“It’s like getting a $50 or $60 video card for free,” says Max Pikovskiy, general manager at Magic Micro Inc., a system builder and e-tailer in Cleveland, about Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors. With Sandy Bridge, Intel combined the graphics processor and CPU in the same chip, all built on a 32-nanometer silicon platform.
The first generation of Intel’s i3, i5, and i7 CPUs were also built with 32-nanometer silicon. The “integrated” graphics were inside the CPU chip packaging, but on a separate chip and built with the earlier-generation, 45-nanometer silicon. Sandy Bridge chips include the CPU and GPU together on one piece of 32-nanometer silicon for better graphics performance at lower power levels.
“The on-chip graphics are good for multimedia computers, like those playing BluRay disks,” says Pikovskiy. “Now we have the quad-core Intel processor with integrated graphics, with better performance for the same price as the previous generation.
That is, unless your customers are gamers. “Sandy Bridge is a revolution for the general market, but not for gaming,” says Darren Su, executive vice president of iBuypower Inc., a custom gaming PC and laptop maker in El Monte, Calif. “Sandy Bridge appeals to our customers since it’s the newest and latest, but we have to disable the GPU. Gamers need a separate graphics card for the best performance.”
Su says his company has always used AMD chips, even when AMD was struggling. “Their value is more bang for the buck, and we get incentives for building AMD packages into systems. AMD is still about 30 to 35 percent of our business. And Sandy Bridge’s graphics chip doesn’t support DirectX 11, which is critical for our gaming customers.” But the second generation of Intel’s i3, i5, and i7 processors “still have enough performance advantages to make our customers happy,” says Su.
ENTHUSIASTS AND SANDY BRIDGE
Jon Bach, president of Puget Custom Computers in Auburn, Wash., sells 85 to 90 percent
†Intel systems in his custom business. “Our customers are tech enthusiasts, and have been reading about Sandy Bridge for months,” he says. “Intel’s new chips scale better, with turbo boost and speed step.” But tech enthusiasts almost always order discrete graphics adapters, so like iBuypower’s Su, Bach disables the Sandy Bridge integrated graphics processor.
Bach hates to turn off the GPU on so many Intel systems. “At first we felt bad about shipping so much unactivated silicon,” he says, “but customers were still getting better performance from the new CPUs.” He also notes, “Our customers not doing gaming are excited by Sandy Bridge.”
Magic Micro sells a full line of general business computers, and those will benefit from Sandy Bridge. “The business customers don’t usually ask about processors, and business applications rarely require high-end video processing power,” Pikovskiy notes. He also says his company sells about 50 percent Intel and 50 percent AMD, but Intel provides about twice the revenue because computers with Intel chips are more expensive.
THE HYBRID APPROACH
One small group of users may leverage Intel’s Sandy Bridge integrated CPU and GPU as well as discrete graphics cards. “Some customers want great CAD or video editing performance during the day, but want to play games at night,” says Bach. “The video cards for those jobs are wildly different. But with Sandy Bridge, we can actually do both, using the integrated graphics for CAD or video editing, and the separate graphics card for games.”
Pikovskiy at Magic Micro says Windows 7 hasn’t created any demand in his customer base. “Nobody upgrades their computer just to get the newest operating system,” says Pikovskiy. “It’s just the opposite many times. They want a new computer with Windows XP. When we remind them that’s a 10-year-old operating system, they’re surprised.”
AMD’s Llano code-named systems are still several months away, so they have not yet generated the same buzz as Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips. “We are in the early phase of qualifying with AMD on their Llano chips,” says Bach. “But I always look forward to new technology, and the competition between Intel and AMD.”