the GPU is able to provide 6-7% more performance using Auto-Overclock at the loss of less than 1% CPU performance. The GPU temperatures too are similar, though the CPU temperature does go up by 4-5 degrees at idle and 2-3% degrees at full load, but still does not throttle.

Warranty:

The unit received from Amazon was manufactured just 2 weeks before as per the warranty registration date. It can be changed to the invoice date by providing Asus with the invoice and a photo of the laptop serial number. An additional year of warranty, after using the 10% off code provided with the laptop, costs about $35 which is quite respectable.

Conclusion:

To sum it up, at the sale price, you can only go wrong with a gaming laptop if you choose Intel. Asus got most things right apart from the screen which is gut-wrenching but not a deal breaker, especially if you use a monitor or TV. In this case, it is what’s inside that counts and this thing is as TUF as it gets.

P.S.: It comes with a huge 16A plug that would probably go well with a microwave in the kitchen. Thankfully, the power adapter has a standard connector as a desktop PSU, so I was able to connect a 16A cable with the regular sized plug. You can also probably get away with a lower amperage cable but it is best to get a 16A one if you can.

Musing #60: PC Overclocking



Having grown up through the megahertz and subsequently the gigahertz war, I can only say that speed matters. Over the years, I fought to get the last ounce of performance out of the system that was "machinely" possible. This was the case until Sandy Bridge arrived. On one hand, it offered the most value for money in an eternity and on the other, set a trend where overclocking meant buying in to the most expensive processors and motherboards.

Hence, it was a practical decision at the time to go with the i5-3470, a processor with locked multiplier, along with a H77 chipset motherboard that was not meant to assist overclocking. It still offered the option to run all the cores at the turbo frequency of 3.6 GHz instead of the base frequency of 3.2 GHz and that is how it ran for nearly 6 years. It met every requirement I had of the system and a bit more so as to not be concerned about upgrading.

However, as is always the case, my hand was forced, like it was in the past when I upgraded to the GTX 1060. Only this time, I had no intention of upgrading the trio of processor, motherboard and RAM considering the inflated memory prices as well as with AMD's Zen 2 and Intel's 10nm processors around the corner. For the first time, I was left in a rather peculiar situation where I needed to change a component for a platform that has been discontinued for years.

Luckily, there is always the web that one can turn to. Scourging the tech forums for a desired motherboard is akin to hitting the lottery and sure enough I didn't luck out. Then, I decided to go with one of the B75 chipset motherboards that were still mysteriously available on Amazon, only to discover that they were OEM boards with a locked BIOS and lacking compatibility with my RAM. So, after I made the most of Amazon's gracious return policy, I decided to uptake the final resort and go ahead with the purchase of a used motherboard, admittedly with my fingers crossed, on AliExpress.

The shipment had its fair bit of drama over a period of 3 weeks but finally made its way through and was surprisingly well packaged. The absence of dust was a welcome sight, though the rusted socket screws immediately gave way to the fact that the board was used. All things considered, the motherboard was in good condition and thankfully the mounting bracket was included.


The board, an Asus P8Z77-V LX, opened up CPU overclocking opportunities in ages, albeit limited ones on account of my existing hardware. Overclocking can't be thought of in isolation as due consideration is needed to be given toheat. Intel's stock cooler is anything but the perfect foil for overclocking and hence I had to first stock up (pun intended) on an after-market cooler. For this, I again first turned to the used market and amazingly found an open box Deepcool Gammaxx 300 for INR 1200 ($17) as opposed to a new unit price of INR 2000 ($29). It isn't something on any ardent overclocker's wishlist but it gets the job done with its 3 heat pipes and a ginormous 120 mm fan.


To capture the difference that even a budget after-market cooler can make, I ran the stock cooler back-to-back with the Gammaxx 300 on the exposed motherboard. To check the stress temperatures, I simply bumped up the CPU multiplier over the default settings. Even in this setup, the Gammaxx 300 lowered the temperatures by over 20 degrees when under load while also ensuring a much lower idle temperature.


The bigger test however is ensuring lower temperatures in a constrained environment. In that sense, my cabinet (a generic old one at that) is not located in the most optimum position due to cabling constraints. Hence, I was expecting the temperatures to be much worst than they actually turned out to be. It also indicates that using the stock cooler was not even an option, unless you are looking for fried eggs and expensive paperweights.


