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Quick Sync: A Secret Weapon, Refined

Intel Core i7-3770K Review: A Small Step Up From Sandy Bridge
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Back when Intel launched its Sandy Bridge architecture, I identified Quick Sync as the design’s secret weapon. Developed quietly for five years, it caught both AMD and Nvidia completely off guard. I projected that it’d take a year for both competitors to respond. And they have—AMD with its Video Codec Engine and Nvidia with NVEnc.

Unfortunately, AMD’s solution is still missing in action four months after it was first promised. Encoding on a Radeon HD 7000-series card has to be achieved through programmable shaders, rather than more energy-efficient fixed-function logic sitting idle on the die.

NVEnc is up and running, and a GeForce GTX 680 manages to outperform Intel’s first-gen Quick Sync implementation.

Nvidia’s victory is short-lived, though. HD Graphics blows everything else out of the water—and that’s even after biasing MediaEspresso toward quality rather than performance.

Arcsoft’s MediaConverter supports Quick Sync just fine, but the latest build doesn’t behave as well under APP or CUDA/NVEnc. Although scaling isn’t as aggressive, we still see how HD Graphics 4000 slices into the time it takes to transcode a large video file into something better suited to a portable device.

How’d They Do It?

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Hong Jiang, Intel’s chief media architect, before last year’s Sandy Bridge introduction to get an in-depth look at how the company implemented Quick Sync. This year, he led a session at IDF discussing the improvements included with Ivy Bridge. The focus, he said, was squarely on performance. Faster processing gives developers more flexibility in implementing higher-quality filters. It also punches through workloads more quickly, returning the processor to idle and saving power.

An increase in EU count helps Intel’s performance story, as does the inclusion of dedicated graphics L3 cache and greater Media Sampler throughput. Because the Media Sampler is part of that scalable third domain referred to as Slice, Intel can add resources in future generations to ratchet 3D and media performance up even more.

The Multi-Format Codec Engine (MFX) carries over from Sandy Bridge, enabling hardware-based H.264, VC-1, and MPEG-2 decoding, along with H.264 encoding. Intel apparently reworked its context-adaptive variable-length encoding and context-based adaptive binary arithmetic coding engines, though, which are both big mouthfuls referring to lossless encoding techniques that the MFX can decode faster.

Anticipating increasing demand for resolutions beyond 1080p in Ivy Bridge’s life cycle, Intel adds support to the MFX for 4096x4096 video decoding. In fact, Intel’s Jiang even claims the MFX can decode multiple 4K streams simultaneously.

Moving beyond Ivy Bridge’s decode capabilities, the media team also sought to improve the performance and quality of encoding tasks. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned that the faster Media Sampler plays a part in Quick Sync’s speed-up. Specifically, it does the Motion Estimation stage’s heavy lifting, so greater throughput helps accelerate that step.

Now, Intel claims that its hardware-based encode solution achieves similar quality as a software solution. Last year, we wrote Video Transcoding Examined: AMD, Intel, And Nvidia In-Depth and found that the quality of every hardware-based encode engine sacrificed some degree of quality compared to a pure software solution. Faced with three new accelerated transcode technologies, we really need to spend some time putting each under a microscope to analyze how that story may have changed.

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  • 0 Hide
    SSri , 24 April 2012 05:15
    Thanks for the pretty quick review. The HD 4000 may be a tempting factor for many low-end desktop users. High-end users are unlikely to switch to IB. Unless extensive future reviews show a different picture, Sandy Bridge would be the CPU for my high-end new build!
  • 0 Hide
    HEXiT , 24 April 2012 06:15
    4% on average is a pretty small performance bump from a dye shrink i was hoping that ivy was gonna be in the region of 10% but i guess a small bump is better than none. still not a big enough jump for me to give up my old i7 920... ah well maybe haswell will deliver.
  • 0 Hide
    damian86 , 24 April 2012 08:48
    Well I think this will be improved in no-time, the guys are doing well in their new architecture and finding new ways to make the big jump. This is like testing, their stuff is good enough to get on the market and they can earn a lot of credits that will help them to keep working hard with new stuff.I really liked their quick sync thing.
    I still don't know the negative points in including gpus in cpus.
  • 1 Hide
    mi1ez , 24 April 2012 09:13
    US comp. You would think they could put that somewhere in the article.
  • 2 Hide
    kaprikawn , 24 April 2012 20:03
    I'm personally very excited by Ivy Bridge. I'm not planning on replacing the first gen i5 in my gaming rig, I can't see the benefit. But I'm looking at replacing the Sempron 1100LE in my server with one of the low power i3 chips when they come out. For a computer that runs 24/7, power consumption and noise are fairly important to me for that machine. The Sempron and the low end i3 have similar TPD ratings, but there's a gulf of difference in performance.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , 25 April 2012 21:36
    An unlocked, "K" variant of the i3, or Pentium-G? That might get people excited...
  • -1 Hide
    K3v1n , 29 April 2012 16:53
    I'm happy with my FX-6100...Even if I had the money, I wouldn't upgrade it, except for maybe a 8150. This CPU is amazing, and no review on here or anywhere really does it justice. It handles every game i throw, I can convert a 6gb HD video to MP4 in 5 mins WHILE photoshop, and a game is running
  • 0 Hide
    army_ant7 , 4 May 2012 06:45
    I still do wish that Intel offered a cheaper or more powerful CPU without the built-in GPU. It seems like a big waste of time, work, and die space (and maybe even money) for, esp. now, such a big GPU portion. But maybe from the business/profit-spending point of view, it really is better for Intel as a company to have GPU's built-in irregardless.

    I'm interested in hearing from anyone else's thoughts on this.
  • 0 Hide
    AndrewdAzotus , 7 November 2013 15:48
    I see and hear about the reasons for not upgrading from Sandy-bridge to Ivy-bridge, but I would be interested in pointers for someone who has not had a desktop for about 5 years but is now looking for a new architecture which will be as long lasting as possible so I can buy a good ($200-$300) motherboard and a cheaper processor with a view to upgrading all components (memory / graphics etc) on the motherboard as time and money permits. I'm thinking either 1150 or 2011 but would appreciate some general guidance