CHIPMAKER Intel's first 22nm processor sets the tone for the next two years, even though the Core i7-3770K is not a huge performance jump over its Sandy Bridge counterpart.
Intel's tri-gate 22nm process node, known internally as P1270, was announced a year ago with great fanfare as the firm believes it holds the key to future process node shrinks. However Intel was always going to physically introduce its tri-gate transistor in a 'tick' cycle, meaning that the first time customers would see an Intel 22nm processor, it wouldn't provide much of a performance increase over its corresponding 32nm Sandy Bridge counterpart.
Interestingly, Intel's own literature suggests the biggest beneficiaries of its 22nm process node will be server and smartphone processors. What Intel is saying is that its 22nm processors will bring lower power consumption and enable it to finally produce smartphone chips that can compete in terms of performance and energy efficiency with ARM-based silicon from the likes of Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia.
When Intel's representatives talked with us in detail about Ivy Bridge almost two months ago they were forthright - do not expect a big performance gain in raw computing, the firm said. However Intel did mention that while Ivy Bridge is a 'tick' processor, the graphics core, dubbed Intel HD Graphics 4000, would in fact deliver a major jump in graphics performance.
Intel hasn't spent all of its time upgrading the graphics core, however. There is also PCI-Express third generation "Gen 3" support and a tweaked memory controller that supports DDR I/O gating, meaning that when the processor is using certain power modes, known as C-states, the memory controller can power down DDR I/O using a VccP power signal. Intel was particularly proud of its random number generator that is designed into the Ivy Bridge silicon and meets ANSI and FIPS standards, which should in theory increase the entropy used in cryptographic operations.
While Intel's decision to move to a 22nm process node should result in a smaller die, the firm decided to use the extra physical space and thermal headroom afforded by the process shrink on the GPU, meaning that not only does Ivy Bridge use an LGA1155 socket but it has the same thermal design power as Sandy Bridge chips. This is designed to accommodate OEMs and system builders to let them avoid redesigning chassis and cooling units, with only a BIOS or UEFI update required.
Intel took the unusual step of announcing the Ivy Bridge support act, the Panther Point Z77 chipset, three weeks prior to launching Ivy Bridge. Intel's decision was perplexing, as we and others found that using a Sandy Bridge CPU on a Z77 motherboard is largely a pointless exercise. Intel's Z77 chipset comes into its own when paired with an Ivy Bridge processor and a graphics card that supports PCI-Express Gen 3.
Intel has also tweaked the pipeline in Ivy Bridge by removing the MOV operation from the execution pipeline while integrating a divider. Intel made changes to the pipeline prefetch, added six 'split load' registers and worked on improving shift/rotate performance.
For all of Intel's talk regarding '3D transistors', reduced channel current utilisation and gate voltage, the processors based on the Ivy Bridge architecture will be judged on performance. In the first of two reviews, we look at Ivy Bridge computing performance.