Sandy Bridge vs Fusion: the 2011 processor battle

2011 is set to be an exciting time for processors

The next year in processors will be one of the most exciting ever

Recently, I committed journalistic hara-kiri. I claimed nobody will know or even care what chips are inside their PCs 10 years from now. It'll be all about the software, services and styling.

As a hardware guy, that gives me a limited shelf life. Still, I reckon I've got several years to transmogrify into a touchy-feely software sage.

Indeed, the next year in PC processors will be one of the most exciting yet for hardware enthusiasts. The best news is that it won't just be Intel making the headlines – in many ways, it's AMD that has the more promising roadmap.

Starting with AMD, then, the coming year will see two brand new processor architectures, as well as the arrival of the company's CPU-GPU Fusion chips. Admittedly, AMD's roadmap has been all over the place of late, but the launch windows are narrowing and the timing of AMD's new kit is finally firming up.

First out of the gate will be a chip known as Ontario, due to go on sale early next year. It's a low-power design focused on efficiency rather than performance.

However, not only does it debut Bobcat, AMD's answer to the more powerful variants of Intel's Atom architecture, but it's also the first Fusion chip. Despite my best bribe-and-badger efforts,

AMD is remaining frustratingly reticent about the graphics core in Ontario. All that's known for sure is that it will be DirectX 11-compliant and sport the latest version of AMD's 2D video acceleration engine. But that's enough to know it will blow any Atom platform away when it comes to high-definition media playback.

The processor part of Ontario looks promising too, thanks to its fully out-of-order instruction execution. Atom makes do with a simpler and slower in-order design.

Next from AMD

AMD's next move is harder to pick. By summer 2011, both Llano and Zambezi should be flowing out of the fabs. The former is AMD's first full-power, quad-core Fusion chip. It's derived from the existing Phenom II core, rather than the all-new Bulldozer architecture, but Llano's graphics core promises to set new standards for an integrated solution.

With so many features packed into a single processor die, Llano will also be very power efficient. I think it will make for a killer notebook chip.

The final piece of the puzzle for AMD is arguably the most exciting. I've had my say on the merits of the revolutionary Bulldozer architecture in the past. Suffice to say that it's the sort of forward-looking design that might just take Intel by surprise. Think Athlon 64 circa 2003.

Whatever, our first taste of Bulldozer will come with Zambezi, a chip that will probably pack in four of those intriguing Bulldozer modules.

Sandy Bridge

As for Intel, the next year is all about Sandy Bridge, its new CPU architecture. I barely feel like I've got to grips with the current Nehalem chips, but Intel is really trucking and by the end of 2010, Nehalem will be so much bunkum.

Superficially, you might think Intel has already harvested all the low-hanging fruit in terms of architectural upgrades with Nehalem. After all, Nehalem brought the memory controller and PCI Express bus on-die, while adding features such as HyperThreading and Turbo Boost. Nevertheless, Intel is going to have a damn good crack at raising the bar.

At the high end, the first Sandy Bridge offering is a six-core beast hewn from 32nm silicon and packing 15MB of cache memory, support for Intel's new 256-bit AVX extensions, a quad-channel memory controller and PCI Express 3.0. It's due out some time in the first half of next year.

As if that's not enough, an eight-core model will follow. However, the first Sandy Bridge chips will actually be dual- and quad-core variants and should hit PCs before the end of 2010.

Overclocking Sandy Bridge

Rumours suggesting Intel has decided to lock out enthusiasts from overclocking these more mainstream Sandy Bridge chips are circulating, but my spies tell me it ain't so. Sandy Bridge will be just as much fun to fiddle with as existing Intel processors.

I'm also told to look out for something special from the new integrated graphics core found in dual- and quad-core Sandys, but they don't stand a chance of beating AMD Fusion for video prowess.

What's more, Intel will test the loyalty of its fan base with the new CPU sockets that come with Sandy Bridge. Out go LGA1,156 and LGA 1,366, along with any hope of drop-in upgrades. In come LGA1,155 and the monstrous new LGA2,011 socket.

Overall, expect Sandy Bridge architecture to be a masterclass in x86 CPU design, but don't be surprised if AMD's Bulldozer chips leave it looking like a technical dead end.

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