Until now, if you wanted to use a smaller, lightweight notebook, you had to decide whether you wanted top performance (which meant carrying around an extra battery) or long battery life (with a slower system that pulled less power). Intel's Ivy Bridge processor family has the potential to deliver both.
The new processors are designed to push the performance envelope while keeping power use in check. The new quad-core chips use a 22-nanometer manufacturing process (previous chips used a 32nm process) and what Intel terms the "world's first 3-D transistor."
The Ivy Bridge processors also integrate the circuits for working with PCI Express 3.0 and USB 3.0 devices into the chip's silicon. These functions used to be handled by separate chips, each of which consumed power.
The way Ivy Bridge displays video has been improved as well. Compared to the HD 3000 graphics in the Sandy Bridge processor, Ivy Bridge's HD 4000 graphics engine has been more deeply integrated with the chip's processor cores, including 16 execution units versus 12 units. It also supports DirectX 11 games and software.
One of the main uses for the new processor will be in ultrabooks: slim, lightweight notebooks that comply with a number of specifications laid out by Intel (PDF).
The requirements for being called an ultrabook have changed slightly since the genre's introduction last year. In addition to an Intel Core processor, long battery life and a thickness of no more than 0.7 in. (or 0.8 in. with 14-in. or larger displays), these second generation ultrabooks also need to be able use Intel Identity Protection and Intel Anti-Theft technologies, resume quickly from sleep and support either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt for fast file transfers.
I was able to test two of the first notebooks to appear equipped with Ivy Bridge, both aimed at business users: the Fujitsu Lifebook U772 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X230.
Although only the Lifebook can be termed an "ultrabook" -- the ThinkPad X230 is, with a maximum depth of 1.3 in., too thick for that official designation -- both offer the high performance and long battery life that come with the new processor. In testing, they each outperformed their Sandy Bridge predecessors, such as the Acer Aspire S3, by as much as 40% yet ran at least an hour longer on a charge.