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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  • JE_D
    BENCHIES! Thanks Tomshardware!
  • Editor, page 10 has mistakes. Its LGA1155, not LGA1555.
  • cangelini
    MoneyFace pEditor, page 10 has mistakes. Its LGA1155, not LGA1555.

    Fixed, thanks Money!
  • juncture
    "an unlocked Sandy Bridge chip for $11 extra is actually pretty damn sexy."

    i think the author's saying he's a sexually active cyberphile
  • cangelini
    juncturei think the author's saying he's sexually active

    Just this.
  • fakie
    Contest is limited to residents of the USA (excluding Rhode Island) 18 years of age and older.

    Everytime there's a new contest, I see this line. =(
  • englandr753
    Great article guys. Glad to see you got your hands on those beauties. I look forward to you doing the same type of review with bulldozer. =D
  • joytech22
    Wow Intel owns when it came to converting video, beating out much faster dedicated solutions, which was strange but still awesome.

    I don't know how AMD's going to fare but i hope their new architecture will at least compete with these CPU's, because for a few years now AMD has been at least a generation worth of speed behind Intel.

    Also Intel's IGP's are finally gaining some ground in the games department.
  • cangelini
    fakieContest is limited to residents of the USA (excluding Rhode Island) 18 years of age and older.Everytime there's a new contest, I see this line. =(

    I really wish this weren't the case fakie--and I'm very sorry it is. We're unfortunately subject to the will of the finance folks and the government, who make it hard to give things away without significant tax ramifications. I know that's of little consolation, but that's the reason :(

  • LuckyDucky7
    "It’s the value-oriented buyers with processor budgets between $100 and $150 (where AMD offers some of its best deals) who get screwed."

    I believe that says it all. Sorry, Intel, your new architecture may be excellent, but unless the i3-2100 series outperforms anything AMD can offer at the same price range WHILE OVERCLOCKED, you will see none of my desktop dollars.

    That is all.
  • DjEaZy
    ... will wait til 'buldozer'... and two things may happen... the buldozer at the price point will kick ass... or the sandy bridge parts will get cheaper...
  • touchdowntexas13
    There is some pretty cool stuff going on here. I like the way the article points out the good and the bad. As for me I really am mystified at Intel's decision to only put the higher end graphics in the k-models as most likely anyone buying them will be going for the P67 platform that doesn't even use the integrated graphics. It would have been soooo much better for the HTPC crowd if there were some lower end chips with the better integrated graphics. I guess somehow this is money motivated???

    As for overclocking, well it seems a bit odd in the way it is being implemented. But for $216, I can't complain too much about a quad-core with a base clock of 3.3 GHz. Some enthusiasts won't like the limited overclocking features, but others will welcome the simplified approach.

    I will be building my brother a new gaming computer for graduation this summer and now I have another viable option to look at. I had planned on going with a P55 + i5 760, but now I will need to consider the P67 + i5 2500K.

    Waiting on bulldozer...
  • jyar727
    I mean this looks like a thorough test but its really not. I wanted to see an I7 1:1 clock performance comparisons. Mainly, 3.4GHz I7-950 vs 3.4GHz I7-2600K. Obviously 3.4 GHz new tech would usually beat a 3.0 current tech in benches. UGH. lame lame lame. Really want to see this comparison instead.
  • silversurfernhs
    Shouldn't the title be second gen Core i series... because Core 2s were second gen Cores, weren't they?
  • Tamz_msc
    Where is the 980x in these benchmarks?
    Other than that its a great article, and I'm drooling over QuickSync!
  • Maziar
    Thanks for the review Chris :)
    QuickSync definitely looks interesting.
  • Ramar
    I just bought an i5-760 system on 12/30 from newegg, I guess I wasn't paying attention to when Sandy Bridge would actually be released. It's not here yet, so I could just send the mobo and cpu back when they get here, but I don't see enough justification as a gamer to move to the 2500k. Based on the number of 1.35V 4.7ghz for the 2600k, I would assume that on stock voltage it doesn't get much higher in frequency than my 760 will, and I don't like raising stock voltage.

    This is all very nice, but I'll keep my bclk control for now and maybe move up when I get out of college in seven months and the tech is set in stone and dropping in price a little.

    Not a bad chip, and I'm excited to see where they go with it. =]
  • Hellbound
    Is sandy bridge the replacement to the x58 chipset? I thought I read somewhere they were planning on x68 sometime in 2011.
  • djdarko321
    Remember though as this is the lower end Sandy Bridge platform NOT THE MAIN LGA2011 socket. As Intel decided to release for the mainstream first before the enthusiasts this go around.
  • Tamz_msc
    Just looked at the AnandTech review and here is their opinion -

    In all but the heaviest threaded applications, Sandy Bridge is the fastest chip on the block—and you get the performance at a fairly reasonable price. The Core i7-2600K is tempting at $317 but the Core i5-2500K is absolutely a steal at $216. You're getting nearly $999 worth of performance at roughly a quarter of the cost.

    These things are as fast as the i7 980X and in some cases they're even faster!
  • swiftor
    i5-2500k + p67 ftw!
  • nekromobo
    What if you throw something like 8k x 4k or 4k X 4k resolution video to QuickSand.. Sync :)

    Nice review, but personally still not going to replace my 3.6ghz C2Quad.. when will this cpu die so I can replace it!
  • Shuge1
    Im just waiting for bulldozer to get me out of buyin the i5 2500k
  • Reynod
    Quick Synch is just downright embarrasing for AMD ...