Intel’s Ivy Bridge Processors Launch at Last — How Do They Perform?

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Intel's Mark Bohr in a video released in May 2011, explaining how the company's tri-gate technology works.

After months of avid speculation about when, precisely, in April Intel would roll out its new Ivy Bridge “3D” processors, they’ve arrived at last — later than originally expected, but just as predicted a few weeks ago: the first 14 chips, targeted at desktops and high-end laptops, will be available on April 29.

Ivy Bridge is Intel’s 22 nanometer followup to Sandy Bridge, and the “tick” in its tick-tock design cycle, where “ticks” deliver manufacturing advances like Ivy Bridge’s increase in transistor density, while “tocks” (like Sandy Bridge) are focused on adding features and refining processor microarchitecture.

Ivy Bridge’s most noteworthy feature is something Intel referred to as “3D transistor” technology when it announced the new processors in May 2011. The technical term for it is “tri-gate,” and it represents a significant advance over the way chips have been designed since the debut of planar (“2D”) transistors back in the mid-20th century. As demand to add ever more transistors to processors grows, our ability to keep shrinking them to make room without building house-sized parts has dwindled.

(MORE: Intel Trades Over 50 Years of Chip Design for ’3D’ Processors)

Intel’s “tri-gate” technology is designed to provide more headroom for the standard “more from less” approach by adding a small silicon “fin,” raised above the chip’s surface — the so-called “3D” marketing angle. The upsides, claimed Intel last year, included improved switching states and a 37% performance increase at low voltages compared to existing 32nm planar transistors, and half the power consumption of older 32nm chips.

According to BBC News, the first batch of Ivy Bridge processors — the “world’s first 22 nanometer product” according to Intel — will be quad-core parts in Intel’s Core i5 and i7 families, aimed at desktop computers and higher-end laptops, to be followed “later this spring” by dual-core models for use in thinner, lighter laptops like Ultrabooks.

The U.S. embargo for Ivy Bridge specifics isn’t until 9:00 a.m. PT, so while we’re waiting, the BBC has Intel’s Kirk Skaugen with preliminary release figures and making performance boasts. For instance, Skaugen says the number of mobile products underway tops 300, with “more than 270 different desktops” in the offing, several based on all-in-one designs.

“This is the world’s first 22 nanometre product and we’ll be delivering about 20% more processor performance using 20% less average power,” said Skaugen, adding that Ivy Bridge represents his company’s fastest production ramp-up ever. “There will be 50% more supply than we had early in the product cycle of our last generation, Sandy Bridge, a year ago. And we’re still constrained based on the amount of demand we’re seeing in the marketplace.”

How does Ivy Bridge perform? PC Advisor tested Intel’s Ivy Bridge-based flagship i7-3770k processor against a Sandy Bridge-based i7-2700k (both run at 3.5GHz but auto-upclock to 3.9GHz). While PC Advisor can’t post specific results until the embargo’s passed, it reports that Ivy Bridge “is most certainly a improvement over its predecessor,” noting that — as expected — “[graphics] performance sees the more impressive boost, even if the results are still behind what can be achieved with existing integrated graphics solutions from AMD.

That said, the site says Sandy Bridge owners “need not worry too much, since the performance gains are not huge.” On the desktop side, then, it looks like the biggest improvements will come for those looking to overclock out of the box, since Ivy Bridge’s power requirements are significantly lower. And for those of you, like me, waiting for Ivy Bridge’s mobile debut, stand by, because that round’s still to come.

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