Lab Tested: Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs Deliver Blazing Speed and Energy Savings

Performance: Games Testing

Our test beds were well equipped to handle gaming too, delivering strong performance across the board on our games tests. We ran four modern games, to get a general idea of performance: Codemasters' Dirt 2, Activision's Call of Duty 4, Eidos' Just Cause 2, and GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. The tests were run at a 2560-by-1600 pixel resolution, with the highest possible settings.

That their performance is nearly identical isn't too surprising. The Core i5 2500K doesn't offer Intel's Hyper Threading technology, but in this case, the graphics card is the limiting factor. That said, these are rather strong results. Our tests are performed on a 30-inch display, with every conceivable setting cranked up -- lower the settings a bit, and even the aging discrete graphics card won't stand in your way.

Intel's second-generation of integrated graphics aren't quite ready for enthusiast level gaming, however. When the the graphics card was removed, our Core i5-2500K testbed failed to offer playable frame rates at any resolution, on any of our tests. If you'd rather not purchase a discrete card (or your new PC doesn't offer one) less demanding titles -- browser-based games, or Blizzard's World of Warcraft, for example -- will perform reasonably, at medium settings.

But all is not lost: new features like support for 1080p Blu-ray playback and stereoscopic 3D will make things a bit more appealing for Compact desktops, or smaller notebooks and netbooks that rely on integrated graphics to maintain a low profile.

Media Encoding with Intel's Quick Sync

Of special interest on the revamped integrated graphics is the new, hardware-based accelerated video processing -- Intel has dubbed it Quick Sync. Quick Sync is designed to speed up video encoding tasks without the aid of a discrete graphics card, when you're using software that supports the functionality.

It's all invisible to the end user. We gave Quick Sync a try, and compared its performance to video encoding on several other machines. We tried the Core i5-2500K testbed running on Intel's integrated graphics and using an AMD Radeon 5870, the Core i7-2600K equipped with an AMD Radeon 5870, an All-in-One desktop equipped with a Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM, and a midtower desktop sporting an AMD Phenom II X6 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a Radeon HD 5750 graphics card.

We used the latest version of Cyberlink's Media Espresso 6, which supports Intel's hardware decoding, and the open-licensed (and hilarious) Big Buck Bunny. It's a 900MB 1080p clip that's just under 10 minutes long. We encoded the clip for playback on an iPhone 4 and an iPad, at 720p. On the chart, "IGP" refers to a test using the Core i5-2500K's integrated graphics.

The results are impressive -- Intel's new integrated graphics beat out machines equipped with discrete graphics cards in all but one instance, and ran circles around the Core i3-based All-in-One. CPU utilization hovered at around 35 - 40%, and the system responded snappily even while churning through my video processing demands.

AMD and Nvidia would do well to take note, as this is a clear shot across the bow at discrete graphics cards. If your video demands are heavy and you've no interest in gaming, a PC equipped solely with Intel's second-generation integrated graphics has become a palatable option. Integrated-only Compact desktops can be had for as little as $300 -- expect to see many PC manufacturers touting quiet, small PCs as dedicated media machines with a bit more muscle this year.

Next: Power efficiency and final thoughts

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