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May 1, 2012
Intel’s new chip bridges graphics gap
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Intel's new Ivy Bridge chip is wideley seen as a notable development in silicion transistor design. Source: Intel.comAlthough the actual release of CPU chips these days includes about as much surprise as the New York Yankees being in the playoff chase, Intel managed to surprise industry experts recently with its new Ivy Bridge chip.

The primary laptop processor chip makers – Intel, AMD, and ARM – have widely leaked roadmaps and analyst days where they reveal all of the features of the chips well ahead of the release date. Intel’s recently released Ivy Bridge family of CPUs followed that suit. Most of the chip’s features were known well ahead of the release, including a shrink in the manufacturing process, which allowed Intel to squeeze 1.4 billion transistors onto a quad-core die that’s about 26% smaller than its processor from last year, Sandy Bridge.

However, Intel was able to hold back information from analysts before the release, giving the company at least a little bit of a boost. Intel increased the amount of graphics processing power that it has built into the CPU, creating a chip that has much-better-than-expected integrated graphics.

Certainly, the trend in CPUs lately has been to have more and more integrated graphics processing power built onto the CPU chip. Intel’s rival, AMD, has been farther ahead in incorporating integrated graphics with its CPUs, but Intel made a big effort to close the gap with Ivy Bridge, one that was a bit of a surprise. Industry analysts expected improved graphics, but the level of improvement was unexpected.

For an average computer user, this means that it’s less likely they’ll need to purchase a separate graphics card to power the system’s video and graphics processing needs. Those advanced and enthusiast class computer users, who are looking to run high-end games or to do a lot of video processing, will still need to buy a dedicated graphics card to perform the work they want to do, but it means average computer users can save some money on their systems.

The long-term effect of making use of better on-chip graphics with the CPUs is that mobile devices, including everything from laptop computers to smartphones, will be able to use better graphics because they can be incorporated into the main CPU. This will become more obvious in a couple of months when Intel releases its first Ivy Bridge chips aimed at the Ultrabook,  a smaller, thinner laptop that uses flash memory for storage, resulting in greater battery life. Initially, Intel has only made available quad-core Ivy Bridge CPUs for laptops and desktops, but its CPUs aimed at Ultrabooks will be dual-core, low-power Ivy Bridge chips, and they should be available later this summer to OEMs.

Intel’s future roadmap is showing a continuation in this shift in philosophy, as the upcoming Haswell chip, scheduled for a mid-2013 release, looks to improve on the microarchitecture in the CPU, which will incorporate even more graphics capabilities into the chip. In fact, it appears Haswell will give Intel users the same significant boost in graphics performance over Ivy Bridge that Ivy Bridge is giving us over Sandy Bridge.

This almost certainly means that in the future, Intel will be gunning for a larger presence in the mobile market. Intel isn’t going to abandon the high-end market and desktop markets, but it is looking to battle ARM directly for the mobile, low-power market.

ARM remains a very strong player in the mobile chip market, and Samsung Exynos 4 quad chip provides unparalleled processing capabilities and power efficiency for mobile devices.Samsung’s recent announcement of a 1.4GHz processor based on the ARM Cortex A9 shows that. The Samsung chip, called the Exynos 4 Dual, will work primarily with Samsung’s next Galaxy smartphone version, set for an early May release. This mobile market is an area where all of the chip makers appear to be aiming, as those are markets of high growth with tablets and smartphones. The Exynos 4 Dual is a 45nm processor that has good power conservation features.

ARM has certainly done well in this market with some nice low-powered chips, but Intel’s plans would appear to put it directly on track to challenge ARM in the future. 

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