What Intel's Sandy Bridge chips offer you

Intel's newest Core processors use less power, offer integrated graphics

Intel today formally unveiled its line of Sandy Bridge chips at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, taking the wraps off a family of Core processors that includes dozens of new chips, with more to follow later this year.

The chips will fit into Intel's line of i3, i5 and i7 processors, with quad-core versions available on Jan. 9. Dual-core chips are slated to follow next month.

"This is a pretty big deal," said Mike Feibus, an analyst with TechKnowledge. "It really is a pretty impressive platform. This is exciting, especially for mobile."

So, what do the new chips offer users?

Overview

Intel's Sandy Bridge processors include dual-core, quad-core, six-core and eight-core chips for desktops and laptops.

In the last generation of the iSeries chips, the dual-core and six-core processors had been moved to the 32-nanometer manufacturing process. The old quad-cores, however, remained on the 45nm process.

That's now changed. The new processors are all made with the 32-nanometer process, giving the quad-cores more transistors than their predecessors.

"It's a significant introduction," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "They move everything to 32nm here.... These things use quite a bit less power too compared to their predecessors. Some of the new chips use up to half the power."

Graphics

Another distinguishing feature for the Sandy Bridge chips is that they've been designed from the ground up to have integrated graphics.

The latest Intel processors put a graphics processor, microprocessor and memory controller on a single chip. While extreme power users and gaming enthusiasts often look for a separate -- and more powerful -- graphics chip, Olds said the integrated graphics in Sandy Bridge should work just fine for almost everyone.

The advantage to having integrated graphics is that with one chip instead of two, there's no need to connect graphics to the CPU. Eliminating that hop between the two chips saves on heat and power loss.

The downside is that you don't get the graphics performance you would with separate graphics hardware. Intensive users might get more stuttering video or see some drag in graphics rendering, according to Olds.

Chip details

i3: The Core i3 chips make up the low end of the processor line for the Core i Series. They are all dual-core chips for desktops and laptops and they won't be available until February.

The i3 chips will have a few new features, including an update to Intel's Wireless Display technology, which will allow users to wirelessly watch high-quality digital content delivered from their computers to their TVs.

The i3 chips also will have Intel Insider, an anti-piracy technology that keeps people from copying online movie content.

i5: The i5 chips initially will launch with quad-cores for the desktop, according to Feibus. Next month, Intel is expected to release i5 dual-cores for laptops.

The i5 chips will have Intel Insider technology and the updated Wireless Display, along with Quick Sync Video, turbo boost and hyper-threading.

  • Quick Sync Video acts as something of a traffic cop inside the processor. Quick Sync offloads video tasks to the integrated graphics part of the chip, taking the load off of the CPU. "It's something that we haven't seen a lot of performance tests on, but it think it's going to be very helpful in terms of getting better results in video editing," said Olds.
  • Turbo boost automatically turns cores on and off as needed. If a machine is running a quad-core processor but only one core is needed, three of the cores will be shut down to save power or to divert some of their power to the one working core. The sleeping cores will automatically power up when needed.
  • Hyper-threading gives you two threads, instead of one, per core. Software is written so the workloads are split up into threads. While operating systems are getting smarter about this, hyper-threading makes the operating system think it has twice the number of cores.

i7: The i7 chips are the high-end processors in the Sandy Bridge family. Sporting all of the new features offered in the i5 line, these will include quad-cores for desktops and laptops. The i7 chips for laptops are expected in February, with six- and eight-core chips for desktops slated to ship during the second half of this year.

Performance

Both Olds and Feibus said users should see noticeable speed improvements if they switch from the previous iSeries chips to the new generation.

"This should be seriously faster," said Feibus. "To move a movie from your computer onto your iPod or iPad -- that will be more than 20 times faster. For a consumer, that really is a pain point right now. It's something that consumers are doing more and...that should go from tens of minutes to minutes. That's real significant."

He estimated that enterprise users who are doing video and photo editing should be able to do their work five times faster than with the older generation of Intel chips.

According to Olds, increases in performance will vary widely based on what the user is doing.

For instance, someone in an office setting who is generally using Excel or Word should only expect a 10% to 15% increase in performance. However, someone who is doing image processing on the same hardware might see as much as a 40% to 50% increase

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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