Intel to spotlight future laptop, desktop chips at show

Laptops and desktops with Intel's next-generation Core chips will ship early next year, and the chip maker will use its conference next week to highlight the architecture behind the new processors.

At the Intel Developer Forum, the company will shed light on improvements in its next-generation Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, which could bring significant application and graphics improvements to laptops and desktops.

Sandy Bridge is Intel's first chip architecture in which the graphics processor and CPU are integrated in one piece of silicon. The company has said that new chips will be able to play Blu-ray 3D video, something Intel's chips alone are not capable of doing today. Chip-level improvements will also accelerate certain graphics, software and 3D tasks such as modeling.

Integrating graphics with the CPU should also bring higher levels of power efficiency to laptops, which should improve battery life. Sandy Bridge succeeds the Nehalem architecture, which is the chip design behind Intel's current Core processor offerings.

Early benchmarks by technology site Anandtech show Sandy Bridge chips outperforming their predecessors. The website also said that the chips were more power-efficient and delivered graphics capabilities good enough to compete with some entry-level discrete graphics cards.

The Sandy Bridge microarchitecture is going to be a "technological tour-de-force," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

The new architecture could provide a compelling case for consumers to upgrade PCs that are a few years old, Brookwood said. It will be interesting to see if the new chips help reverse the slumping fortunes of the PC industry, Brookwood said.

Intel's chips go into more than 80% of computers worldwide. However, research firms and chip companies, including Intel, have forecast slower growth in chip shipments in the second half of the year as PC shipments are expected to slow down.

PC shipments usually depend on economic conditions and how quickly consumers replace aging computers, Brookwood said.

The economy has not been as good as expected, and that could discourage people from any discretionary spending on laptops, Brookwood said.

It will also be interesting to see whether Sandy Bridge's graphics improvements disrupt the growing shipments of discrete graphics cards, Brookwood said. Microsoft's Windows 7 OS provides richer visual content and demands more from graphics processors in systems, and Intel has been improving its graphics capabilities with every new chip generation.

Analysts have pointed to the sudden increase in discrete GPU adoption in laptops as a sign that people were unhappy with the integrated graphics performance of Intel's latest Core chips, which were released earlier this year. Users are now shifting to switchable graphics, where specific tasks like video rendering can be switched between the CPU and the discrete GPU. The discrete GPU, which is superior to integrated graphics, kicks in only when needed, helping preserve battery life.

Intel's rival Advanced Micro Devices is releasing a family of chips called Fusion, which integrate a graphics processor inside a CPU. There may not be a direct clash between the two as the first set of Fusion chips will most likely be seen in netbooks and low-end PCs, Brookwood said, adding that the level of competition will depend on budgets and levels of performance sought by buyers.

AMD has said that its first Fusion chip code-named Ontario will appear in low-priced laptops starting early next year. AMD this week also announced a faster low-power chip code-named Zacate, for "ultrathin, mainstream, and value notebooks as well as desktops and all-in-ones," according to a blog entry.

Beyond Sandy Bridge, Intel is expected to make announcements around its Atom family of mobile processors, which are designed for use in netbooks, tablets, smartphones and embedded devices such as set-top boxes. The company will provide further details on an upcoming Atom processor code-named Tunnel Creek, which is due to ship in the fourth quarter and will power future tablets and embedded devices.

The company could make some announcements around Google TV, a software and hardware platform announced by Google in May that blends broadcast TV and Internet into one interface. Intel is providing the hardware -- its highly optimized Atom CE4100 chip -- for television sets and set-top boxes. The Google TV partners include Sony and Logitech, and the Atom chips will appear later this year in Sony's high-definition TVs and Blu-ray DVD players.

Intel officials declined to comment for this story.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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