Bridging the performance gap


  • TECH
  • Friday, 14 Jan 2011

otellini online

By M. MADHAVAN intech@thestar.com.my

LAS VEGAS: Giant chipmaker Intel Corp has been adding more “brains” to its processor in the last few years and each processor for the consumer market can contain up to four brains or cores.

This year, the processor received a much needed augmentation — a built-in graphics processor unit (GPU) that will bump the chip’s speed without compromising on power consumption or size.

Previously codenamed Sandy Bridge, Intel calls its new microarchitecture “visibly smart” because it is able to handle graphics intensive task not possible before without an expensive external graphics card.

Intel has also christened the new wave of chips as its second-generation Core processors.

“These Core processors will account for one-third of Intel’s corporate revenue this year,” said Paul Otellini, its chief executive officer at his opening keynote at the recent Consumer Electronics Show here.

The chips will also generate more than US$125bil (RM382bil) in revenue for the tech industry, he said.

Big push

Sandy Bridge processors have enough firepower in the graphics department to satisfy most users and mainstream gamers, said Mooly Eden, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s PC client group.

“Incorporating the newly architected Intel HD Graphics on each die enables significant graphics performance improvements over previous-generation graphics for both HD media processing and mainstream gaming,” he added.

To prove the point, he demonstrated the latest version of World of Warcraft running on an a system with a second generation Core i5 processor.

Later, Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of videogame development and digital distribution company Valve, showed off the much-awaited Portal 2 game running on a Sandy Bridge system.

The game, which will be released in April, will be fully optimised to take advantage of the built-in GPU in Sandy Bridge chips, he added.

Entry-level

“The second-generation Core processors represent Intel’s biggest advance in computing performance and capabilities. They will revolutionise the PC experience in a way that is obvious for every user to see and appreciate,” said Eden.

As with the previous chips, the Sandy Bridge processors will be available in three ranges — Core i3, i5 and i7.

Users can easily tell that a computer is running a second-generation Core chip by looking at the Intel logo which now has a yellow band in the centre that “exposes” the chip design, said Eden.

At the lowest end is the Core i3 series which will be made of dual-core chips for both desktop and laptop computers.

Although they are entry-level chips, they still feature a majority of new technologies that come with the Sandy Bridge chips, according to Eden.

For instance, the Core i3 processors feature WiDi 2.0 technology which will allow computers to stream 1080p HD movies to supported HDTVs. Previous generation chips could only handle 720p HD movies.

“The new processor graphics technology will focus on the areas where most people are computing today: HD video and photos, mainstream gaming, multitasking and online socialising,” said Eden.

However, even though the PC is one of the most broadly available platforms for delivering movies, studios have been reluctant to use it because there isn’t a viable and secure method to stream movies over the Internet, he said.

Intel plans to change that with an antipiracy technology built into the chip called Intel Insider which will prevent users from copying the movie while it is being streamed.

Eden demonstrated the CinemaNow movie website streaming the film Inception in 1080p HD resolution over the Internet after it identified the computer as using a Sandy Bridge processor.

Intel is working with a number of companies, including Image Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, and Warner Bros Digital Distribution to offer services that stream movies in the first quarter of 2011.

However, it’s currently focused in making the services available in the United States, Britain and India.

Intel also promised the fastest transcoding speeds for videos with the new Core chips.

The company claims that a four-minute HD video that used to take four minutes to convert to play on an iPod would now take just 16 seconds on Sandy Bridge, he said.

“The built-in hardware acceleration called Quick Sync Video takes the wait out of editing and sharing videos with astonishing performance that completes in minutes what used to take hours,” said Eden.

With a properly optimised application, the Sandy Bridge chip will be even faster than a system with an expensive discrete graphics card, he claimed.

Big boost

One of the main features of the iCore 5 and iCore 7 is Turbo Boost 2.0. The first version allowed a single core in a processor to run at a higher frequency (think overclocking) by shutting down all the other cores to improve performance.

Turbo Boost 2.0 takes it even further by allowing the speed to be pushed beyond the thermal limit for a very short period before dropping down to normal speeds.

This won’t harm the chip and the short boost in speed helps finish tasks faster and save battery life, said Eden.

Hyper-Threading will be unique to Core i7 and i3 chips and it allows each core in the chip to do double duty. This allows each core to handle two processing threads — a quad-core i7 chip will be able to handle eight threads and a dual-core i3 chip will be able to handle four.

Meanwhile, the flagship Core i7 chips feature the fastest speeds, and six- and eight-core chips are already in the pipeline.

The Core i5 and i7 series, which mainly comprise of quad-core chips, will also include Intel Insider technology and the updated Wireless Display.

Also, all of the new processors are made using the 32nm (nanometer) manufacturing process (see sidebar) which has allowed Intel to pack more transistors than ever.

The Ivy league

Intel called Sandy Bridge its biggest innovation yet for its processor but it’s still saving a few technologies for its upcoming chips based on the Ivy Bridge architecture.

Microsoft’s DirectX graphics engine is used by most games for the Windows operating system.

Instead, the Sandy Bridge chips use the older DirectX 10 graphics engine. The newer DirectX 11 is expected to offer more realistic graphics as well as take advantage of the parallel-processing capabilities of the CPU and GPU to improve performance.

“Intel will integrate the technology into the next-generation chips because the use of DirectX 11 in applications will spread by then. We didn’t think it was the right time for it now, ” said Eden.

Overall, more than 20 processors, wireless adaptors and chipsets will begin shipping starting this month. Intel estimates more than 500 laptop and desktop platform designs will be shipping soon from all major computer makers worldwide based on the new chips.

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