Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs: The Sandy Bridge Review

Sandy Bridge’s Secret Weapon: Quick Sync

I don’t think it has ever been said that Intel caught AMD and Nvidia off guard in the graphics department. And yet, the Quick Sync engine remained an unknown to everyone outside of Intel, right up until IDF 2010. Would you believe that it was first conceptualized five years ago? Talk about keeping a secret!

At the time, the first BD-ROM drives were starting to ship, representing this shift from SD to HD media. Additionally, there was more growth in mobility than the desktop space. Finally, Intel recognized that the PC was the sole platform for content creation—and the fact that editing a video could gobble up an entire weekend was flat-out unacceptable. It was at that point that Intel’s engineers decided to tackle decoding and encoding performance in Sandy Bridge—both pain points for content creators. They approached the video pipeline using dedicated fixed-function logic, which serves two purposes. First, it enables very compelling performance. And second, it keeps energy use to a minimum.

Of course, that fixed-function logic later came to be known as Quick Sync—a blanket marketing name for Sandy Bridge’s ability to accelerate decoding and encoding/transcoding.

“But wait,” you say. “AMD and Nvidia already accelerate those things using CUDA and Stream (now referred to as APP).” That’s true. But both companies are using general-purpose hardware to improve performance beyond what a software-only implementation can do. And while we’ve all been trained to think that general-purpose GPU computing is the future, at least relative to the more limited parallelism offered by a CPU, the tasks we’re talking about here simply cannot run as quickly or as efficiently (power-wise) in general-purpose logic circuits.

So, what’s the thinking here? We know that video—whether you’re talking about playback or encoding—is a common use case. Dedicating processing cores to that workload ties them up and uses a lot of power. We’ve seen this in our CPU reviews for years now (think about the MainConcept and HandBrake metrics). Software developers have had to parallelize their applications to make video-related workloads finish faster. And that means higher utilization, more power, more heat, and so on. I mean, really, video is one of the most demanding benchmark scenarios we regularly throw at a new chip.

Intel’s answer was to build a dedicated block of silicon onto Sandy Bridge-based processor that does nothing but video. According to Dr. Hong Jiang, the senior principle engineer and chief media architect of Sandy Bridge, this decision was based on the pervasiveness of video. Intel is quite literally betting precious die space that video applies to a broader range of its customers than if it burnt transistor budget on more gaming performance. Of course, it helps that video is one of Intel’s competencies. The investment into Quick Sync ends up going a lot further than a more modest gain in 3D alacrity.  

Needless to say, once word of Quick Sync spread, both AMD and Nvidia started burning rubber right away, working on their own answers to the fixed-function hardware built onto Sandy Bridge-based processors. But everything I’m hearing puts both companies a year away from having something able to compete. It’s like AMD with Eyefinity in that way—Intel took a major leap on the down-low, a number of ISVs were willing to play ball, seeing value added to their own products, and now the company has a major competitive advantage that’ll take a comparable effort to match.

What Does It Do?

There are two encompassing ideas here: encode and decode.

Intel already had a strong position on the decode front—its existing graphics-equipped processors are able to handle MPEG-2, VC-1, and AVC. However, motion compensation (the most complex piece of the decode pipeline) and loop filtering (applicable to VC-1 and AVC) have to be handled by the general-purpose execution units, eating up more power than necessary. Sandy Bridge rectifies this by moving the complete decode pipeline to an efficient fixed-function multi-format codec. It also adds MVC support, enabling Blu-ray 3D playback, too. Video scaling, denoise filtering, deinterlacing, skin tone enhancement, color control, contrast enhancement—all of those capabilities are addressed by blocks of logic in the graphics engine.

On the encode side, you have fixed-function logic working in concert with the programmable execution units. There’s a media sampler block attached to the EUs (Intel calls this a co-processor) that handles motion estimation, augmenting the programmable logic. Of course, the decoding tasks that happen during a transcode travel down the same fixed-function pipeline already discussed, so there’s additional performance gained there. Feed in MPEG-2, VC-1, or AVC, and you get MPEG-2 or AVC output from the other side. 

