We have all been told that we should wait a little longer for the next PC upgrade, because there’s something bigger, something faster that’s just around the corner – usually a processor or a graphics card. And as always, that something ends up being that much more expensive and we settle for something slower.
Many of us were waiting for Intel’s Sandy Bridge to be unveiled and it’s finally here. So what has Intel done, other than removing one pin from the socket and adding to the preexisting chaos. Consumers are cluelessly shopping for processors juggling with terms and models such as Core i3, i5, i7, Sandy Bridge, LGA1156, LGA1155, LGA1366, P55, X58, H55, H67, and many more.
But let’s focus on the more interesting stuff and see what has changed with these new processors. Processor wars used to about the battle of core speeds when they were just single core processors such as the first Intel Pentium IVs, which soon turned the battle of cores, which then returned into a second round of battle of core speeds and now, are the new processors just another iteration of the same cycle? This time around, they are quad-core processors (with hyper-threading) with advanced fabrication processes allowing to run cooler at even higher speeds. Six and eight core processors will undoubtedly be on their way as well.
One of the other key features that Sandy Bridge brings forward is the graphics processing integrated into the processor itself. It’s not very new to processors, but is there a point to it? NVIDIA and AMD have always been pushing for GPGPU and parallel processing for a long time. Intel’s Larabee was supposed to have followed that path, but the project was abruptly cancelled.
The question to ask is how useful is the graphics performance on the Sandy Bridge? It’s clear from the performance numbers of the Sandy Bridge, that there is nothing spectacular about the graphics performance. While there are models in the lower price range, which could cater for people building PCs on a budget, integrated graphics power on a high-end processor is just pointless for most power users. The biggest bulk of PC users using somewhat slower processors spend time browsing the web, chatting, watching movies and doing the usual desktop tasks. Faster processors also won’t bring a world of a difference to applications such as MS Office or Firefox, unless they were upgrading from PCs from 2005.
The ones who need all of the power on a desktop are multimedia artists, designers and gamers. Those users will always depend on a discrete GPU and not an integrated one on a Sandy Bridge. The faster Sandy Bridge processors aren’t a lot faster than the existing Core i7 processor such as the 860 and 870 models. Shouldn't those users then just stick to the older Core i7s? This isn’t to imply that the Sandy Bridge processors are are identical in performance; there are areas of improvement. There are enhancements which should speed up specific tasks such as media transcoding. Processor and GPU manufacturers keep talking about it all the time but as a customer, how often do you encode videos?
Games have been the driving force for PC hardware development for a very long time. The ones being developed today get the performance benefit of being able to utilise the power of multiple cores and faster core speeds. The thing to watch is how much future-proofing the six and eight core models provide – even if there aren't many applications that will make use of their power now, just how fast is software going to evolve? It's hard to say, so if you're just going to be browsing, working on MS Office and playing a few Youtube videos occasionally on your three year old dual-core system, you're still good to go.