Hi everybody! How was your vacation? Everyone enjoy their New Years festivities? Well I hope so. I for one had a great vacation, as you can tell by the complete absence of posts for a week or so. However, 2011 is already off to a roaring start courtesy of Intel. There’s no time to waste, so let’s dive into the news.
Yesterday Intel finally announced the first 29 processors of the 2nd generation Core processors, referred to as the “Core 2011” series for short. The 29 processors span the gamut of Intel’s multiple segmented families. On the desktop, Intel’s i7s will all be 4 core/8 thread situations with clock speeds from 2.8Ghz to 3.4Ghz (not including TurboBoost). The i5s are also quad-core but lack multithreading but have many variations – K for overclocked, S for low power, and T for extreme low power (seriously, at 35W that’s the same TDP as the mobile chips). i3s will be dual core with hyperthreading. Mobile chips lack the same letter-modifier as the desktop line and look to be mostly updates of the Westmere mobile chips from last year. Intel has released 15 mobile chips, several of which are quad-core at speeds up to 2.5Ghz (TurboBoost allows for 1Ghz jumps). There are several dual core configurations as well with modest clock speed increases. As for complaints, Intel’s naming scheme rears its ugly head once again. Instead of the classic LV and ULV (or LM and UM) modifiers once used to indicate low voltage versions of mobile chips, Intel is now using a digit of either 7 or 9. 7 is for low voltage and 9 is for medium voltage. This is leading to horribly complex processor model numbers like the i7-2537M. It’s complex and I hate it…. but I digress.
The big news with Core 2011 are the improved graphics processors. Now, all Intel processors from the Extreme Editions to i3s now sport either Intel’s HD2000 or HD3000 graphics engine, with either 6 or 12 “execution units” (EUs), respectively. In short: say goodbye to budget discrete graphics. Long the bane of the Intel platform, Sandy Bridge has improved the antiquated hardware of their IGPs to the point of real usability. The secret to this performance jump stems from integrating the graphics unit onto the processor die. Sandy Bridge’s architecture uses a super-fast 256-bit “ring bus” to link the processor cores, memory controller, cache, and graphics together on the same die. This increases bandwidth between processing elements and reduces latency to the L3 cache, which the graphics core has access to now. Integrating the graphics core on the processor also means it is now fabricated at 32nm. This smaller node allows for tighter design and faster clockspeed, along with aggressive TurboBoost now on board. So overall, you have a faster graphics engine with quicker access to memory. These improvements are enough to overcome the architectural deficiencies of Intel’s fixed-function design. Anandtech says that the Core 2011’s IGP surpasses strong performers like Apple’s 320M.
Along with the improved graphics engine, Intel also has a new video transcoding unit called “Quick Sync”, designed to vastly increase encoding and decoding of modern video codecs like H.264. Word on the street is that it does just that, with encoding performance strongly increased and decoding involving very little CPU involvement. The use of Quick Sync is again another victory for Intel’s graphics, which formerly lacked the kind of video processing power of modern GPUs. I am majorly excited for this technology to be exploited in applications like Handbrake.
Intel has also done work to the basic processor design, rebuilding the out-of-order execution in the core with new cache and improved efficiency. It’s a lot of complex technical stuff that isn’t worth going into without some prior knowledge of CPU architecture. Suffice to say, the basic design of Sandy Bridge’s cores are far better than Nehalem, leading to non-trivial performance increases. Notable is also the addition of AVX – new SIMD vector processing instructions that are twice the size of the 128-bit SSE4 instructions from Nehalem. These 256-bit instructions and processing lead to vastly improved Floating Point performance – great for applications with complex mathematics or games. All in all, you can expect to see up to 50% increases in performance for Core 2011 processors compared to Nehalem/Westmere chips.
These are incredibly powerful and efficient chips. The graphics processors are strong enough to displace budget discrete and integrated solutions from Nvidia and AMD (great news for Apple, now stuck in Core 2 Duo limbo), and the scalability of the architecture design means there will be a chip for all types of PCs (small form factor PCs will see major boosts this year). So get excited for 2011, your computers are going to scream. This is the year and time to buy.