Toshiba Qosmio F50: Notebook with Cell Co-Processor

Toshiba Company decided to start using a special SpursEngine processor based on Cell architecture. We are going to talk about the peculiarities of this processor with the help of a solution from Toshiba Qosmio series that usually includes the most expensive and functional models.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
02/23/2009 | 04:04 PM

Introduction

Intel’s 2003 release of the mobile platform Centrino helped notebook makers in some aspects but also raised new problems. Intel took the responsibility for hardware compatibility and driver support but how was the manufacturer supposed to attract the customer to his notebooks if they were so similar in characteristics to other brands’ products? The makers of modern mobile computers take different approaches to solving this problem. Some of them experiment with the exterior design, others create the aura of elitism around their products, and others yet not only squeeze everything out of the available platform but try to enhance it with additional functionality.

 

Today I’m going to introduce to you a mobile computer that was born out of the developer’s effort to create a top-performance, original and multifunctional solution out of standard hardware components. It is the Qosmio F50-10K from Toshiba.

The Qosmio series combines high-performance multimedia solutions positioned as desktop PC replacements. The Qosmio F50-10K is a new representative of the series, based on the latest Centrino 2 platform that features 45nm Penryn processors with 1067MHz system bus. The multimedia aspect of this notebook comprises an advanced GeForce 9600M GT graphics card from Nvidia, an integrated TV-tuner, and a high-quality audio subsystem.

However, it is not the specifications and not even the extravagant design that are the most exciting thing about the Qosmio F50-10. It is one of the first mobile computers that, besides the traditional CPU and GPU, has a third processor, the so-called Toshiba Quad Core HD. In this review I will focus on this processor and the opportunities it opens before the user. I want to note it from the start that the high price of this notebook is not only due to this third processor. The exterior design and manufacturing quality contribute to it, too. Therefore, I suggest that we start out by looking at the notebook’s exterior.

First Look

Positioned as a desktop replacement, the Qosmio F50-10K is equipped with a 15-inch LCD display. 17-inch screens, which are more appropriate for such market positioning, are installed in Qosmio G models. The F50-10K can even be viewed as a high-performance mobile solution as it weighs no more than 3 kilos and its dimensions are quite typical for a 15-inch notebook. Unfortunately, Toshiba did not include a bag or pouch to carry the notebook in into the kit.

The first impression about a notebook is emotional, and the manufacturers try hard to make their products memorable and attractive. However, tastes differ and it’s next to impossible to suit everyone’s aesthetic preferences. I am personally not enthusiastic about the Toshiba designers’ ideas. The Qosmio series has been changing repeatedly, getting less and less restrained and austere. As a result, the F50-10K lacks any straight lines in its countenance, but has a striped texture and bright white LEDs on the case. Although painted black and white, the notebook doesn’t look quite serious to me.

I don’t like the quality of the materials, either. The notebook is made from glossy plastic painted gray on the lid and almost black inside. Just as you can expect, the plastic gets soiled easily. Scratches, dust and greasy fingerprints are all just too visible on it. It is a shame there is only one cleaning napkin included with the notebook. Besides, the plastic is not rigid enough. The notebook’s lid can be easily pressed in down to the LCD screen, and the interior surfaces also bend too much. Well, I should acknowledge that the case does not really screech or twist because it has a rigid base made from a tougher material. Anyway, the notebook doesn’t look sturdy to me, and you should be careful when carrying it with you.

Thus, the Qosmio F50-10K is not immaculately designed despite its high price. Although the designers have tried to make it look luxurious, for example by adding the metallic framing of the interior surface, the low quality of the material spoils the effort. The characteristic plastic burls on the pseudo-metallic frame look particularly awful.

The white shining elements adorning the notebook – the stripes between the touchpad and keyboard, the rim of the volume control, the touch-sensitive buttons below the main keyboard, and the decorative LEDs near the speakers – do not make it any better. Frankly speaking, this illumination is even bad because it will dazzle the user at work. Fortunately, you can turn it off with a special button.

Well, not all users are so fastidious about a notebook’s exterior. More importantly, the developers have made some mistakes in terms of consumer properties. First of all, I mean the notebook’s 15-inch display. Its size and resolution of 1440x900 may be more or less normal for a multimedia computer, but its matrix is too low quality. The display has very small viewing angles, especially vertical angles. The developers have obviously used a far-from-best version of a TN matrix. The maximum brightness of the screen may also prove to be too low for comfortable work under bright ambient lighting, especially as it has a special glossy coating called TruBrite. And one more ergonomic drawback of the Qosmio F50-10K is that you cannot unfold it by more than 135 degrees. I had really expected more from such an expensive notebook!

