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The crystal ball for PC processors in 2012

Analysis Surely more exciting than 2011?
Fri Feb 24 2012, 16:38
Connect the processor and heat sink step 1

THE PAST YEAR WAS AWASH with product delays from both AMD and Intel, and we either saw products with somewhat underwhelming performance or just minor incremental speedups that didn't really matter that much.

After all, for the mainstream desktop, Intel started the year with the 3.4GHz Core i7 2600K at the top end and closed the year with the 3.5GHz Core i7 2700K, the very same Sandy Bridge LGA1155 chip, but just 100MHz faster. Don't expect anything faster in this socket for another three months, as it stands now.

Then, AMD's Bulldozer in its desktop 'Zambezi' variety seems to be - at least in current applications not recompiled for it - either a bit faster or a bit slower than its predecessor, the same socket Phenom X6 1100. So there's nothing much to write home about there yet, either.

The high end doesn't look much better. On the desktop side, Intel's Core i7 3960X, with its six cores out of eight enabled, is a tad faster than the immediate predecessor, the Core i7 990X, but not much more than that. Of course, there has been no AMD high end desktop offering to speak of for this whole past year.

The situation is even worse in the dual socket market, where the Sandy Bridge EP generation didn't appear at all this year. All AMD has are the Interlagos dual-die G34 socket offerings that, just like their desktop brethren, aren't a huge jump over their 'Magny Cours' forerunners.

So what will 2012 bring?

Intel will continue the policy it first introduced with the Sandy Bridge LGA1155, to bring in a new microarchitecture first on the mainstream desktop and mobile level, rather than the high end desktop and server market as was its practice for Westmere and prior generations. So, Ivy Bridge will come out, likely in April, initially just for desktops and laptops, while the workstations and servers will have to make do with the Sandy Bridge-EP, expected to come out just a little before those Ivy Bridge desktops, around CeBIT time.

That is one whole year of difference between the mainstream and the high-end rollout. It makes little sense from the returns point of view, as the high end buyers pay top dollar per socket, but then, it might be less risky to introduce a new process or a microarchitecture through a simpler mainstream design rather than a large high-end one with more cores, caches and other potentially complicating bells and whistles.

The initial Ivy Bridge run led by the Core i7 3700 series won't be much faster than the same-clocked Sandy Bridge in the CPU department, but will bring in around double the GPU speed, critical for better competition against both AMD Fusion and either of the GPU vendors' low-end discrete cards. The internal cache structure stays the same, as well as cache capacity, while the outside stuff has to be identical to the Sandy Bridge due to socket compatibility. The only difference is that the PCIe lanes are now v3 compliant at eight GT/s (gigatransfers per second), compared to five GT/s on the v2 in the LGA1155 Sandy Bridge.


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