Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs: The Sandy Bridge Review


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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  • JE_D
    BENCHIES! Thanks Tomshardware!
  • Editor, page 10 has mistakes. Its LGA1155, not LGA1555.
  • cangelini
    MoneyFace pEditor, page 10 has mistakes. Its LGA1155, not LGA1555.

    Fixed, thanks Money!
  • juncture
    "an unlocked Sandy Bridge chip for $11 extra is actually pretty damn sexy."

    i think the author's saying he's a sexually active cyberphile
  • cangelini
    juncturei think the author's saying he's sexually active

    Just this.
  • fakie
    Contest is limited to residents of the USA (excluding Rhode Island) 18 years of age and older.

    Everytime there's a new contest, I see this line. =(
  • englandr753
    Great article guys. Glad to see you got your hands on those beauties. I look forward to you doing the same type of review with bulldozer. =D
  • joytech22
    Wow Intel owns when it came to converting video, beating out much faster dedicated solutions, which was strange but still awesome.

    I don't know how AMD's going to fare but i hope their new architecture will at least compete with these CPU's, because for a few years now AMD has been at least a generation worth of speed behind Intel.

    Also Intel's IGP's are finally gaining some ground in the games department.
  • cangelini
    fakieContest is limited to residents of the USA (excluding Rhode Island) 18 years of age and older.Everytime there's a new contest, I see this line. =(

    I really wish this weren't the case fakie--and I'm very sorry it is. We're unfortunately subject to the will of the finance folks and the government, who make it hard to give things away without significant tax ramifications. I know that's of little consolation, but that's the reason :(

  • LuckyDucky7
    "It’s the value-oriented buyers with processor budgets between $100 and $150 (where AMD offers some of its best deals) who get screwed."

    I believe that says it all. Sorry, Intel, your new architecture may be excellent, but unless the i3-2100 series outperforms anything AMD can offer at the same price range WHILE OVERCLOCKED, you will see none of my desktop dollars.

    That is all.
  • DjEaZy
    ... will wait til 'buldozer'... and two things may happen... the buldozer at the price point will kick ass... or the sandy bridge parts will get cheaper...
  • touchdowntexas13
    There is some pretty cool stuff going on here. I like the way the article points out the good and the bad. As for me I really am mystified at Intel's decision to only put the higher end graphics in the k-models as most likely anyone buying them will be going for the P67 platform that doesn't even use the integrated graphics. It would have been soooo much better for the HTPC crowd if there were some lower end chips with the better integrated graphics. I guess somehow this is money motivated???

    As for overclocking, well it seems a bit odd in the way it is being implemented. But for $216, I can't complain too much about a quad-core with a base clock of 3.3 GHz. Some enthusiasts won't like the limited overclocking features, but others will welcome the simplified approach.

    I will be building my brother a new gaming computer for graduation this summer and now I have another viable option to look at. I had planned on going with a P55 + i5 760, but now I will need to consider the P67 + i5 2500K.

    Waiting on bulldozer...
  • jyar727
    I mean this looks like a thorough test but its really not. I wanted to see an I7 1:1 clock performance comparisons. Mainly, 3.4GHz I7-950 vs 3.4GHz I7-2600K. Obviously 3.4 GHz new tech would usually beat a 3.0 current tech in benches. UGH. lame lame lame. Really want to see this comparison instead.
  • silversurfernhs
    Shouldn't the title be second gen Core i series... because Core 2s were second gen Cores, weren't they?
  • Tamz_msc
    Where is the 980x in these benchmarks?
    Other than that its a great article, and I'm drooling over QuickSync!
  • Maziar
    Thanks for the review Chris :)
    QuickSync definitely looks interesting.
  • Ramar
    I just bought an i5-760 system on 12/30 from newegg, I guess I wasn't paying attention to when Sandy Bridge would actually be released. It's not here yet, so I could just send the mobo and cpu back when they get here, but I don't see enough justification as a gamer to move to the 2500k. Based on the number of 1.35V 4.7ghz for the 2600k, I would assume that on stock voltage it doesn't get much higher in frequency than my 760 will, and I don't like raising stock voltage.

    This is all very nice, but I'll keep my bclk control for now and maybe move up when I get out of college in seven months and the tech is set in stone and dropping in price a little.

    Not a bad chip, and I'm excited to see where they go with it. =]
  • Hellbound
    Is sandy bridge the replacement to the x58 chipset? I thought I read somewhere they were planning on x68 sometime in 2011.
  • djdarko321
    Remember though as this is the lower end Sandy Bridge platform NOT THE MAIN LGA2011 socket. As Intel decided to release for the mainstream first before the enthusiasts this go around.
  • Tamz_msc
    Just looked at the AnandTech review and here is their opinion -

    In all but the heaviest threaded applications, Sandy Bridge is the fastest chip on the block—and you get the performance at a fairly reasonable price. The Core i7-2600K is tempting at $317 but the Core i5-2500K is absolutely a steal at $216. You're getting nearly $999 worth of performance at roughly a quarter of the cost.

    These things are as fast as the i7 980X and in some cases they're even faster!
  • swiftor
    i5-2500k + p67 ftw!
  • nekromobo
    What if you throw something like 8k x 4k or 4k X 4k resolution video to QuickSand.. Sync :)

    Nice review, but personally still not going to replace my 3.6ghz C2Quad.. when will this cpu die so I can replace it!
  • Shuge1
    Im just waiting for bulldozer to get me out of buyin the i5 2500k
  • Reynod
    Quick Synch is just downright embarrasing for AMD ...