Every time, when we meet a new Intel processor family, the “tick-tock” strategy is brought up. Its principles are fairly simple: the company upgrades in turns either the production process, or the microarchitecture. And the full swing of this symbolic pendulum takes about 2 years. In other words, if back in late 2008 Intel introduced Nehalem microarchitecture and in early 2010 started manufacturing Westmere processors using 32 nm process, then in 2011 we are up for the new cycle – new microarchitecture. Today we know it as Sandy Bridge and this name has been on the front pages of all technology media for a long time, as it poses extreme interest to all of us. However, there is nothing surprising about it: each new step on the evolutionary spiral introduced by Intel delivers both: significant changes in the PC platform structure as well as substantial performance boost. CPUs with Sandy Bridge microarchitecture will obviously be no exception to this rule, because according to Intel CEO, Paul Otellini, the launch of these processors will have the same tremendous effect as the transition from 80486 CPUs to Intel Pentium did back in the days.
Taking into account everything mentioned above, we decided to start our information support of the upcoming product launch well in advance. A great way to introduce Sandy Bridge would be a description of the upcoming microarchitecture with our own commentary, where we will try to indicate the specific features that may be appealing to PC users. In other words, we will use the available preliminary info to help us explain why the upcoming Sandy Bridge processors should be appealing for users and why we should look forward to their official launch.
Before we dive deep into the technical details, we would like to share our thoughts on Intel’s passionate desire to replace the existing Nehalem microarchitecture. As we see, CPUs based on it are very fast and enjoy high demand in the market. Moreover, Intel’s primary competitor, AMD, cannot offer a worthy rival to Intel’s Nehalem microarchitecture anyway – the existing CPUs on Stars microarchitecture are considerably slower. As for the upcoming Bulldozer products, which will hopefully be more successful than their predecessors, their launch is still a while ahead. However, despite all these advantages, Nehalem does have a few hidden drawbacks that force Intel engineers to work really hard on new products even without obvious objective reasons.
First of all, it is the complex manufacturing process for the latest generation Westmere CPUs. These processors consist of two semiconductor dies produced with two different manufacturing technologies that are sealed inside a single processor package. The contemporary 32 nm process has already matured enough to allow making very complex monolithic processor dies with high production yields. In other words, there is nothing hindering further integration and increasing complexity of the semiconductor processor dies, which in the end should also bring the production cost down substantially. Secondly, Nehalem processors have already reached their frequency maximum. It means that the clock frequencies of the current microarchitecture have already hit the top, so it is extremely difficult to further overclock these processors without pushing their power consumption and heat dissipation beyond the acceptable standards. And it means that time has come to figure out new ways of increasing the performance, namely by improving the microarchitecture.
So, the upcoming Sandy Bridge launch is by no means demonstration of arrogance, but a pretty pragmatic measure that will allow making Intel processors not only faster and functionally more complex, but also more profitable.