Now, the way each company employs Quick Sync is naturally going to be different, depending on the application in question. Take CyberLink, for example. PowerDVD 10 capitalizes on the pipeline’s decode acceleration. A MediaEspresso project is going to be significantly more involved—it’ll read the file in, decode, encode, and turn back the output stream. Then, in PowerDirector, a video editing app, you have to factor in post-processing—the effects and compositing that happens before everything gets fed into the encode stage.

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  • mi1ez
    Great looking processors, tainted by a US only competition.
  • aje21
    I was wondering if the HTPC market would be best served by a return to the "mobile on the desktop" approach which was popular during the Pentium 4 era.
  • Anonymous
    Please correct the LGA1555 value on "o Meet Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs" to LGA 1155.
    Thanks in advance,
  • dillyflump
    Sorry im really not sold on the idea of intergrated gpu's. The intergration of the PCIe bus is a good idea, but i wouldn't want to run the risk of having a chip failure. You would effectively loose two components instead of just the cpu.
  • Anonymous
    Any chance you could update this review with screengrabs that show the image quality difference between MediaConverter 7 and MediaEspresso 6? I'm curious why the latter program rendered the video file in only half the time.
  • AnUnusedUsername
    It seems that to anyone who uses dedicated graphics, these chips are more or less just more expensive but otherwise not significantly different from the older ones.. Unless integrated graphics on a CPU can beat dedicated, whats the point of including it on any processor thats selling for more than $150 or so? No one is going to pay more than that for a processor and not use dedicated graphics, so its just wasted space and an increased cost that gets users nothing. Seems to me that Intel is just out of ways to noticably improve performance, since higher clock rates get too hot and more cores aren't coded for, so they are just adding more clutter to their chips and selling them as something new... not saying it was simple, but it seems pretty useless to me. Maybe the next release from intel will take advantage of the more advanced CPU and drop the integrated graphics so we get effectively the same performace at a lower price.
  • chechak
    H67 does not support processor overclocking + Sandy Bridge HD graphic 3000 suck + no usb 3.0 + Sandy Bridge processors are not compatible with Intel’s 5-series chipsets = intel customer wrath :S !!!
  • mosox
    I fail to see anything that changes the game. Another Intel socket that will have only a handful of CPUs on it. No 6 core CPUs on that.
  • wild9
    mosoxI fail to see anything that changes the game. Another Intel socket that will have only a handful of CPUs on it. No 6 core CPUs on that.

    Maybe Ivy Bridge at 22nm, will offer more than 4 physical cores.

    But I feel a similar way to you. Take away the potential of the HD 3000 (which Intel has done with most of the Sandy Bridge portfolio), and what have you got? HD 2000, ring bus and restricted overclocking. Would the average Joe be willing to run out and ditch their i5 for this? Hmm. If the vast majority of these products had Hyper-Threading and HD 3000, I'd be more inclined to say yes. But the current i5 already incorporates decode assist hardware to speed up video transcoding in apps like CyberLink MediaEspresso. As a result the gap between present Core i5 HD graphics and the new Sandy Bridge HD 2000 isn't massive, least not by this measure.


    Even at stock the current i5 doesn't seem too bad compared to the new i3 and i5, and you can always overclock. So for games in particular I'd just spend it on a faster discrete GPU rather than upgrade to Sandy Bridge.

    As for AMD. Well, once again Intel has fired first with what it perceives to be a silver bullet. Except you have to rummage through a pile of fake bullets to aim straight; 75% of the Sandy Bridge portfolio excludes Intel HD 3000. Thus accelerated computing, and to a greater extent on-die 3D gaming performance, will suffer (AMD 890GX still packs a gaming/hd media playback punch compared to Intel HD 2000). So for everything but media transcoding that just leaves ring bus, controversial overclocking features and a somewhat tight-fisted attitude towards Hyper-Threading on quad-core CPU's..not be a big enough reason for me to ditch my current hardware. AMD's approach seems quite the opposite, focusing on socket longevity and putting next-gen technology in everyone's hands, rather than just the few who can afford it.
  • mosox
    The new CPUs look like semi-workstation CPUs to me. Not really much better in gaming but sensibly better in some other areas. I don't know if that's a mainstream direction, I mean who encodes/archives all day long?

