When it comes to making silicon chips Intel is the undisputed – and unstoppable – juggernaut of the industry. Driven largely by Moore’s Law, which dictates that transistor counts should double every 18-24 months, it has managed to keep shrinking transistors while other semiconductor manufacturers struggle to keep pace with new process technologies.
Several years ago Intel formalised its model of CPU development by dubbing it ‘Tick-Tock’. Under this naming system a new process technology is a Tick, and a new architecture is the Tock. This allows it to continue to push performance by deploying new designs with proven manufacturing techniques, then tweak that design, then introduce the next generation fabrication technology.
Tick and Tock
Ivy Bridge is Intel’s latest Tick, based upon the same basic design as Sandy Bridge but implemented on the new 22nm process. This makes for a lineup of CPUs that have similar performance to Sandy Bridge, but with less energy consumption and lower temperatures. Desktop Ivy Bridge processors have a 77W TDP as opposed to 95W on the equivalent Sandy Bridge models.
This isn’t just the normal Tick in Intel’s cycle, however. While the CPU design is largely the same, the on-die processor graphics have been upgraded, with better performance and support for the current DirectX 11 standard. This new HD 4000 graphics core isn’t going to make gamers suddenly junk their discrete cards, but it does make a lot of low-end graphics cards redundant, and will likely have the most impact when Ivy Bridge rolls out on the Ultrabook form factor in a few months’ time.
There are a couple of minor changes that have been made to the CPU architecture, most notably the addition of support for PCI-Express 3 (this is backwards compatible with previous iterations of PCI-Express). There are 16 lanes available, which can be configured as a single x16, two x8s or 1 x8, 1x4 and a third x4 connection dedicated to Thunderbolt on supporting motherboards
. This is an interesting addition if you have a PCI-Express 3 supporting graphics card, but it currently doesn’t actually add any performance over PCI-Express 2.
We expect to see a staggered rollout of different Ivy Bridge processors over the coming months. Initially the focus will be upon desktop Core i7 and i5 models, with a smattering of laptop Core i7 CPUs (including one laptop Extreme Edition). These are all quad core designs, and rumours are pointing towards dual core models turning up around June
, meaning Core i3 and Ultrabook models won’t appear until then.
On the desktop
These desktop CPUs use the same LGA 1155 socket as Sandy Bridge, and while they are best paired with the new Z77 chipset
, they should work fine on previous generation Z68, P67 and H67 motherboards. These will need a BIOS update to add support though, so you will want to check with your motherboard manufacturer to see if your board supports the new CPUs.
Our testing has been done with a top-end Core i7-3770K processor, paired with an ASUS P8Z77-I motherboard
. This CPU runs at 3.5GHz, the same frequency as the Sandy Bridge Core i7-2700K, and 100MHz more than our reference Core i7-2600K. This minor difference in clock frequency is shown in our Real World Benchmarks, where the 3770K scores 1.06 overall to the 2600K’s score of 1. The 3770K’s best showing is in the Media test, scoring 1.13 thanks to the improvements inherent in the HD 4000 graphics core.
These scores also mean that Intel pulls further away from AMD in the CPU stakes, with the 3770K just over 20% quicker than the AMD FX-8150 and 60% faster than the CPU performance of AMD’s A8-3850 Fusion APU. AMD should finally release its next generation Trinity APU this month, but we doubt it will close the CPU performance gap with Intel, thanks to its reliance on a tweaked version of the core used in the FX-8150.
In our Crysis test the 3770K takes a more pronounced lead over the 2600K thanks to the HD 4000. In low detail it is a full 10fps faster, managing 50fps to the 2600K’s 40fps. This is still short of the 55fps delivered by AMD’s A8-3850 APU, but the once-huge gulf between the two products is narrowing (though it will likely open up again with the launch of Trinity). The HD 4000 still doesn’t quite manage playable framerates at medium detail, but this boosted performance, as well as the inclusion of DirectX 11, means it is not only fine for non-gamers, but it will offer an acceptable minimum performance in most games, which are rarely as taxing as Crysis still is.
As we’d expect from one of Intel’s Ticks, Ivy Bridge doesn’t offer any compelling reason to upgrade from a Sandy Bridge system. However it does trounce AMD and offer the best CPU performance on the market and is the go-to processor if you are planning on building a new PC.