No doubt, there’s a lot going on in this launch. The Sandy Bridge introduction hits a number of high notes that have me dusting off an award, while simultaneously compelling me to cringe at a couple of Intel’s clumsier moves.
Let’s start with the bad, so I can wrap up on a positive note for the New Year.
Overclocking isn’t handled well at all. Really, the only viable option for power users is a K-series SKU. That’s not entirely bad, of course. Less than one year ago, the only unlocked option in Intel’s portfolio was priced at $999. The fact that we have a couple of choices in the $200 and $300 ranges is great. But the limited overclocking (Core i5/i7) and outright lack of options (Core i3) strikes a sour chord sure to burn off a lot of the enthusiast equity Intel earned by launching the K-series chips last year.
The graphics situation, at least on the desktop, is also pretty whacky. Of the 14 models introduced at launch, the two best suited to enthusiast-oriented gaming machines with discrete GPUs are the ones armed with Intel’s HD Graphics 3000 engine. The other 12—conceivably candidates for more mainstream gaming builds, office desktops, and HTPCs—sport the downright average HD Graphics 2000 implementation.
Those two gripes out of the way, how could we not be impressed by Sandy Bridge’s performance? Existing Lynnfield- and Clarkdale-based processors already offer strong performance compared to AMD’s lineup. Significant gains, clock-for-clock, compound in the face of notable frequency increases across the board (thanks to a mature 32 nm process), giving Sandy Bridge an even more commanding position.
I’m also a big fan of Quick Sync. Neither AMD nor Nvidia have an answer to Intel’s decode/encode acceleration, and they’re not expected to any time soon. If you do a lot of video editing or transcoding, an upgrade to Sandy Bridge might be warranted based solely on the time you’ll save by virtue of this feature. Kudos to Intel for getting developer support lined up right out of the gate, too. If the graphics guys could rally the software industry as quickly, we'd already be swimming in CUDA- and APP-accelerated titles.
If there was one Sandy Bridge-based SKU that I’d personally recommend to friends and family building new PCs, it’d be the Core i5-2500K. Its performance relative to AMD’s lineup and the rest of Intel’s stack is noteworthy—especially given its price tag just north of $200. The i5-2500K circumvents Sandy Bridge's overclocking challenges with an unlocked multiplier, and I'm counting on gamers to drop it onto a P67-based motherboard, skirting the integrated graphics debate entirely.
And while this is only the second time in two and a half years that I’ve dusted off the Recommended Buy award for a very deserving processor, you’d better believe I have an eye to the future, waiting to see how AMD’s Bulldozer architecture contends with Intel’s ever-plodding tick-tock cadence.
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