Roughly every twelve months, Intel hauls out its latest batch of ever-so-slightly-faster processors to market and tries to whip up a frenzy based around processors that are quicker than last year’s components. Intel’s latest range of processors for desktops and notebooks is a little bit different, if only because the claims around them are a little bit more enthusiastic than in previous years.
I’ve been to more than my fair share of Intel processor launches. Here’s how the script usually goes. Various videos will play touting the new chips, with reference to whatever new features Intel’s stacked into a processor this year. Inevitably, a visiting US VIP will be trotted out to say something nice — this year it was the excellent and exuberant Schmuel “Mooly” Eden, Intel’s vice president and general manager of the PC Client Group — and a few canned demos will be run, showing (typically), increases in the 5-15% range. Nice perforumance to have, but usually not enough to get you out of your seat and replacing all your valuable PC gear automatically. It’s hard to get all that excited about gains that barely crack double digits.
The second generation of Intel’s core processors (codenamed “Sandy Bridge”) offer a bit more than 15%, according to Intel’s figures, and backed up by a number of independent reviews lately. Intel’s figures suggest that a top of the line Core i7-2820QM Sandy Bridge processor will outpace the previous top of the line i7-840QM processor in Excel calculations by a whopping 69%. Slideshow creation between the two processors was claimed by Intel at 62% faster. Bear in mind, that’s with the top line processors of each generation, but the gains (according to Intel’s figures) get better if you’ve got older gear. According to Eden’s speech, a three year old PC will get outpaced by Sandy Bridge by an incredible 831%. Three years is usually the lifespan of a business machine for depreciation reasons, but even if you’re holding on to older gear, the concept of being able to crunch your numbers more than eight times faster has definite appeal.
Greater speed isn’t Sandy Bridge’s only party piece, though. Theft detection measures within the processor allow systems to be remotely locked down or even wiped depending on preference, the inbuilt graphics processor (typically one of Intel’s weak points versus discrete graphics options) has been ramped up to the point where (so Intel claims) it outperforms more than 40% of the discrete solutions on the market. Intel’s Turbo Boost technology, which (in effect) selectively overclocks the cores of a given processor when needed to ensure optimal performance and battery life has been refined, and finally (and perhaps most controversially), there’s also Intel Insider, a DRM technology that allows movie studios to check the presence of a Sandy Bridge processor before streaming high definition movies to it. It’s a mooted anti-theft measure, although even Eden had to admit that “Intel’s never going to stop movie piracy.”
As always, you can expect older systems still in the retail channel to get price drops as the new Sandy Bridge based systems come through into the marketplace over the next couple of months. In previous years, these systems have typically been bargains, because the 5-10% slower processing power has been made up for in the purchase price. When you’re talking gains over over fifty percent, however, that value equation shifts substantially. It may just be worthwhile pitching in a few extra dollars for a substantially faster system.