Sandy Bridge: Bridging the Mobile Gap

We’ve been anxiously awaiting Sandy Bridge for a while, as the old Clarksfield processor was good for mobile performance but awful when it came to battery life. Take a power hungry CPU and pair it up with a discrete GPU that would usually require at least 5W and you get what we’ve lamented in the past year or so: battery life that usually maxed out at 2.5 hours doing nothing, and plummeted to as little as 40 minutes under a moderate load.

Sandy Bridge fixes that problem, and it fixes it in a major way. Not only do we get 50 to 100% better performance than the previous generation high-end Intel mobile chips, but we also get more than double the integrated graphics performance and battery life in most situations should be similar to Arrandale, if not better. And that’s looking at the quad-core offerings!

When dual-core and LV/ULV Sandy Bridge processors start arriving next month, we’ll get all of the benefits of the Sandy Bridge architecture with the potential for even lower power requirements. It’s not too hard to imagine the ULV Sandy Bridge chips reaching Atom levels of battery life under moderate loads, and performance will probably be almost an order of magnitude better than Atom. Sure, you’ll pay $700+ for SNB laptops versus $300 netbooks, but at least you’ll be able to do everything you could want of a modern PC. In summary, then, Sandy Bridge improves laptop and notebook performance to the point where a large number of users could easily forget about desktops altogether; besides, you can always plug your notebook into a keyboard, mouse, and display if needed. About the only thing desktop still do substantially better is gaming, and that’s largely due to the use of 300W GPUs.

All this raises a big question: what can AMD do to compete? The best we’ve seen from AMD has been in the ultraportable/netbook space, where their current Nile platform offers substantially better than Atom performance in a relatively small form factor, with a price that’s only slightly higher. The problem is that Intel already has parts that can easily compete in the same segment—ULV Arrandale and even standard Arrandale offer somewhat better graphics performance than HD 4225 (barring driver compatibility issues) with better battery life and substantially higher CPU performance—and it’s not like most people play demanding games on such laptops anyway. It’s a triple threat that leaves AMD only one choice: lower prices. If Intel were to drop pricing on their ULV parts, they could remove any reason to consider AMD mobile CPUs right now, but so far Intel hasn’t shown an interest in doing so.

In the near future, we’ll see AMD’s Brazos platform come out, and that should help on the low end. We expect better than Atom performance with substantially better graphics, but prices look to be about 50% higher than basic Atom netbooks/nettops and you’ll still have substantially faster laptops available for just a bit more. I’m not sure DX11 capable graphics even matter until you get CPUs at least two or three times more powerful than Atom (and probably at least twice as fast as the netbook Brazos chips), but we’ll see where Intel chooses to compete soon enough. Most likely, they’ll continue to let AMD have a piece of the sub-$500 laptop market, as that’s not where they make money.

The lucrative laptops are going to be in the $750+ range, and Intel already has a stranglehold on that market. Arrandale provides faster performance than anything AMD is currently shipping, while also beating AMD in battery life. Pair Arrandale with an NVIDIA Optimus GPU and you also cover the graphics side of things, all while still keeping prices under $1000. Now it looks like Intel is ready to bump performance up another 25% at least (estimating dual-core SNB performance), and power saving features likewise improve. AMD should have some new offerings in the next six months, e.g. Llano, but Llano is supposed to be a combination of Fusion graphics with a current generation CPU, with the Fusion plus Bulldozer coming later.

We have no doubt that AMD can do graphics better than the current Intel IGP, but at some point you reach the stage where you need a faster CPU to keep the graphics fed. Sandy Bridge has now pushed CPU performance up to the point where we can use much faster GPUs, but most of those fast GPUs also tend to suck down power like a black hole. Optimus means we can get NVIDIA’s 400M (and future parts) and still maintain good battery life, but gaming and battery life at the same time remains a pipe dream. Maybe AMD’s Fusion will be a bit more balanced towards overall computing.

I guess what I’m really curious to see is if AMD, Intel, NVIDIA, or anyone else can ever give us 10 hours of mobile gaming. Then we can start walking around jacked into the Matrix [Ed: that would be the William Gibson Matrix/Cyberspace, not the Keanu Reaves movies, though I suppose both ideas work] and forget about the real world! With Intel now using 32nm process technology on their IGP and 22nm coming in late 2011, we could actually begin seeing a doubling of IGP performance every ~18 months without increasing power requirements, and at some point we stop needing much more than that. Put it another way: Intel’s HD Graphics 3000 with 114M transistors is now providing about the same level of performance as the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles, and you pretty much get that “free” with any non-Atom CPU going forward. Maybe the next consoles won’t even need to use anything beyond AMD/Intel’s current integrated solutions?

