Three-Minute Tech: Ivy Bridge

[In our Three-Minute Tech series, we tell you everything you really need to know about a new technology in three minutes or less. Unless you’re a particularly slow reader, that is.]

You may have heard a lot about Intel’s “Ivy Bridge” processors lately. This is the latest chip design from Intel, and it will likely be at the heart of most of the laptops, desktops, and all-in-one computers sold throughout the next year. Ivy Bridge is a code name – the retail products will go by the name 3rd Generation Intel Core Processor Family. The Intel processors in today’s computers are 2nd Generation, and go by the code name Sandy Bridge. Compared to Sandy Bridge processors, Ivy Bridge should provide only slightly improved everyday performance, greatly improved graphics performance, and lower overall power consumption.

Intel’s first 22nm CPU

Intel typically releases a new line of consumer processors every year on a schedule they call “Tick-Tock.” The “Tick” is when last year’s general processor design, or microarchitecture, is produced using a new manufacturing technology. The “Tock” comes a year later, where the same manufacturing technology is used to produce a whole new design. New process one year (tick), new design the next (tock). Ivy Bridge is a Tick: it takes the same basic architecture as Sandy Bridge, and makes the jump from a 32 nanometer manufacturing process to a 22 nanometer process.

Intel's Tick/Tock model illustrated. [source: Intel]

What’s all this about nanometers? A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, tens of thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Processor makers measure the size of the individual computing elements on a chip in nanometers. The total number of computing elements you can fit on a 22nm chip is roughly twice what you could fit on a 32nm chip.

In other words, a 22nm chip means the same processing power in a chip half the size of a 32nm chip, or double the processing power on a chip the same size. Or, a 22nm chip that performs the same as a 32nm chip should use less power and produce less heat.

Same CPU, new graphics

The Ivy Bridge family of processors uses the same basic CPU design as Sandy Bridge, and performs about as well in most basic tasks that stress the CPU. You might find a 5-10% boost in performance thanks to a few minor tweaks, but it’s nothing to write home about.

The integrated graphics built into the processor, on the other hand, is entirely new. It’s a whole new architecture, with enhanced capabilities and greater performance. It’s so different from the graphics built into Sandy Bridge that Intel sometimes calls the Ivy Bridge line of processors a “Tick +”. The new GPU (graphics processing unit) delivers better video performance, adds support for DirectX 11, and runs 3D games around 50-70% faster, on average. That’s a huge improvement, but it’s still not good enough to eliminate the need for a dedicated graphics card; if you want to play serious games, you’ll still want one.

What to look for

How do you know if you’re buying a system with the Ivy Bridge processor instead of Sandy Bridge? Look for “3rd Generation Intel Core” in the product name. If the product description doesn’t say all that, look at the processor model number. The Ivy Bridge family uses a number in the 3000s, while Sandy Bridge uses numbers in the 2000s. For example, a Core i7-3570K is a new Ivy Bridge processor, while a Core i7-2600K is a Sandy Bridge processor. There is one exception. Intel launched a pair of really high-end desktop processors for enthusiasts based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, but carrying the model numbers Core i7-3820 and Core i7-3930K. These are the only processors with a 3000 model number that are not based on the new Ivy Bridge chips.

Ivy Bridge chips will first appear in desktops, all-in-ones, and high-power laptops. The thinner, lighter laptops using Ivy Bridge should follow after a month or two. You can expect virtually all computers using Intel chips to have switched over from Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge by the fall of 2012.

If you want to read more detail about Ivy Bridge, check out PCWorld's articles on the Ivy Bridge CPU, and Ivy Bridge Graphics.

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