Intel 'Sandy Bridge' Chip Architecture to Take Center Stage at IDF

At IDF, Intel will feature its chip architecture code-named Sandy Bridge, with enhanced graphics capabilities. PCs with the new chips are due out in early 2011.

Intel's next-generation "Sandy Bridge" processor microarchitecture will be a key topic of discussion at the Intel Developer Forum, which kicks off Sept. 13 in San Francisco.

CEO Paul Otellini and Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Architecture Group, are expected to demonstrate the processor's capabilities during their keynote addresses the first day of the event. After that, there will be panel discussions and other events designed to dive deeper into the microarchitecture.

With Sandy Bridge, Intel will put the CPU and graphics processor on the same piece of silicon, which Intel officials have said will be a boon for users running applications that involve three-dimensional workloads. In addition, the new chips will play Blu-ray 3D video.

Desktop and laptop PCs powered by Sandy Bridge chips are expected to begin rolling out in early 2011. The new microarchitecture is an important technology for Intel because of the growing use of high-performance graphics and video on desktops and notebooks, according to Pund-IT Research analyst Charles King.

"What Sandy Bridge really indicates is that sophisticated graphics are becoming a mainstream part of the everyday computing experience for businesspeople and consumers alike," King said in an interview with eWEEK.

For that reason, Sandy Bridge also is a big deal for PC makers that use Intel technology and can now incorporate the enhanced graphics capabilities into their systems, he said.

Intel and other industry players are hoping Sandy Bridge, with its enhanced graphics capabilities and other features, can help rejuvenate weakening consumer interest in the PC space. Analysts throughout the summer had warned of a slowing PC buying trend, particularly among consumers.

That came into full focus in August, when Intel officials-who had seen their company post extremely strong financial numbers in the first and second quarters-lowered their revenue forecast for the third quarter, in large part due to a weakening of consumer demand for PCs.

Analysts from such market research companies as IDC and Gartner also lowered their PC revenue and shipment expectations for the second half of 2010.

More recently, other chip makers, including Texas Instruments and National Semiconductor, noted the trends in the PC market. TI on Sept. 9 lowered its revenue projections for the third quarter. National Semiconductor officials on the same day announced their fiscal 2011 first-quarter numbers. Though sales increased 3 percent over the previous quarter, and 31 percent over the same period last year, the results came with a word of warning.

"Our business model is working well with another quarter of revenue growth, 70 percent gross margins and over 36 percent operating margins," Don Macleod, National's chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "However, in the near term, slower growth in our end markets and distribution channel, along with some likely inventory reduction, will mute the seasonal growth that we would normally see in our business during this time of the year."

Overall, the PC market for all of 2010 will be strong, and should continue into the following years, according to IDC. That said, the figures for the second half of the year seem to be slowing, despite the strong first two quarters.

"After several years of carrying the load in terms of shipment growth for the PC industry, the U.S. consumer market is getting fatigued," IDC analyst Richard Shim said in a statement Sept. 2. "Challenged with less discretionary income than in previous years, as well as a slew of new devices to divert their attention, fewer U.S. consumers are expected to update their PCs this holiday season. Fortunately, large businesses are expected to reinvest in their PCs over the next several quarters, helping to drive double-digit shipment growth in the U.S. PC market this year."

Pund-IT's King said Sandy Bridge could help give the PC market a boost.

"Coming up with a technology that significantly improves the [user] experience could be enough of an incentive for customers who are interested in [high-performance graphics] to get the moths out of their wallets and pay some money" for a PC, he said. "I think that's what everyone is waiting for."

Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices also will be in San Francisco while IDF is under way, at a nearby location, demonstrating its upcoming "Zacate" APU (Accelerated Processing Unit). The dual-core Zacate is part of AMD's Fusion initiative, which puts the CPU and GPU on a single piece of silicon.

AMD officials say the discrete-level graphics capabilities of the Zacate APU will improve the graphics experience for value and mainstream notebooks and desktops.

Systems with AMD's Fusion APUs are scheduled to start rolling out in early 2011. The graphics technology comes from AMD's 2006 acquisition of ATI.

Pund-IT's King said AMD, with the ATI purchase, had hoped to beat competitors in bringing together general-purpose graphics and traditional CPUs. However, delays in the Fusion programs have hampered AMD. The first Fusion products initially were due out in late 2008, then in 2009.

"AMD had a goal to be the first mover in this area, and they were not able to deliver on it," King said. "Their opportunity to be the first mover in this space has eroded."