However you want to look at things, 2011 is shaping up to be a big year for mobility. We bumped our laptop reviews up from about 25 articles in 2009 to a whopping 100 articles in 2010, not to mention adding smartphones into the mix. It’s little surprise that laptop sells have eclipsed desktops, and that trend will only continue. While the Sandy Bridge notebook is still a notebook, you start thinking ten years down the road and the possibilities are amazing. iPhone and Android devices are now doing Xbox visuals in your hand, and Xbox 360 isn’t far off. Ten years from now, we’ll probably see Sandy Bridge performance (or better) in a smartphone that sucks milliwatts.

SNB marks the first salvo in the mobile wars of 2011, but there’s plenty more to come. Intel’s cards are now on the table; how will AMD and NVIDIA respond? Maybe there’s a wild card or two hiding in someone’s sleeve that we didn’t expect. Regardless, we’ll be waiting to see where the actual notebooks go with the new hardware, and CES should provide a slew of new product announcements over the coming week. Stay tuned!

What About Heat, Noise, and the LCD?
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  • tipoo - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    Sorry if I missed this somewhere in the review, but does the graphics component support OpenCL?
  • RyuDeshi - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    Second to last paragraph on the "Extended compatibility and performance results:"

    "Ultimately, Sandy Bridge’s IGP is far more capable than many would have expected. Sure, it doesn’t even try to support DX11 or OpenCL, but at least for gaming DX11 is typically too much for even midrange GPUs."
  • CharonPDX - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    An Intel rep has said that Sandy Bridge will support OpenCL. ( ) The trick is that it may be a combo CPU+GPU to do it. So it may not be what you are thinking by OpenCL being solely GPU, but OpenCL code should be able to run.

    And in the end, what does it matter, really, as long as it runs? As the desktop Sandy Bridge review points out, video encoding is just as fast using solely the x86 codepaths as using nVidia's CUDA or ATI's Stream.
  • Voldenuit - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    OpenCL was designed from the outset to run on heterogenous resources, including CPU.

    So intel claiming that they "support" OpenCL is nothing special - they just needed the right drivers/API.

    However, don't expect OpenCL code running solely on the CPU (my guess as to how SB will handle it) to be any faster than the x86 codepath running on the same CPU.

    Checkbox feature.
  • jameskatt - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    What Intel wants to do is to have the CPU run OpenCL code.

    This totally defeats the purpose of OpenCL.

    OpenCL is suppose to allow both the GPU and the CPU to run code simultaneously. This is to allow significant acceleration in running OpenCL code compared to using just the CPU.

    Sure. OpenCL code will run. But it will run MORE SLOWLY than with a discrete GPU. And the 16 GPUs in Sandy Bridge will be wasted.

    Intel's Sandy Bridge has non-programmable GPUs. This is a serious limitation and deal killer when it comes to running OpenCL code.

    I expect Apple to continue use nVidia's or AMD's discrete GPUs with the MacBooks and Mac Book Pros.

    This is very disappointing. It shows that Intel still doesn't have the talent to produce decent GPUs.
  • PlasmaBomb - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    And the 16 GPUs in Sandy Bridge will be wasted.

    *cough* I think you mean 12 EU *cough*
  • Guspaz - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    <i>What Intel wants to do is to have the CPU run OpenCL code.

    This totally defeats the purpose of OpenCL.

    OpenCL is suppose to allow both the GPU and the CPU to run code simultaneously. This is to allow significant acceleration in running OpenCL code compared to using just the CPU.</i>

    No, this is the *primary* purpose of OpenCL. The goal of OpenCL is not to "allow the GPU and CPU to run code simultaneously", but to provide a single unified code path that can be used with any hardware, be it CPU or GPU. There are/were already code paths specific to each vendor/type (CUDA for nVIDIA GPUs, Stream for AMD/ATI GPUs, x86 for Intel/AMD CPUs). The problem is that fully supporting all three platforms requires three separate code paths.

    OpenCL unifies this, and allows a single codepath to be used regardless of the GPU's type or existence. You've completely misunderstood the purpose of OpenCL.
  • Wiggy McShades - Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - link

    You need to ask what applications on a desktop actually use OpenCL in a meaningful way? Intel added hardware for media transcoding, which makes transcoding on something besides the cpu useless and that was roughly all openCL can be used for on the desktop, laptop, or cellphone.
    OpenCL is for vector calculations, AVX is for vector calculations. All four cores running AVX instructions would just be a faster choice than OpenCL on a low end gpu. Intel most likely could get sandybridge's gpu running OpenCL, but it would be pointless. OpenCL just is not a desktop feature.
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    Given how much money they have, I doubt Intel is lacking the "talent" to do anything they want. OpenCL execution on the GPU portion of the SNB chips was probably just not that big a deal to them, and given the number of other things (such as speed and battery life) SNB brings to the table they probably won't have trouble selling lots of these to the average consumer.
  • 8steve8 - Monday, January 3, 2011 - link

    which mobile cpus on pg1 support TXT or VT-d or AES-NI or VT-x or Quick Sync?

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