Chip ‘Tock:’ Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors arrive

Intel Sandy BeachNot to be outdone by the arrival of the long-awaited Fusion APUs from rival AMD, Intel got its CES chip lineup in order with the introduction of its second-generation Core CPUs, more commonly known by their Intel codename “Sandy Bridge.”

The processors are the latest “tock” in Intel’s annual “tick-tock” development cadence, a further refinement of the smaller processors introduced last year as the Core i3, i5 and i7 chips introduced next year, and featuring about a billion transistors in a chip. David Allen, director of distribution sales for North America, said it’s the things built into the processor that make it different.

First and foremost among those changes are significantly improved integrated graphics. Although still limited to DirectX 10.1 for now, Allen said the new integrated graphics capabilities on the chips are a 25x improvement over what the company was shipping in 2007 – handily beating the company’s own prediction at Intel Developer Forum 2007 that it would drive a 10x improvement by 2010.

“The integrated graphics in Sandy Bridge will enable a lot of people to look at integrated graphics,” Allen said. “This will meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of users.”

That’s in part because the video and media subsystems of the new processors are located on-die for the first time. Sandy Bridge chips are the first Intel chips that include processing core, memory, PCI Express and video controllers on the die in a ring formation, increasing the speed and efficiency with which components communicate.

Sandy Bridge also sees a significant upgrade to the company’s Turbo Boost technology, which allows processor-intensive applications to get more horsepower out of a single core by dialing down the work done by other cores. Intel says the chips now take better advantage of the thermal realities of processor design and can boost cores above their target clockspeeds for almost 30 seconds at a time before bringing them back down to Earth.

“It’s much better at turning itself on and off – it’s like built-in overclocking,” Allen said.

And because it’s all about the cloud, Allen said Sandy Bridge processors offer optimization for the handling of data pulled down from the cloud.  “Sandy Bridge handles it differently, it’s a pretty important enhancement,” he said.

Also new in the chips, as Allen put it, “more and more security hooks” into the architecture, including an improved anti-theft option, better encryption and technology for preventing buffer attacks. Plus whatever may be in store once Intel wraps up its purchase of McAfee.

Typically for a processor product launch, Sandy Bridge processors are shipping now from a variety of OEMs, including HP and Lenovo. The chips are also available in the channel – via Intel’s system builder and component retailer partners. In fact, Allen said the channel often leads the way with new processors.

“Channel continues to be key to us because it continues to lead the way in transitions,” he said. “They were first out with the new Core i3, i5 and i7 – channel volumes in early days were exceeding the big OEM vendor volumes. They’re the jackrabbit for us.”

Ultimately, Allen said he expects, as usual, the channel balance to be an even split amongst VARs, retailers and system builders.

Allen’s advice to partners – get to know the new technology, understand it and support it. One of the big selling points may well be the ability to do more with less time.

“Nobody buys technology for technology’s sake,” Allen said. “Enable it mad make it a seamless and easy-to-use computing continuum.”