    I want AMD to keep on producing cheapo quads and triple cores for the budget gamers out there (I am one). A $100 quad with L3 cache would be nice. And cheap mobos too. Let Intel do its thing on the high end market and concentrate on the 1 billion dudes and dudettes in Africa/China/India/E Europe who want to play Crysis on a cheap rig with a SH Raidmax PSU, an old IDE HDD and the cheapest CPU that can run the game on a 19" monitor.
  • Anonymous
    Cheeky! I game on a 22" screen at 1680 x 1050 thank you very much! I run an HD5850 and core2quad 9450 @ 3.2GHz
  • mactronix
    A lot of people are down on this release and its easy to see why. Personally i want My CPU to do CPU type things and my GPU to do the Graphics.
    That said its a fine standard to set for a gaming machine, however there are plenty of people who just want to make a PC that will handle vidio which Sandy bridge does plenty well enough. Surf the net and play the odd game. For this type of build you just saved on the cost of the Motherboard and you dont need a GPU at all.
    Everything has to start somewhere and teh GPU side of the package will only get better as we go into 22nm and beyond. Games are not getting anymore taxing and pretty soon. 3 years i will say, i can see only hardcore gamers even needing a discrete GPU at all.

  • Anonymous
    Any enthusiast/gamer will be ignoring the integrated gfx and focussing on the K variants. And from this view point, you now have a new CPU that makes almost every other processor completely redundant. No one in their right mind is going to choose P55/X58 over these.

    As an upgrade from an existing i5/i7 setup its not worth it - did anyone really expect it to be? But for a new build or an upgrade from a S775/Q6600 for example, tis a no brainer!
  • strat4axe
    With Sandy Bridge and the forthcomming Bulldozer cpu's on their way,as they develop is it going to be possible to use the on die GPU as a physics engine with a discrete graphics card?Like a hybrid graphics solution,only one that's worth bothering with?
  • strat4axe
    GO away this ain't ebay
  • Gonemad
    mmmkay, these chips ain't exactly targeted at enthusiasts, and a bit of feature malfunction there releasing HD 3000 graphics chip thingie on top tier desktop parts, instead of budget/mainstream, but I certainly do see potential on video encoding for those that live of it.

    On another point of view, discrete sound and network cards were sent on the way of the dodo, when motherboards came with them embedded, leaving behind only really top players in their fields, namely Gigabit NIC, and top-tier soundcards with dedicated or special-purpose hardware.

    I see this trend again, when the CPU has graphic muscle enough to make a discrete graphic card redundant. I mean, one benchmark showed one of these cards tie up with a Radeon HD 4550 and still don't believe it. I see interesting benchmarks on the budget section in the days ahead, where an Intel solution may actually show up on the FPS charts.
  • wild9
    8 consecutive spam messages in a row, with several hours between messages.

    This suggests that a) these spammers are having a field day, and b) that users are avoiding posting altogether due to the sheer volume of spam. I trawled through so much junk to post this, that I almost forgot what I originally came here for.

    Maybe this isn't the place to say it, and I wish to point out I am not trying to say it for no real reason.

    Tom's, what is going on to this great community? These spammers are making a complete and utter mockery of your operation. I like coming here and reading the tech news including people's feedback but if these spammers keep attacking the site like this, it's not worth it for me. I'm wasting time trawling through rubbish and the frustration this causes is really making me look elsewhere. I am confident every other legitimate member of this service feels the same way.

    Why not give trusted users low-level moderator status? Or how about a filter that declares any posts containing text from a spam database, as null and void? I spot several spam posts using the same url, for instance..there's 4 above that could have been wiped out in an instant.

    This is getting crazy, guys. They're ruining it for others.
  • mosox
    Probably that's about what you can get if not upgrading unnecessarily to Sandy Bridge. :)
  • Mudit Sathe
    Why a core 980x is not used in this benchmarks?
  • weefatbob
    mi1ezGreat looking processors, tainted by a US only competition.

    And every price, for this article posted on UK site, is in dollars too!