First Look: Intel's Sandy Bridge CPU lineup rewrites the rules

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First Look: Intel's Sandy Bridge CPU lineup rewrites the rules

Sandy Bridge is Intel’s latest microarchitecture, and while CPUs built to this new design still use the familiar Core i3, i5 and i7 brand names, they bring some major advances over the previous generation.

The GPU has been beefed up and moved onto the same silicon die as the rest of the CPU, making the design faster and more power efficient. New “advanced vector extensions” (AVX) help accelerate certain types of repetitive operations, promising a significant boost to applications such as media converters.

Plus, the Turbo Boost system has been upgraded: more cores can be overclocked at once, and to higher frequencies, while a new “kick-down” algorithm automatically provides an additional boost whenever the CPU load goes up suddenly — such as when you open a program or maximise a window.

The only frustration is that Sandy Bridge brings a new LGA 1155 socket. It looks identical to LGA 1156, but isn’t compatible, so upgrading will mean buying a new motherboard.

The chips
The new range comprises 29 new chips, of which 21 are low-power models designed for laptops or all-in-one PCs. We’ll have to wait until manufacturers start building these into systems to see how they perform. We can, however, get an idea of Sandy Bridge’s power from the eight regular desktop chips that Intel has also launched.

You’ll see full details of these models in our March issue.

Core i5 performance
To test Sandy Bridge’s performance we put Intel’s new flagship i5 and i7 processors through their paces, starting with the Core i5-2500K. It comes with a clock frequency of 3.3GHz, rising to 3.7GHz with Turbo Boost, and as it’s an unlocked “K” model you’re free to pump those clocks higher still in the BIOS.

Testing was carried out using our real world benchmarks, on a system based on an Intel DH67BL motherboard with 4GB of Kingston HyperX 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM, running Windows 7 Home Premium from a 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 hard disk. 

Performance results: Four of Intel's new Sandy Bridge CPUs are shown at the top of the table, compared with AMD and previous generation Intel chips.

The i5 gave extremely impressive results compared to previous high-performing CPUs – even more expensive ones, such as the core i7-980X (see graph, above). At default speeds it achieved an overall benchmark score of 2.58 – the sort of result we normally see only from heavily overclocked enthusiast machines.

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