I don’t mean the Qosmio F50-10K has no good points at all. Its Harman Kardon audio system consisting of two speakers (located above the keyboard and directed at the user) and a subwoofer (in the bottom panel and directed downward) is comparable to inexpensive standalone speakers, which is good for a notebook. The external volume control – a wheel located under the keyboard – is handy, too.

The audio subsystem supports Dolby Sound Room technology to deliver surround sound via two speakers or headphones.

The keyboard is high quality, too. Although it bends under a strong pressure, I have no complaints about the design of its buttons which do not rattle and move softly. The keyboard has a standard layout, its keys being large enough for comfortable work.

Located in its traditional place below the keyboard, the touchpad has a rough, uneven, surface that feels nice at first but may be irritating if you use it for long. The touchpad buttons have sufficient stiffness. There is a fingerprint scanner between them – I don’t quite understand why it is integrated into a multimedia desktop-replacement notebook. A third touchpad button would be more appropriate.

Above the keyboard and between the speakers there is a row of touch-sensitive multimedia buttons together with buttons to turn off the highlighting and turn on the web-camera. Like the volume control rim and the decorative strip above the touchpad, these buttons are highlighted in white at work.

The indicators on the notebook’s front panel have the same highlighting.

The monochrome color scheme of the notebook is somewhat disrupted by three color LEDs: blue for the 1.3-megapixel web-camera and two orange LEDs for the wireless interfaces and the optical drive.

The Qosmio F50-10K comes with a TV-tuner that can be used in Windows Media Center. A standard MCE-compatible remote control is included with the notebook.

The Qosmio F50-10K doesn’t have a player that might work without booting the OS up. If you turn the notebook on by pressing the Media Center launch button, Windows Vista will boot up first and Media Center will start up then.

Positioning the Qosmio F50-10K as a desktop replacement, Toshiba equipped it with a full range of wired and wireless interfaces. The notebook supports both wireless technologies, Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth. The available wired interfaces are represented by the connectors in the notebook’s side panels.

A hardware Wi-Fi switch and an infrared port are placed on the front panel.

The left panel offers a card-reader (it supports SD, various versions of Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard, and xD-Picture Card), a DVD-burner, USB 2.0 and FireWire ports, analog audio input and output (the latter is combined with optical S/PDIF). Frankly speaking, I had expected the Qosmio F50-10K, such an expensive notebook as it is, to be equipped with a Blu-ray drive but the manufacturer, having suffered a fiasco with its HD DVD format, does not yet offer support to the alternative technology.

The notebook’s right panel provides a connector for an additional IR-receiver, an ExpressCard slot, a USB 2.0 port, and a HDMI interface. Thanks to the latter, the Qosmio F50-10K can be connected not only to an external monitor but also to modern TV-sets.

At the notebook’s back you can find an analog D-Sub port, an eSATA port (combined with a USB connector), a separate USB 2.0 port, a Gigabit Ethernet connector, a modem input, and an antenna connector for the integrated TV-tuner. Easy to see, the Qosmio F50-10K lacks an analog video output. Notwithstanding the HDMI interface, such an output might be useful for a multimedia notebook positioned as a desktop replacement.

And the last thing that must be noted is the bottom panel that offers access to some of the notebook’s components. So, you can get to the memory slots and to the hard drives (the Qosmio F50-10K comes with as many as two HDDs).

Note the position of the vent hole: the air is sucked in through a single grid, so it is quite easy to deprive the notebook’s CPU and graphics card of fresh air. Placing the Qosmio F50-10K on a soft surface or on your laps may lead to overheat, even though this won’t be a quick process because the notebook’s case is rather large.

The notebook is powered up by a heavy 19V/120W power adapter. The included battery has a capacity of 57.6Wh. According to the manufacturer, the notebook can last for 1.8 hours on the battery. I will check this out in the Tests section.

Hardware Configuration

From a hardware point of view, the Toshiba Qosmio F50-10K is hardly different from other top-performance notebooks based on the Centrino 2 platform (Montevina). The developer only replaced Intel’s standard Wi-Fi adapter in mini-PCI form factor with an Atheros AR9280 that offers the same functionality, including 802.11n support.

Otherwise, there is nothing exceptional about the Qosmio F50-10K. It is based on a Core 2 Duo T9400 processor (Penryn core, 2.53GHz clock rate).

