I quite admire Intel as a company. It’s a mega-corporation with operations everywhere - and not so long ago, a solid presence in New Zealand that would be welcome if it returned to our shores. What’s more, Intel takes risks and screws up every now and then.
Who can forget the huge and slow Netburst fiasco with its massive instruction pipeline that saw rival AMD trounce Intel in the performance stakes? It caused the chip giant to revert back to microprocessor architecture - with its roots in the mid-90s - which now powers the Core CPUs.
Then there was Rambus RDRAM. It looked as though it would evolve into a double-data rate SDRAM beater, but didn’t.
Normally, companies don’t recover from serious missteps like that. Intel not only recovered, but fought its way back as top dog. It’s remained in pole position now for the last four years at least with AMD looking increasingly pale as a processor technology innovator.
Intel’s Core processors and adjunct logic up the ante every year and the technological progress shows no sign of letting up. This year’s new big thing, Sandy Bridge, is a 32-nanometre processor micro-architecture and process shrink, with heaps more features integrated inside the processor package. It’s an example of Intel delivering on everything promised by the PhDs I’ve spoken to at various developer forums.
Why am I a little underwhelmed by Sandy Bridge then?
Don’t get me wrong: I was first in line to take a look at the new tech. I had the Intel-supplied Core i7 2600K and Core i5 2500K processors with P67 and H67 boards for a few weeks over the Christmas holiday (right, now you know what I did during, etc.)
Even without souping up the automatic Turbo Mode overclocking, the Core i7 2600K snapped at the previous generation Nehalem top-of-the-range Core i7 980X processor in many benchmarks. The Core i5 2500K wasn’t very far behind either, bar some multi-threaded benchmarks, and for the price of around $350 street, this is a fantastic processor.
What is Intel thinking behind releasing K-class CPUs aimed at overclockers with graphics integrated in the processor, though? Especially since you can only overclock either the CPU or the GPU (a little) - and depending on the chipset used, you may not have access to the integrated graphics.
The IGP in Sandy Bridge knocks the socks off low-end graphics cards; as a proof of concept, yeah, it’s impressive. However, no tweaker worth his or her salt will use the IGP because it’s just not good enough, and its lack of DirectX11 support compounds this.
Then there’s the annoying new LGA-1155 socket - one pin less than last year’s 1156 CPU nest - that necessitates a new motherboard. Sure, you can reuse your old DDR-3 RAM and heatsinks, but LGA-1156 isn’t exactly ancient.
The news that there is a bug in the P67/H67 chipsets that could stop SATA ports from working doesn’t help.
In the current rotten economy, if Intel is hoping that people on a budget will ditch LGA-1156 and LGA-1366 platforms to jump onto Sandy Bridge, well shouldn’t there be a little more to lure people?
Turns out there is: Intel is apparently prepping the Z68 Express chipset that allows overclocking of not only the CPU but also the GPU (probably a bit pointless but ). The Z68 Express also includes attractive features such as Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology SSD caching - use a cheap SSD as a cache for electro-mechanical hard drives that are slower, but much bigger and affordable.
Those features sound seriously cool, and so do the new, yet to be launched, Intel G3 SSDs that would appear to be the natural storage companions for Sandy Bridge.
Traditionally, Intel puts the performance boot into the competition with an exorbitantly expensive Extreme Edition processor: not so with Sandy Bridge. Details are hazy yet, but eight- and ten-core Sandy Bridge Extreme Edition processors are apparently due out later this year, with quad-channel memory forthcoming. The hard core crowd might just sit out the current wave of chips, especially since a new 2011-pin socket will be introduced, requiring a motherboard swap again.
Intel flew me over to Sydney in January for the official Asia-Pacific launch of Sandy Bridge to listen to the formidable Shmuel ”Mooly„ Eden, vice president and general manager of all things PC. Sandy Bridge is very much Mooly’s baby: he worked on the Timna CPU range, which too had integrated graphics and memory controller.
Timna ended up as a cancelled clunker, but I can’t gainsay Mooly as to the advantages that Sandy Bridge brings because they’re real. At the same time, I can’t escape the feeling that Intel seems to have turned down the pace of innovation a notch or two. Perhaps Sandy Bridge was harder to cross than Intel cares to admit?