Intel's New Ivy Bridge: More Power in Less Chip

After months of industry anticipation, Intel today released the first of its next-generation Ivy Bridge desktop and laptop processors. So what does it mean for computer buyers? Faster performance, longer battery life and better, more affordable graphics in computers hitting the market in the coming months.

Ivy Bridge delivers a 15% improvement in CPU performance and up to twice the graphics performance compared to current Sandy Bridge processors, according to the chipmaker. And observers estimate the new chips give Intel a two-year lead over its biggest competitors.

Ivy Bridge Machines Coming Soon

The first desktops and laptops to use Ivy Bridge chips will be high-end PCs. Intel says computer makers will be releasing systems this month. No names yet, but Acer, Samsung and Toshiba are expected to be among the first to hit the market with Ivy Bridge machines.

The initial Ivy Bridge chips, based on Intel's third-generation Core architecture, are quad-core Core i5 and i7 processors. Performance tests published by sites such as LapTop Magazine and HotHardware have been at least mildly enthusiastic.

Testing a 2.6GHz Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor on an Intel-supplied $1,150 Asus N56V notebook, Laptop Magazine said the chip did not offer a "huge leap, but the performance gains we saw in our Ivy Bridge test system - with comparable battery life - makes this a strong follow-up to the previous generation of Intel Core processors." HotHardware tested a similar system and concluded that the i7 chip was "easily the fastest notebook processor we've tested to date."

Ivy Bridge's improvements center around shrinking the size of its transistors from Sandy Bridge's 28 nanometers to 22 nanometers. More electronics in less space help computer makers design smaller laptops with longer battery life. That's because Ivy Bridge introduces what Intel calls its "3D tri-gate transistor" design, which the company says boosts speeds by 37%, while using less than half the power of older transistors.

Intel is the first chip manufacturer to ship large volumes of a 22-nanometer processor. The largest chip manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), is still making 28 nanometer chips.

Intel's Two-Year Lead

Market research firm J. Gold Associates says that with Ivy Bridge, Intel now enjoys at least a two-year lead in microprocessors. "Intel is doing more than just releasing a new processor, which of course it is," the research firm says. "It is also putting a stake in the ground around technology and performance that others will have a hard time catching."

By the end of the year, nearly all new desktops and laptops will have Ivy Bridge processors. How much better those systems will be than older models will vary depending on overall design.

Graphics Get Better, Cheaper

The biggest bump will likely come in graphics, where Sandy Bridge will likely result in mainstream machines with far better graphics. Ivy Bridge includes Intel's new HD 4000 graphics core, and is expected to satisfy graphic demands for all but the most extreme gamers and video professionals. The new chips are expected to eliminate the need for separate graphics processors in 95% of computers sold, according to J. Gold Associates. How that will affect graphic chipmakers Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices remains to be seen, but laptop and desktop users will certainly benefit from higher graphic performance without having to pay more for additional technology.

For Windows PCs, Ivy Bridge is one of two factors expected to help boost sluggish PC sales later this year. The second factor is Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, which is expected in October.