Getting ready to cross Ivy Bridge: The layman’s guide to Intel’s latest processors

Intel Ultrabook Hummingbird

Although they haven’t been officially announced yet, chipmaking giant Intel is on the verge of introducing its next generation of desktop and mobile CPUs, codenamed “Ivy Bridge.” As always, they will be touted as the latest and greatest processors money can buy, and quickly appear in new Windows systems (and very likely in new Apple MacBooks and iMacs as well).

To be sure, Ivy Bridge processors will offer significant technological improvements over Intel’s existing “Sandy Bridge” line — but it’s another matter altogether whether those differences matter to you. Should you jump on the Ivy Bridge bandwagon right away? If you’re even thinking about buying a new computer in the next few months, you need to know. Here’s everything you need to know about Ivy Bridge.

What’s in a name?

First thing’s first: When Ivy Bridge hits the street, it won’t be called Ivy Bridge; that’s just a codename Intel is using in-house. When the chips become available, they will be sold under the same boring Intel Core i7, Intel Core i5, and (eventually) Intel Core i3 names being used for Intel processors today. Since Intel won’t be giving customers a good way to distinguish between the new chips and previous Intel CPUs with the same names, you’ll still hear the “Ivy Bridge” code name among enthusiasts. When pressed, Intel will likely refer to Ivy Bridge chips as “third-generation” Intel Core processors.

Intel Core logos

All the different variations will be distinguished by part numbers. At first, Intel will likely offer eight desktop CPUs (two i7s and four i5s) and eight mobile CPUs (four i7s and four i5s). What about Core i3? Intel will likely introduce Core i3 “Ivy Bridge” processors in the future, but there don’t appear to be any plans for Core i3 mobile processors. So, for the moment, you can forget about “Core i3” in regards to Ivy Bridge.

What you need to know: Without a distinctive name, Ivy Bridge systems will be hard to identify in the myriad of specs swimming around new computers. If you want one, make sure to ask specifically if a new system has Ivy Bridge, or be prepared to find the processor’s specific model number and compare it to part lists from Intel or other trusted sources.

What’s inside

Intel’s Ivy Bridge CPUs represent an incremental advance over the existing Sandy Bridge line of CPUs — what Intel insiders would call a “tick” rather than a “tock.” The Ivy Bridge chips are the same essential design as the Sandy Bridge CPUs, but shrunk from a 32-nanometer manufacturing process down to a 22-nanometer manufacturing process.

One of the ways Intel managed to jump from 32nm to 22nm in one “tick” of processor evolution was by using new 3D gates. Instead of edging signal paths on silicon substrate as essentially a flat layer, Intel developed a way to make those paths as raised fins. So, instead of just bring able to layer a transistor date on top of a signal path, the gate can envelop it on three sides, creating a much more effective connection and enabling Intel to substantially shrink down the whole assembly.

Intel Planar vs Tri-Gate transistor

How small is 22 nanometers? Intel is fond of pointing out that more than 100 million of its 22 nanometer transistors could fit on the head of a pin, and it would take 4,000 to match the edge of a human hair. In contrast, the very first transistor was large enough that it was built by hand at Bell Labs back in 1947.

What you need to know: Packing more transistors in the same space means Intel is still keeping up with Moore’s Law; it also means the processors can offer more computing power using less power than their predecessors.

The need for speed

Intel-Ivy-Bridge

Like previous Intel Core processors, Intel will be making several versions available under the Core i5 and Core i7 names, and there will be different sets of processors for mobile and desktop computers. In broad terms, the mobile versions are slower but have lower power requirements, so they don’t suck notebook batteries down to nothing in the space of an hour. Desktop processors don’t face the same power and space constraints, so they can be faster, larger, and offer more features.

Intel’s initial Ivy Bridge processors for desktops will all consume 77 Watts and offer base clockspeeds of 3GHz and higher. The mobile versions will consume 55 Watts at the absolute high end, with some models dropping down to a battery-sipping 17 Watts. But there’s a sacrifice: Where the 55-watt versions have a base clockspeed of 2.9GHz, the 17-Watt versions will run at base speeds of 1.8 to 2GHz.

Don’t despair: Those base clock speeds for Ivy Bridge processors can be misleading. Like earlier Intel Core processors, all Ivy Bridge processors will feature Turbo Boost technology — basically, a built-in way to speed up the processor when an application (or operating system) requests maximum performance. On the desktop processors, this can temporarily add 200 to 400MHz to the base clock speed, but on mobile processors the effect is can be much more dramatic. In some cases, the Ivy Bridge mobile processors can temporarily push a single core more than 1GHz faster than its base speed. So, those mobile processors might putter along more slowly doing day-to-day stuff, but they can rev up (and heat up) in response to heavy demands.

All the Intel Ivy Bridge processors will feature multiple processor cores: Those low-power Core i5 and Core i7 processors will feature two cores each — having fewer cores is one way they get the low power footprint. All other Ivy Bridge processors will feature four processing cores. However, all the mobile Ivy Bridge processors will also feature HyperThreading, which essentially lets each processor core handle two threads at the same time. That means a dual-core mobile processor can handle up to four processing threads — in the real world, this is most handy for high-performance games, but also for high-end Web applications (and Flash) and media processing tasks like encoding and rendering video, real-time audio processing, or batch processing photographs.

