Intel announces Ivy Bridge chips for high-end laptops and desktops

Intel finally made Ivy Bridge official today. The announcement of the first 3rd Generation Core processors was widely expected--Intel first began talking about Ivy Bridge about a year ago.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Intel finally made Ivy Bridge official today. The announcement of the first 3rd Generation Core processors was widely expected--Intel first began talking about Ivy Bridge about a year ago. Nevertheless Ivy Bridge is big news both as a product, paving the way for faster and thinner PCs, and as a technological feat.

The first batch of Ivy Bridge processors consists of 14 quad-core chips, mostly designed for desktops, though there are five high-end mobile processors too. These are primarily designed for workstations and high-end consumer PCs used for 3D gaming and content creation. The less expensive dual-core chips used in most laptops including Ultrabooks won't show up until perhaps late May or early June.

Intel claims there are more than 270 desktop designs and more than 300 mobile products in development. In particular, the company seems to be emphasizing upcoming all-in-one designs. There are 65 new all-in-one sin the works including some models with displays that can lie flat enabling new applications such as multi-player gaming.

In comparison to the current Sandy Bridge processors, Intel said that Ivy Bridge will deliver 20 percent better performance at lower power. But the biggest improvements appear to be in the graphics and media processing. The HD2500/HD4000 graphics has up to 16 execution units (compared with 12 in Sandy Bridge); supports DirectX 11 and the latest versions of OpenCL and OpenGL; can drive three independent displays simultaneously; and has Quick Sync Video 2.0 for faster video transcoding. The increase in graphics performance exceeded Intel's original goal and the company is claiming a 2x improvement over Sandy Bridge on its tests.

Aside from better performance, Ivy Bridge has several other connectivity and security features that are likely to make it an attractive upgrade. The 3rd Generation Core processors and 7 Series (Panther Point) chipset, which was already announced, support USB 3.0 for faster file transfers, PCI Express 3.0 for workstations and gaming PCs that use discrete graphics, and Thunderbolt. Intel said there are 21 Thunderbolt devices on the market now growing to more than a 100 by the end of the year and "hundreds" next year. New security features include Intel OS Guard, which prevents malware attacks on Windows 8 and some Linux distributions; Secure Key, a random number generation for more secure online transactions; and Anti-theft Technology that can remotely lock down a stolen or lost laptop. Future Ultrabooks using this platform will also have caching technology for faster boot times and connected standby--compelling features that Intel has been promising for some time.

Ivy Bridge is a significant product announcement, but it also a technological milestone. It is the first processor with features as small as 22nm. Some memory companies are now making NAND flash chips with features as small as 20nm, but no one is making logic chips at this node (rival AMD's processors are manufacture by GlobalFoundries using a 32nm technology). The quad-core processor has a total of 1.4 billion transistors on a die that measures 160 square millimeters. To put that in perspective, this chip has 20 percent more transistors that a Sandy Bridge quad-core but measures only three-quarters the size.

In addition, Ivy Bridge is also the first mainstream chip of any kind to use a new three-dimensional transistor, which Intel refers to as a tri-gate, though it is very similar to what the industry calls a FinFET. Nearly all other chips use planar transistors. The tri-gate transistor enables Intel to make the transistors smaller and denser, and increase the performance, while maintaining control of power. Currently the rest of the industry does not plan to shift from planar to FinFETs until the 14nm node, which is still years away, though lately there have been rumors it could happen sooner.

In the meantime, Intel is in the middle of what it claims is its fastest product ramp ever. The company has already built three factories to manufacture 22nm chips and a fourth will start production later this year. In the first two quarters of production, it has manufactured 50 percent more chips than during the same period in the Sandy Bridge ramp.

The 3rd Generation Core processors will compete with AMD's A Series APUs (Application Processing Units). Current AMD systems are using the Llano family of APUs, but AMD said on its earnings call last week that it had already begun shipping next-generation Trinity APUs to customers. Trinity uses the same manufacturing technology--GlobalFoundries' 32nm process--but it has a new core and will have double the performance per watt, according to company officials.

Neither Ivy Bridge nor Trinity is likely to alter the competitive landscape. Intel will maintain a sizable lead in CPU performance, and it chips will command price premium, though dual-cores should push Ultrabooks prices down to as low as $699 by the end of this year. AMD's APUs have the edge in graphics but the company will continue to compete on price in mainstream laptops and more affordable "ultrathins." The only question is to what extent Intel has managed to narrow the gap on graphics performance with both AMD and Nvidia. The first reviews are already starting to appear so we should have a better idea on this very soon.

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