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Intel: Sandy Bridge chips to take laptops into the future

Shrinks graphics processor to 32nm and on to the processor itself

When Intel engineers began thinking about designing a new chip architecture, they first decided to reconsider the way they think about laptops.

Intel executives have been rolling out demos and specs of Sandy Bridge, the company's new microprocessor architecture, at the company's annual Intel Developer Forum (IDF) conference in San Francisco on Monday.

The chip maker is expected to begin producing the new family of chips later this year, and computer makers are expected to begin announcing their new Sandy Bridge-powered machines in the first quarter of 2011.

The first of the new chips, which officially will be named Second Generation Intel Core chips, will be for laptops and desktops. Server and workstation chips are set to be released in the second half of next year, said Intel's vice president and director of PC Client Operations and Enabling, Stephen Smith.

"Before we started in on Sandy Bridge, we looked at where clients are going," Smith told Computerworld. "It's about this transition from desktop to mobile as the predominant form factor. Right now there are more notebooks being sold than desktops. When we optimized Sandy Bridge, we optimized it for the notebook form factor. We wanted the highest performance and the best power efficiency."

And to do that, Smith said engineers decided that the graphics chip needed to be brought onto a 32 nanometer design and built into the processor.

With Intel's Core i Series, which is the current family of Intel chips, the graphics and processor are in a multi-chip package. In Sandy Bridge, however, the processor core and the graphics will all be on the same die.

That means that Intel Turbo Boost technology, which was introduced in the Core i Series, will now work on graphics, as well as the processor.

Turbo Boost is a feature designed to automatically turn cores on and off as needed. Now, the feature only affects the processing cores. With Sandy Bridge, that will change and graphics will get a significant boost.

"If you're in the middle of playing a game and the machine is drawing, it will send more power to the graphics portion," Smith said. "But if you're rendering a 3D drawing before it throws the image on the screen, more power will go to the processor..."

"Clearly, the most dramatic difference is pulling the graphics and media onto 32nm. That gives us much higher performance in the same processor package and thermal envelope," Smith said.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said building the graphics into the processor should give Sandy Bridge chips a solid performance improvement over the current Core i Series.

"Combining the CPU and GPU into a single package also will save power and cut the amount of heat generated as compared to having discrete packaging - not to mention the overall cost to notebook vendors," said Olds. "This might herald a change in thinking for Intel."

"It used to be that integrated graphics were synonymous with cheap and low-quality graphics. But now I think that Intel gets it, and understands that today's workloads are much more graphically intense and require better graphics performance," Olds said.

While Smith would not release any performance metrics for Sandy Bridge, he did say that the new chips will be quite a bit faster than nearly all of the Core i Series chips. However, the new dual-core and quad-core chips will not be able to compete with the Core i7 Extreme chip that is available now.

Smith said Sandy Bridge will have an extreme version of its own at some point, but would not even specify if it will come out next year.

He also would not say how many cores that extreme Sandy Bridge chip might have.

"They will need all the speed they can muster in order to satisfy customer demand for editing, posting, and viewing video files," Olds said. "The notebook market is large and is growing much faster than the desktop segment so it's exactly the right place for Intel to focus."

"The lessons they learn here will help them scale the technology down to fit into other devices like slates and smartphones down the road," Olds said.

See also: Intel Sandy Bridge processors to ship early 2011

Related articles:

Intel to reveal Sandy Bridge processors at IDF next year

Intel Sandy Bridge PCs arriving faster than expected


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