What you need to know: If you need long battery life, don’t be put off my low base clock speeds or a a mere two processing cores. Mobile Ivy Bridge CPUs represent Intel’s best performance to power-consumption yet.

On the desktop side, all Ivy Bridge processors will have four cores; however, only the Core i7 models will feature HyperThreading. If you play high-end multithreaded games or do serious video or photo processing, the desktop Core i7s remain your preferred choice.

Graphics

Toshiba Qosmio X875

With the current Sandy Bridge processors, Intel took a bite out of AMD’s and Nvidia’s businesses by building a graphics controller right into the CPU. With Ivy Bridge, Intel has put substantial work into improving those built-in graphics. All Ivy Bridge processors will support DirectX 11 and OpenCL out of the box, without the need to a separate GPU.

Ivy Bridge processors will be available with two versions of Intel integrated graphics: HD 2500 and HD 4000. The HD 2500 graphics systems will offer performance roughly comparable to the HD 3000 Intel originally built into its Sandy Bridge processors. The HD 4000 will likely outperform Intel’s earlier efforts by anywhere from 30 to more than 100 percent, based on individual performance benchmarks. But Nvidia won’t be going out of business any time soon. Serious gamers who demand silky smooth performance in modern games will still need a discrete GPU.

All Ivy Bridge mobile processors will ship with Intel HD 4000 graphics. Notebook makers will be able to use Intel HD 4000 graphics as a “fallback” for a discrete graphics controller, enabling users to rely on HD 4000 for undemanding everyday tasks, then switching to a dedicated (and more power-hungry) graphics controller for gaming or other high-end graphics work.

On the desktop side, only the Core i7 and the high-end Core i5 processor will have HD 4000 graphics; the remaining desktop chips will all use HD 2500 graphics.

Although computer makers don’t have to support it, the built-in Ivy Bridge graphics can handle up to three monitors at once: on a notebook, this translates to a built-in display plus two external monitors. For some folks, this means notebooks with Ivy Bridge chips will be more usable as desktop replacements.

What you need to know: Computers with Ivy Bridge processors will have improved graphics compared to systems based on today’s Sandy Bridge processors, but gamers, artists, and folks going video-intensive work will still want a discrete GPU from Nvidia or AMD. This probably rules out super-slim Ultrabooks, which generally won’t have enough space for a separate graphics controller.

Peripherals

thunderbolt-innards

The 7-series chipsets will feature integrated USB 3.0 support — which means computer makers using Ivy Bridge CPUs essentially get USB 3.0 for free along with the CPU. USB 3.0 is about ten times faster than USB 2.0, making it much more efficient for today’s multi-terabyte external storage devices, HD video recorders, and even syncing media with our smartphones and tablets.

What about Thunderbolt? For the last year, Apple Macs have been sporting high-bandwidth Thunderbolt ports, based on PCI-e and DisplayPort technology. Thunderbolt was originally called Light Peak, and was jointly developed by Intel and Apple for high-speed connections to monitors, external storage devices, and other peripherals. However, despite Intel having a hand in its development, the Ivy Bridge chipset will not offer direct support for Thunderbolt. (Computer makers will still be able to put it in as an option.) Apple Macs will likely continue to sport Thunderbolt ports, but the jury is out on how many other computer makers will adopt the technology.

What you need to know: USB 3.0 has become common on PCs in the last year, but built-in support in Ivy Bridge processors means it’ll become ubiquitous, like USB 2.0 has been for the last decade. Chipset support for USB 3.0 likely means Macs will finally get USB 3.0.

Buying advice

So do you need an Ivy Bridge processor? Probably not. Most everyday users don’t even begin to tax the processors they already have in their computers. And, after all, getting a computer with an Ivy Bridge processor isn’t going to make the Internet any faster. For many people, the most direct benefit of Intel debuting Ivy Bridge processors might be making the existing Sandy Bridge systems more affordable, as retailers work to clear their inventory.

Intel's Mooly Eden w/Ivy Bridge die

However, for some folks, Ivy Bridge systems will be very welcome. Road warriors who have been considering super-slim ultrabooks would do well to look at Ivy Bridge-based systems: Ivy Bridge’s lower power requirements mean they’ll offer better battery life, and Intel’s improved integrated graphics should offer a decent gaming and media experience. It won’t please anyone used to the power of dedicated GPUs, but most everyday computer users should be perfectly happy.

Hardcore gamers and those who work in media production may want to consider the high-end desktop Ivy Bridge processors, but preliminary third-party benchmarks of Ivy Bridge chips show roughly a 10 percent performance improvement over existing Sandy Bridge processors — not necessarily enough to justify the cost of a whole new computer. For the very technically inclined, Ivy Bridge processors can be swapped in as replacements for Sandy Bridge parts—so just swapping the CPU is a possibility rather than buying a whole new computer. However, the primarily benefits of Ivy Bridge over Sandy Bridge (considerably improved integrated graphics, USB 3.0 controller, and lower power consumption) just don’t matter as much to desktop users. Buyers looking for the best desktop performance might just want to wait for the next “tock” in Intel’s processor roadmap: “Haswell” CPUs, expected by mid-2013.

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