Computex 2010: Intel demonstrates Sandy Bridge, promises a big performance boost

Intel is doing nothing to downplay expectations for Sandy Bridge, its next-generation microarchitecture. At Computex this week Intel execs have been showing more details and promising a big performance boost.

Intel is doing nothing to downplay expectations for Sandy Bridge, its next-generation microarchitecture, here at Computex. Over the past few months the company has been providing glimpses of the capabilities of Sandy Bridge at events such as the Intel Developer Forum in Beijing and the recent analyst's day, but in Taiwan this week Intel execs have been showing more details and promising a big performance boost.

Currently in production, Sandy Bridge is a new 32nm microarchitecture that will be available in laptops and desktops starting in early 2011. In other words, it is the "tock" to the Westmere "tick," the 32nm shrink. Sandy Bridge is significant because it is the first time Intel has developed a mainstream monolithic die (meaning a single physical piece of silicon) that contains both the CPU and the integrated GPU (graphics processing unit). The current Westmere design consists of a 32nm processor and a separate 45nm chip with Intel HD integrated graphics combined in the same package.

During his keynote presentation on Tuesday, Executive Vice President Dadi Perlmutter demonstrated the graphics capabilities of a Sandy Bridge laptop, showing it side-by-side with an existing laptop using a mid-range discrete GPU both playing the same 3D game. The crowd was not able to tell which system was using Sandy Bridge with Intel integrated graphics.

"It delivers a great performance leap--probably better than anything we've ever done before," Perlmutter said, adding that production of the new chips was in "great shape."

In a separate presentation, Mooly Eden made the case for the greater performance delivered in both in the current Westmere-based systems--with features such as Turbo Mode and hyperthreading--and in the future with Sandy Bridge. He first demonstrated how these feature can make desktops and laptops more responsive on everyday applications such as e-mail, PowerPoint and Google's Picasa. For example, Eden said that laptops using the Calpella platform with a Westmere CPU were 2.2 to 2.3 times faster than the previous Montevina laptops on tasks such as photo editing and video conversion, and hinted at much bigger things with Sandy Bridge.

"Sandy Bridge is not going to be 2.3x. It is not going to be 3x, it's not going to be 4x," Eden said. "It's going to be much higher."

Eden added that Sandy Bridge would increase performance in a balanced way across the CPU, graphics and video. He argued that video performance was more important than 3D gaming for most users, taking a shot at competitor Nvidia in the process. "Some companies say it is all about graphics. I don't blame them-they don't have a CPU," Eden said.

The real competition here is AMD, which has expertise in both CPUs and discrete graphics. It is also putting the finishing touches on a monolithic CPU+GPU, known as Fusion, which is slated to be available around the same time as Sandy Bridge. I'm hoping to hear a bit more about these Fusion APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) at AMD's press conference here on Wednesday.

In addition to discussing Sandy Bridge, Intel made a few product announcements related to consumer PCs. First, the company announced its first mainstream desktop processors that are designed to be overclocked. The Core i7-875K ($342) and Core i5-655K ($216) are identical the 2.93GHz Core i7-870 quad-core and 3.20GHz dual-core Core i5-650 but with an unlocked core ratio. During his press conference, Eden showed how the 2.93GHz Core i7-875K could be pushed to 4.0GHz using Intel's overclocking utility and Turbo Mode. Second, Intel announced that the first PCs to support Blu-ray 3D playback using a Core processor and Intel HD graphics would be available this summer. Finally the company said that its Intel Wireless Display technology for streaming content to HDTVs will be available on more than 30 different laptop models worldwide later this year. It is currently an option on only a handful of notebooks in the U.S.