Being out of the overclocking game for so long, I read up on the motherboard's features while the board was still in transit to fathom some of the newer terms and pretty much decided on a list of settings I would go around changing in my pursuit of performance with the lowest power consumption and heat generation. Thankfully, up until Ivy Bridge, Intel provided limited unlocked multipliers 4 bins above the maximum turbo frequency. This meant that my i5-3470 with a base multiplier of 32 and turbo multiplier of 36 was capable of being run at 40 multiplier. This doesn't imply that all 4 cores can simultaneously hit the 4 GHz mark as it is limited to 3.8 GHz by design. However, what it means is that it can certainly hit the magical 4G mark when one or two of the cores are loaded. I suppose there is some satisfaction in finally getting an old horse to learn new tricks.


Setting the multiplier at its maximum is easy and can even be done using the Auto or XMP overclock option. The difficult part is controlling the temperatures while also finding the limits of the RAM. To that end, I found the Load-Line Calibration to be an indispensable tool in tightening up the voltages and thereby lowering the offset. After much trial and error, I was able to set a stable CPU offset of -0.045V with the high (50%) LLC option which lowered the temperatures by a few more degrees and ensured next to no vDroop.

Running quad-channel RAM from different manufacturers is always a tricky proposition, even when the timings are the same. I had my initial CAS 9, DDR3-1600, 2 x 4 GB Corsair Vengeance teamed up with a similar GSkill RipjawsX set from 4 years later. This meant the job of overclocking the RAM was anything but easy and involved numerous failed boots. Eventually, I was able to get them to run stably at 1800 MHZ, CAS 10 with only a minor bump up in voltage to 1.53V. However, the impact on memory performance was not insignificant.

I suppose it makes sense to go all-in when you have entered the game. Hence, I decided to overclock my GPU as well. For over 2 years, I never overclocked the Zotac GTX 1060 Mini, being as it is, a single fan device. Size can be misleading though and the added CPU cooler certainly aids the overall air flow. It didn't take me long to figure out the memory isn't going to be up to the task, which is understandable considering it is not protected by a heat sink. In the end, I conservatively increased the memory clock by 100 MHz and the core clock by 200 MHz without touching the voltage.

A final tool available in pushing the clock even further is the base clock. Unfortunately, after setting up the overclock for all the other components, I found that the base clock increment to even 101 caused significant instability. Increasing the CPU and RAM voltage brought some modicum of stability but inexplicably reduced the performance across all benchmarks while simultaneously raising the temperature. Thus, there was no use pursuing this path any further.

The performance comparison presents of the overclocked system with the default one certainly provides some satisfaction. The XMP overclock is set to use the maximum CPU multiplier of 40 but it was unable to run the RAM at 1800 MHz at the same time. Going by the incredibly higher temperatures, it is obvious that the XMP overclock pushes the voltages a lot higher. The only upside here is that it is capable of running all the cores simultaneously at 4 GHz which produces a minuscule performance advantage. However, the manual settings are more than a match and come with a significant upshot in memory performance with much better thermals.


While the upshot in CPU and RAM performance is quite evident looking at the table, the GPU performance is not. As it happens, PCMark doesn't stress the GPU much whereas Hitman seems to be constrained by the CPU. Thus, the need of the hour was a GPU intensive benchmark which came in the form of Heaven. As can be seen in the results, the overclock results in an FPS improvement of over 8% compared to the stock speeds. At the same time, it makes sense to set a custom fan curve as it can keep the temperatures down under full load.


To round up the post, no overclock is worth its salt without a stress and torture test. The idle CPU temperature of 27 is pushed up to 63 by AIDA64's stress test and then stratospherically to 77 by Prime95's torture test. However, this is well within the processor's specifications and represents the worst possible scenario that normally doesn't manifest itself in the most taxing of daily use cases.


To conclude, this entire episode was brought about by an unforeseen failure in ageing hardware and hence the overclock exercise is strictly incidental, but the thrill of it as much as anyone would get when setting up a new system.

P.S.: If you followed my earlier post on Meltdown and Spectre, then you'd know it is something I thought of when buying the motherboard. Like with the ASRock boards, there was a helpful soul patching the unsupported Asus boards as well. However, when I went about flashing the BIOS, I found it to be incompatible due to the way it was packaged. Thankfully, Microsoft has fully patched Windows to support the latest microcodes from Intel (1F in the case of the i5-3470). It wasn't auto installed over Windows update and I had to manually install the KB4100347 patch for Spectre.

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.