The CPU is linked with a 1067MHz bus to an Intel PM45 chipset, a mobile counterpart of the popular desktop P45 chipset.

The memory subsystem consists of 4 gigabytes of DDR2-667 SDRAM working in dual-channel mode with 6-6-6-18 timings. The notebook is equipped with two SO-DIMM slots, both of which are occupied by default.

Although there are as much as 4 gigabytes of system memory, the Toshiba Qosmio F50-10K comes with 32-bit Windows Vista Ultimate preinstalled. As a result, only 3 gigabytes are available out of the whole capacity. You won’t even be able to replace the OS by yourself since Toshiba does not offer the necessary 64-bit drivers. You can find the drivers for most of the system devices at the websites of their respective manufacturers, but, for example, Toshiba’s exclusive Quad Core HD processor is not yet supported under 64-bit OSes at all. That’s a serious drawback of the notebook, I guess.

The Qosmio F50-10K is positioned by its maker as a top-performance solution that can replace a desktop, even a gaming, PC. Therefore the Qosmio F50-10K uses a midrange graphics card GeForce 9600M GT from Nvidia. It is based on the 540MHz G96M chip and equipped with 512 megabytes of DDR2 memory clocked at 800MHz. The GPU has 32 shader processors, which makes it comparable to the entry-level desktop GPUs GeForce 9500 GT and 9400 GT.

Thanks to the GeForce 9600M GT graphics card the notebook offers full-featured support for HDMI output and hardware acceleration of HD video decoding. That’s quite important for a multimedia computer.

The notebook’s disk subsystem incorporates two identical Toshiba MK3252GSX drives (320GB, SATA-II, 5400rpm, and 12ms average access time). These drives work independently and you cannot unite them into a RAID (the notebook’s South Bridge doesn’t support this technology). The developer didn’t install a flash Turbo module whose efficiency in its current implementation is still questionable.

The other controllers and components installed in the Qosmio F50-10K are not particularly interesting, except for the exclusive Toshiba Quad Core HD processor I will discuss in the next section.

SpursEngine

As I wrote above, the described notebook is unique as it incorporates not two but three processors. Besides the traditional CPU and GPU, the Qosmio F50-10K is equipped with a Quad Core HD processor. I have not seen this chip before in desktop or mobile computers. The processor is Toshiba’s own innovation and incorporates technologies found in the Cell processor which is, by the way, developed by a joint venture of Toshiba, Sony and IBM.

The Quad Core HD chip is also known as SpursEngine, and Toshiba is promoting its use in computers as well as consumer electronics. Without delving deep into details, I can tell you that the SpursEngine is a special-purpose coprocessor intended for real-time processing of video (including high-definition video). Especially interesting is that the SpursEngine uses Synergistic Processing Elements, borrowed from the Cell micro-architecture, as main computing components. Thus, SpursEngine is just one more application of the Cell micro-architecture which has been mostly limited to same-name processors installed into the popular game console Sony PlayStation 3.

To remind you, the classic Cell processor consists of eights SPEs and a Power Processor Element (PPE) that serves as a coordination center. These components are all joined together with a ring bus. This design allows using Cells as general-purpose processors not only in gaming consoles but even in special-purpose servers. However, the SpursEngine is not a full-featured processor, even though it uses the same micro-architecture. It is an additional coprocessor that cannot solve any tasks without being controlled by the main CPU. In other words, the SpursEngine chip lacks a PPE. It only incorporates four SPEs and a few auxiliary subunits.

The SPEs are in fact miniature RISC processors with 128-bit SIMD architecture. Each SPE can perform operations with sixteen 8-bit, eight 16-bit or four 32-bit integers or with four single-precision real numbers per one clock cycle. Besides 128-bit registers for storing operands and data, each SPE has a dedicated 256 kilobytes of SRAM. Theoretically, the SpursEngine offers excellent capabilities for processing of large arrays of data in parallel. Processing video is an example of such a task, so Toshiba suggests that the SpursEngine be used for it in the first place.

Targeting this application, Toshiba endowed the SpursEngine with hardware video codecs of H.264 and MPEG-2 formats. Thus, the SpursEngine is an ideal device for analyzing and applying various effects to the video stream being played or exported in real time. It means the SpursEngine can be used in a wide range of devices, not only computers (computers don’t actually need much help in this area because they have advanced multi-core CPUs and high-performance GPUs that can process video with their own shader processors).

