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

Although the processing cores in Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture are decidedly similar to Nehalem, the integration of on-die graphics and a ring bus improves performance for mainstream users. Intel’s Quick Sync is this design’s secret weapon, though.

Editor’s Note: Eager to show off what is has done with Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture, system builder CyberPower PC is offering Tom’s Hardware's audience the opportunity to win a new system based on Intel’s Core i7-2600K processor. Read through our review, and then check out the last page for more information on the system, plus a link to enter our giveaway!

The high-end desktop processor market is a one-horse race, with Intel’s LGA 1366-based Core i7-900-series CPUs pretty much tromping along uncontested. If you have the money and are building a performance-oriented machine, it’s hard to beat an overclocked Core i7-950. Power users who really need the punch of a six-core chip can go Core i7-970—just be ready to pay out the ears for the privilege of owning one.

It’s the mainstream where we see more interesting battles being waged. Funny how healthy competition has a habit of forcing more aggressive prices, isn’t it? For example, the quad-core Core i5-760 is compelling at $200. But so is AMD’s six-core Phenom II X6 1075T. And while AMD’s Black Edition parts captured the hearts of overclocking enthusiasts long ago, Intel more recently shipped a couple of K-series SKUs that bucked the company’s habit of only unlocking the multipliers on thousand-dollar Extreme Edition parts.

And now we have a new architecture from Intel, called Sandy Bridge. The last time Intel launched a processor design, it started with high-end Core i7-900-series chips and let the technology trickle down to the mainstream and entry-level derivatives. This time is different. Sandy Bridge is going to have to swim its way upstream, surfacing on the flagship LGA 2011 interface in the second half of this year for the real workstation-oriented aficionados.

Intel’s Here And Now

That’s a long way away, though. Between now and then, LGA 1366 is supposed to remain at the top of Intel’s stack, while LGA 1155-based processors centering on Sandy Bridge gobble up all of the volume as a result of what Intel claims is a ~30% performance improvement versus the Lynnfield- and Clarkdale-based processors.

Naturally, this means trouble for an AMD that continues to launch incrementally faster versions of its existing architecture—but nothing that’d give it the double-digit speed-up needed to fend off a new microarchitecture from its competition. The only way to strike back at this point is with lower prices, and that's probably not the route AMD wants to be taking. We expect Bulldozer, the company's own next-gen architecture, sometime in 2011; that launch can't come soon enough.

A large enough boost from Sandy Bridge would also make Intel’s Core i7-900-series vulnerable too, though. Right now, these are, at minimum, $300 parts (that’s just to get in the door with a -950) that drop into generally more expensive motherboards requiring pricier triple-channel memory kits. I’ve been saying all along that the X58 platform would remain, definitively, Intel’s crown jewel on the desktop. But after running the the numbers I’ve run on Sandy Bridge, I have to wonder if X58’s days are numbered a little sooner than the company planned.

Sandy Bridge has a couple of other surprises up its sleeve—not all of them destined to go down as smoothly as a 1996 Dom Perignon on New Year’s Eve. For one, overclocking on an Intel platform is drastically different, and the LN2-drinking crowd probably won’t like it very much. There’s also a big emphasis on integrated graphics, which we’ve seen prematurely praised as a potential alternative to entry-level discrete graphics. That doesn't turn out to be the case, at least on the desktop.

On the other hand, Sandy Bridge comes armed with a block of fixed function logic that specifically addresses video encoding. AMD and Nvidia have no answer to this, are a year behind Intel with a competitive solution, and get completely outperformed today in video workloads. We also have a couple of unlocked SKUs that really give this architecture, manufactured at 32 nm, room to stretch its legs.

Putting Sandy Bridge To The Test

Leading up to the Sandy Bridge architecture’s launch, Intel sent over four SKUs from its upcoming lineup: Core i7-2600K, Core i5-2500K, Core i5-2400, and Core i3-2100. We put all four processors through a brand new benchmark suite for 2011, along with Bloomfield-, Lynnfield-, Clarkdale-, and Yorkfield-based chips from Intel, plus Thuban- and Deneb-based CPUs from AMD.

While many of you were enjoying time away from word around Christmas and digging out of blizzard-like conditions ahead of New Year's Eve, the Tom's Hardware Bakersfield, CA lab was kept busy and warm by the latest bleeding-edge CPUs being run through their paces. Shall we?

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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!