AS SOON AS rumours were heard that both Intel's Sandy Bridge and AMD's Fusion initial entries might be announced well before the end of this year rather than early in 2011, expectations were raised that we might enter the CPU generational switch soon, or at least a bit earlier than expected. But what do the expected Sandy Bridge release at Intel's September IDF and AMD's follow-up Fusion release shortly afterward mean?
First, they don't mean as much as you'd think. Neither of these are high-end parts. The initial Sandy Bridge is the 32nm replacement for the current mainstream 45nm quad core Lynnfield CPUs in the LGA1156 socket. So yes, the LGA1366 six-core Gulftown Westmere processors will remain the nominal high end for a while more. Secondly, the new LGA1155 socket required by the new CPUs doesn't excite the 'mainboard upgrade' fans, but then they shouldn't make too much noise about it since Sandy Bridge CPUs provide much faster PCIe v2 connection to the South Bridge I/O to alleviate the old DMI bottleneck for handling USB3 or SATA3 additions. So, a mainboard upgrade might be worth it to get faster, more future proof I/O interfaces.
In fact, these initial Sandy Bridge Core i5 and i7 parts are, with their quad cores and integrated GPU, more likely to face off against AMD Fusion Llano parts directly, as both companies' new offerings couple four cores and tightly integrated graphics for the mainstream desktop and high end mobile use as well.
While the new Intel Sandy Bridge integrated GPU is expected - but not confirmed, mind you - to be somewhat slower than the Radeon HD55xx derivative squeezed inside the AMD Llano and Ontario Fusion chips, it has one supposed big advantage over the AMD parts: it is, well, "fused" together better with the rest of the CPU. Basically, the Sandy Bridge GPU core communicates directly with the four CPU cores over the shared fast - yes, quite a bit lower latency than Nehalem or Westmere - L3 internal cache, while the Llano GPU supposedly goes through the slower memory controller. Even if it is through the internal crossbar, it would be somewhat slower than sharing data with the CPU cores directly through the L3 cache.
On the other hand, all bets are off when it comes to the CPU speed comparison. If Llano uses full fledged Bulldozer core clusters, with dual integer plus single floating-point units in one block, the application performance versus Sandy Bridge will vary widely depending on the code profiles. The low power Ontario dual core Fusion chip, aimed at the ultra low power 10W - 20W subnotebook CPU market, will have an easier time, as it will fit between low-voltage versions of Sandy Bridge and the 32nm Atom refresh, yet will offer graphics comparable to the Nvidia NV240 GPU in performance, at least if you base the comparison on the Computex AMD Internet Explorer 3D demo.
The real fun, unfortunatelly, will be missed this year. It's the high end battle. Until this month, it looked like neither Intel nor AMD would rush with their top bin - that is high end desktop, workstation and server - new generation parts. These are the AMD Interlagos Bulldozer 12 to 16 core - in reality 6 - 8 "double integer, single floating-point" core blocks - high end G34 socket part to replace the "Magny Cours", as well as Intel's supposed top end Sandy Bridge Core i7 29xx and Xeon 5700 series 6 to 8 core Socket LGA2011 - yes, 2,011 pins for year 2011 - processors. We might have to wait for both even until next summer. Not an exciting prospect, especially for the bored-to-death tech press.
Right now, the rumours are that the release dates for both of these might end up to be a little earlier than this, possibly late spring. Why no rush? Well, from a high end user's point of view, the AVX instruction set extension - one of the key Sandy Bridge advantages - will take more time to be used on complex high end applications that need certifications than a game on a desktop may require. But AMD, right now badly squeezed by Westmere Xeons out of many profitable high end segments, should be keen to push the Interlagos out faster. Maybe that's what it is doing after all, and Intel, not keen to surrender any of the high margin markets, could then speed up the LGA2011 high end Sandy Bridge introduction. Wouldn't it be fun to have one (or, still better, two) next generation 6-core to 16-core CPU(s) in your high end desktop? µ
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