Anyway, even though Toshiba has announced a number of home appliances with SpursEngine, this technology began to be promoted in PCs. The integration into the existing Centrino 2 platform made it necessary to equip the SpursEngine with additional interfaces. Particularly, this coprocessor supports a PCI Express x4 bus to connect to the system chipset and has an XIO interface for 64 or 128 megabytes of dedicated XDR DRAM (developed by Rambus). This is how the SpursEngine or Quad Core HD processor is implemented in the discussed notebook.

The SpursEngine SE1000 is clocked at a frequency of 1.5GHz, which is only half the frequency of the original Cell processor. However, the developer tried to reduce the chip’s heat dissipation keeping in mind its applications in consumer electronics. Therefore the clock rate is not set too high. The SpursEngine has a peak performance of 48 gigaflops anyway, easily copying with tasks intended for it, while its heat dissipation is only about 10-20W.

Besides Toshiba’s Qosmio F50, G50 and G55 series notebooks, the SpursEngine can be found on standalone PCI Express cards offered by Leadtek and Thompson as well as in the new 42- and 46-inch TV-sets Toshiba Regza.

Toshiba Quad Core HD Coprocessor at Work

From the platform’s point of view, the Toshiba Quad Core HD is an ordinary PCI Express device. It thus needs a driver to work properly.

The driver doesn’t offer any additional functions. It just allows the SpursEngine to communicate with the OS. You need special software to load this device with work. Toshiba is distributing its API among software developers, so everyone can theoretically make use of the additional computing capabilities provided by the SpursEngine. On the other hand, there is still very little software that supports the Quad Core HD processor.

Why? Well, it only makes sense to put some computing load on a third processor when the CPU and GPU are already loaded with work. However, this scenario is only typical of 3D games, but Toshiba touts its SpursEngine as a means of interactive video processing and does not intend it for game applications yet.

Thus, the owner of a Qosmio F50-10K is offered only four applications that can make use of the Quad Core HD processor.

First, it is high-quality scaling of HD video content. To remind you, video on DVDs is stored at a resolution of 720x480 pixels but modern HD TV-sets and PC monitors have higher resolutions. Therefore DVD content is stretched out and blurred in full-screen mode. Toshiba suggest using the SpursEngine to additionally process the video stream in real time to improve the sharpness of video content played in full-screen mode.

From a practical point of view, the sharpness enhancement for scaling video content is available in Toshiba DVD Player (Upconvert feature). The SpursEngine does make the image sharper and more saturated. It looks as if color correction and the Sharpen filter are applied to the video.


SpursEngine On


SpursEngine Off

The second feature implemented through the SpursEngine is the gesture-based control over the notebook – remotely and without any additional devices. On the technical level, this is achieved by analyzing the video stream from the integrated web-camera for specific user gestures. This analysis is performed in real time by the Quad Core HD processor, so this technology does not affect the CPU or GPU whose resources remain free for other applications to use.

With the current implementation of this technology the notebook can recognize three predefined gestures. Swinging your fist you can make the pointer move on the screen whereas showing the notebook your thumb or palm you can emulate the pressing of mouse buttons. I should acknowledge that this technology really works and you can indeed control your Qosmio F50-10K from a distance. The only downside I could find is that this manual interface doesn’t work well under dim lighting. However, this problem is only due to the low quality of the notebook’s 1.3-megapixel web-camera. You can switch the gesture-detecting application to an external image source, though.

Video scaling and gesture-based control are the best illustration of the SpursEngine’s capabilities as of today, although Toshiba offers one more tool that can work with this exclusive processor. It is Graphical Video Library that can work with video files recorded in formats the Quad Core HD processor supports, i.e. MPEG-2 and H.264. The usefulness of this program is questionable, but it can utilize the Quad Core HD processor for two tasks: re-encoding video with a higher degree of compression and indexing clips by means of characteristic frames with facial close-ups.

According to Toshiba, the exclusive processor helps accelerate the performance of the mentioned tasks. Indeed, Graphical Video Library is very fast at re-encoding and indexing.

However, the practical advantage of Graphical Video Library over other video-processing tools is not so obvious. You can do the same jobs with other programs that utilize the resources of the CPU and GPU but do not have such limitations concerning the supported formats. The algorithms of encoding video on the graphics card’s shader and stream processors can even show a higher performance thanks to paralleled GPU architecture.

