Intel bets on Blu-Ray: Westmere chip is designed for media playback, not gaming

Intel bets on Blu-Ray: Westmere chip is designed for media playback, not gaming

A few months back we saw Intel's first Core i5 CPU - the impressive Core i5-750, based on the 45nm Lynnfield core. Now, it's joined by the Core i5-600 series of mainstream desktop processors, as well as new mobile parts and a whole new brand, the low-end Core i3.

Although these chips fit into the existing LGA 1156 socket, they're the first fruit of Intel's 32nm architecture. It's called Westmere, and with transistors almost 30% smaller than a 45nm CPU, they require less material to produce and less power to operate - so they're cheaper to make and run.

The power savings are striking: our Core i5-661 test system, idling at a Windows 7 desktop, drew a miniscule 31W; peak power draw was just 79W. We'll test mobile models when we receive them, but we suspect their savings will be even more dramatic.

The desktop processors launched this month also trim costs and power demands by stepping back from the quad-core design used by existing Core i5 and i7 processors and integrating only two cores.

But thanks to Hyper-Threading, these still appear to the OS as four cores - and the Core i5 models benefit from dynamic overclocking too, courtesy of Intel's Turbo Boost.

Thus, performance ends up comparable to some of the most powerful Core 2 models, with the Core i3-530 scoring 1.58 in our benchmarks compared to 1.82 from the i5-661. We expect the top-of-the-range i5-670 to reach 1.87.

Westmere represents a "tick" in Intel's famous "tick-tock" routine. This means that, while the silicon process is new, the underlying micro-architecture is largely unchanged from Nehalem, which launched with Core i7 at the tail end of 2008. The "tock" will come in 2011, in the form of a new architecture called Sandy Bridge, bringing major new features to the 32nm process.

But Intel has already snuck a few extra goodies into Westmere. Most notably, all the new CPUs incorporate a standard 45nm graphics die right inside the package, alongside the 32nm processor core.

To use this on-chip GPU, you'll need a motherboard with the new H55 or H57 chipset. And predictably, it's not hugely powerful: the focus is on media playback rather than gaming, and there's dedicated hardware for Blu-ray decoding (including picture-in-picture), visual enhancements and Dolby True HD and DTS-HD 7.1 audio. The hardware is now called simply "Intel HD Graphics".

You get DirectX 10 support, and the i5-661 has an accelerated GPU, up from 733MHz to 900MHz. Intel claims the new GPU will suffice for "mainstream and casual gaming fun", and in our tests we were able to play Crysis at a just-about-bearable 26fps - albeit at 1024 x 768 with low detail settings.

Another interesting addition in Westmere is six new instructions for hardware-accelerated AES encryption. This may seem out of place, but Intel clearly realises that the 32nm platform is also a versatile and energy-efficient option for business, where security and privacy are of increasing importance.

There's a lot to like about Westmere: performance is strong, the power savings are highly attractive, and the on-chip graphics will help keep a media centre or lightweight desktop compact and simple.

AES acceleration is a bonus.Early prices, however, look a shade high - $260 for the Core i5-650, rising to $410 for the top-end i5-670. Even the lowly Core i3-530 is expected to be around $175. This isn't extortionate for these levels of performance, but it isn't exactly a revolution in bang-per-buck.

Still, all technology is expensive when it first appears, and with the 32nm process yielding more CPUs per wafer than ever before, there's huge scope for prices to fall. When it does, Westmere - like the 45nm Penryn architecture before it - is destined to be a big hit.

Intel Westmere
Intel’s new 32nm architecture dramatically cuts power draw – and brings some new features too
This review appeared in the April, 2010 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine

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