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Intel Ivy Bridge cometh – what new goodies are in store?

By the end of this month, desktops with Ivy Bridge processors will officially be out there. Since it shares the socket and board infrastructure with its Sandy Bridge predecessors, what new is in there to distinguish the newcomer? We look at the features and overall architecture…

After a bit of extra wait, Intel's first CPUs manufactured in the brand new 22 nm tri-gate process are with us as of next week – the Ivy Bridge family initial members, focused on the upper end of the mainstream desktop and laptop arena, replace their socket-compatible Sandy Bridge predecessors.

Ivy Bridge processors are expected to have impact both on the desktop and mobile arena, from high end gaming rig to an UltraBook. While the core count – up to 4 with hyperthreading added, cache size – up to 8 MB, dual channel memory architecture and clock speeds (3.5 GHz for the top bin, i7-3770K) remain basically the same as the Sandy Bridge, there are quite a few useful improvements we'll look here at:

Lower power consumption – since there was no added CPU core or cache die load, you'll notice that all TDP figures have been reduced, with the top bins now rated at 77W instead of 95W (ED: Officially, not the ones going round the internet). The roughly 20% reduction helps save a bit of power and enables more fancy formats like miniITX, but it would also mean correspondingly higher overclocking headroom in the TDP or power-limitation scenarios, although, as our Lennard will show you, it's not so simple with the first device in the 22 nm process.

Double the integrated graphics & video performance – OK, almost double, depending on the cases, if having the full HD4000 engine. The DirectX 11 compliant graphics now also supports OpenCL for GPGPU computing, including even FP64 double precision format, something lacking even from many discrete GPUs. It's a welcome improvement anyway, one that, I believe, will actually benefit the Ultrabooks most – the graphics performance sacrifice needed to accomodate the form factor can now be a thing of the past. Video encode and decode, fully accelerated, in more formats is supported now as well. You'll see the benchmark results soon.

Ultra high res and multi-display support – with its triple-display capability, as well as support for 4K resolution monitors, which we exclusively unveiled here last September, the new CPU could handle multi-monitor workstation, high end desktop and – in limited scenarios – gaming, if not too detailed 3-D or interaction used.

PCI Express v3 – after the Sandy Bridge-E in Socket 2011, this is the second Intel processor to support the integrated PCIe v3, with double the sustained per-link bandwidth compared to the v2 (yes, it's reached by using better 128/130 encoding rather than the old 8/10 encoding even though the clock rate is only 60% higher in the v3). The 16 PCIe v3 lanes now support all the newest and fastest AMD and Nvidia GPUs, although the benefit of this extra bandwidth seems to be minimal for the current GPUs. Compute GPU tasks, which are sensitive on PCIe performance, may be another story, though

Hardware Random Number Generator – besides improved encryption and other security tasks, hardware random numbers can be of use to maths afficionados as well. There are new instructions added to support this feature, meaning you got to recompile the software, or the relevant libraries, to use it.

Improved memory controller – how about DDR3-3000? Now, it's possible without having 'secret black magic'. The XMP3 supports makes it easier to use brand new DIMMs with extra MHz oomph to achieve this. Note, though, that latency may become more cherished in terms of real performance gains rather than crazy bandwidth pushing – even with DDR3-2000, there's already plenty of raw bandwidth to feed the Ivy Bridge CPU and GPU. The 'sensitive area' then becomes the memory latency.

More overclocking with less effort – higher CPU multiplier limits, finer memory timing control and real time OC adjustments should help the 'speed demon enthusiasts' here, although we probably got to wait for the next stepping revision to see how far the CPUs go without any leakage troubles then.

New 7-series chipsets: minor incremental updates over the 6-series, with more of I/O stuff like SATA 6 Gbps, USB3, Thunderbolt and so on. More on the chipsets in separate story, but it's important to note that both Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge can run on both 6-series and 7-series chipsets.

Now, without dwelving into detailed performance analysis which will be in the benchmark section, the important thing to notice is that, if you own a similar Sandy Bridge setup already, all these Ivy Bridge improvements seem incremental, and not worth upgrading yet. You may be right there, the right machine for a Sandy Bridge owner to upgrade to, is actually Haswell, still another (almost) year away.

If you are a long time user of a LGA1156 Nehalem or earlier Core 2 box, or an AMD Phenom user, then the upgrade can be considered, but the real speed gains across the apps may still be, in many cases, just mid double digits. It's the combination of extra features including new I/O, combined with lower power consumption, that makes Ivy Bridge an attractive upgrade proposition for these users. Do keep in mind that, aside from one or two more speed bin ups later this year, these are the last LGA1155 CPUs, therefore no further upgrade path. The next platform, the early 2013 Haswell, should use the new LGA1150 socket. So, get ready for another round of massive upgrades then!

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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