Unfortunately, these are all the applications of the SpursEngine currently available although its potential is high. As is often the case, the main problem is the deficient software support for the Quad Core HD processor due to the latter’s low availability. But even those few available applications look highly promising. That’s why the introduction of the SpursEngine into computers doesn’t look like pure marketing to me. I hope other resource-consuming video-processing applications will be able to utilize this processor’s capabilities soon.

Specification

The following table contains a summary of the notebook’s characteristics.

Besides the notebook and its power adapter, the box contains:

No discs with software are included with the Qosmio F50-10K. Everything necessary is already preinstalled on the hard disk. If you need system restore discs, you can create them yourself using a special program.

Performance

Finally I’d like to give you some objective information about the consumer properties of the Qosmio F50-10K notebook. I ran a few tests on it in Windows Vista Ultimate x86.

First of all I measured the notebook’s battery life. I had disabled its Wi-Fi and Bluetooth adapters and set the screen brightness at the maximum level before this test. Then I launched MobileMark 2007 that could measure the battery life for three usage scenarios: ordinary work, watching DVD, and reading text.

Just as the specifications promise, the notebook can work on its battery for less than two hours under medium load and somewhat more than two hours under light load. That’s not much, but the Qosmio F50-10K is not meant to be a traveling companion. It is a multimedia desktop replacement and its battery life is quite good for this positioning.

By the way, the Qosmio F50-10K recharges quickly. Its battery charge grows up from zero to 95% in about one hour, which is very fast.

Next I tested the notebook’s performance in PCMark Vantage.

The results suggest that the Toshiba Qosmio F50-10K is about as fast as a desktop PC with a Core 2 Duo E7200 processor.

The notebook’s graphics performance was tested in 3DMark06.

The GeForce 9600M GT graphics card installed in this notebook is not as fast as its name seems to imply. Frankly speaking, it is closer to cheap entry-level desktop cards like GeForce 9400 GT.

Is this enough for playing modern 3D games? Let’s see.

Notwithstanding the discrete graphics card, modern 3D games can only run fast on the Qosmio F50-10K at rather low graphics quality settings. This is not a gaming notebook, even though you can play games on it occasionally. Newest games can run fast at low settings while rather old games can even be played at high settings (excepting full-screen antialiasing). So, this notebook is not utterly hopeless when it comes to gaming.

Its case does not heat up much at work. The components have modest temperatures even under high load (the next screenshot was captured when the notebook was running 3DMark06 together with Prime95).

It is simple: the Qosmio F50-10K has a large case and it is easy to ensure proper cooling for its components. Unfortunately, the cooling system is rather noisy when the fan is working at its full speed. It doesn’t reach full speed often, though.

Conclusion

Positioned by Toshiba as a desktop replacement, the Qosmio F50-10K notebook differs from others with its three-processor design. Besides the traditional CPU and GPU, it has a Toshiba Quad Core HD coprocessor with Cell micro-architecture. The purpose of this coprocessor is to process video in real-time mode in order to improve playback quality and to process video clips exported from digital cameras. Although there are currently few applications capable of using the Toshiba Quad Core HD processor, the technology itself look promising.

The addition of the third processor didn’t affect the traditional components. The Qosmio F50-10K has a modern midrange hardware configuration. It is based on the Centrino 2 platform, has a latest-generation Core 2 Duo processor, a midrange discrete graphics card, and 4 gigabytes of system memory. Thus, this notebook can be used to run everyday applications and even play modern games. The only downside is that you cannot install a 64-bit Windows Vista on it due to the lack of drivers, but this problem will hopefully be solved soon.

Being a multimedia solution, the Qosmio F50-10K offers a wide range of interfaces for any device, including monitors and TV-sets with HDMI input.

With all these indisputable advantages, the notebook is not free from several significant drawbacks. For example, the developer didn’t equip it with a modern Blu-ray drive. Its 15-inch display is not as good as you may wish to see in a modern full-size multimedia notebook. Its viewing angles and brightness are disappointing whereas the impractical glossy coating is going to annoy gamers who play dark atmospheric games.

Well, the notebook’s whole case, not only the display, is subject to criticism. Besides the questionable design, the plastic of the case is too soft and easily soiled. Its neat and shiny look won’t last long. The decorative highlighting with white LEDs does not really make the notebook’s case a pleasure to behold. It just dazzles you.

Of course, it depends on the product’s price if you can put up with its deficiencies. Unfortunately, the Qosmio F50-10K is way too expensive even considering its Quad Core HD processor, 4 gigabytes of system memory and high-quality audio subsystem. It just has too many small and significant drawbacks for its price.