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Intel Sandy Bridge preps for AMD Fusion fracas

Monday unveiling

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At next week's Intel Developer Forum, Chipzilla will unveil its long-awaited Sandy Bridge microarchitecture — and the more we learn about it, the more it appears to share with AMD's oh-so-late Fusion effort.

After architecture-group headman David Perlmutter unveils the Intel's "next generation" microarchitecture in his Monday-morning keynote, a quartet of Sandy Bridge deep dives will provide IDF attendees with details of its architecture (quite possibly including a ring bus à la Intel's discontinued Larrabee effort), "processor innovations" including Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX), on-chip graphics including "new media and 3D features", and enhancements to the QPI system interconnect first introduced in the Xeon 5500 series.

Sandy Bridge will, like AMD's Fusion chips, cram more capabilities onto the same die along with CPU cores. What's more, the aforementioned "new media and 3D features" are expected to include a dedicated on-chip media transcoder, according to Cnet.

Notice that we said "transcoder," and not "decoder" — Intel already incorporates dual decoders in its silicon, according to an Intel spokesman who also declined to comment on "rumors and speculation" when asked about the on-chip transcoder.

A transcoder, as its name implies, will enable a Sandy Bridge processor to not only decode and play video and other streaming media, but encode it as well, thereby offloading from the compute cores the chore of transforming media files from one format to another.

That bit of specialized transcoding silicon sounds awfully like one of the "special-purpose hardware accelerators" that AMD says it's including in its long-delayed Fusion line. Hardware acceleration is key to AMD's Fusion story — so much so that it wants you to call the processors APUs, for accelerated processing units.

Both Sandy Bridge and Fusion continue the ongoing industry-wide trend to incorporate as many of a computing system's capabilities onto a single piece of silicon — or, at minimum, into a single package. Memory controllers, graphics processing units, I/O interfaces, application-specific accelerators — all are crowding the same die or package.

Intel has been deservedly dinged for its integrated graphics performance in the past, but the company insists that Sandy Bridge will be different. "The visual computing landscape is witnessing a seismic shift," an Intel spokesman told us. Although he conceded that "enthusiast gamers will of course still require an add-on graphics card," he opined that the majority of consumers of graphics-rich media will be more than satisfied with Sandy Bridge's performance.

"Sandy Bridge effortlessly glides through stereoscopic 3D Blu-ray movies and high definition online TV services," he said by email, "bringing you even better and sharper images than you have ever experienced before."

He also cited Intel's role as a pioneer in integrated graphics, and noted that others are jumping on the bandwagon. "AMD's oft-delayed Fusion effort is proof that the industry will eventually join Intel in the move to processor graphics," he said.

And when that spokesman called AMD's APUs "oft-delayed", he wasn't being merely catty: microprocessors incorporating the Fusion concept were originally slated to ship in late 2008 or early 2009, but were only first demoed this June at the Computex trade show in Taipei, Taiwan.

AMD is aiming its first Fusion chips at the low-power end of the market — it plans to release its "Ontario" APUs late this year, based on the new "Bobcat" core, and targeted at such markets as netbooks and ultrathins. Bobcat is AMD's hopeful Atom-killer — and being an out-of-order chip, it does have at least that one clear performance-enhancing distinction from Intel's in-order low-power offering.

AMD's higher-end "Llano" APU, however, won't have the advantage of a new, more-powerful architecture. Rather than benefiting from AMD's upcoming "Bulldozer" core, it will instead have a tweaked four-core Phenom II compute unit. Llano is expected in the first half of next year.

Chips based on Intel's Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, however, are due to begin production in the fourth quarter of this year. There's a sporting chance that products powered by Sandy Bridge–based processors will be trotted out to meet the public at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, scheduled for January 6-9.

There's an equally sporting chance that AMD or its partners may be showing Ontario-based devices at the same show. That's all well and good, but it is painfully obvious — painful to AMD fans, that is — that the company has squandered its first-to-market advantage by allowing its Fusion effort to slip so drastically from its original target dates.

It remains to be seen whether AMD's ATI-derived expertise will provide its Fusion chips with sufficient oomph to leave Sandy Bridge's integrated graphics in the dust. But even if Ontario, Llano, and other Fusion follow-ons can handily out-benchmark Intel Sandy Bridge's efforts, the vast majority of users — those who aren't "enthusiast gamers", that is — may simply shrug and ask: "So what?" ®

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