Intel's Sandy Bridge - the Next Gen

Intel HD Graphics Performance

Intel HD Graphics Performance

As mentioned earlier, there are two variants of Intel HD Graphics, with the 3000 model having 12 executions units compared to 6 on the 2000. The maximum dynamic graphics clock frequency however can differ even if both are of the same 2000 or 3000 variant. For instance, the Core i7-2600K comes with Intel HD Graphics 3000, but with a maximum graphics clock of 1350MHz, while the Core i5-2500K peaks at 1100MHz. Besides this, one too has to account for the different CPU clock and shared cache between the two that may affect the integrated graphics performance.

In any case, what we found was that while the new gen Intel HD Graphics improves over the older Clarkdale (like the Core i5-661 here), it is however, far from replacing even a low-end discrete graphics solution. Let's take 3DMark Vantage for example: the Core i5-661 could not complete this benchmark due to its performance inadequacies, but both the Core i7-2500K and 2600K did. Given the 25% difference in scores between the two K processors, the dynamic maximum frequency on these integrated graphics appears to have quite the impact. Unfortunately, even Intel's best was not equal to an NVIDIA GT 220 512MB discrete graphics card.

You'll see more of the same in the following benchmarks, with the GT 220 clearly the superior solution. This was also evident when we played two Blu-ray movies - the NVIDIA PureVideo HD solution resulted in a much lower CPU utilization than the others. It could be a case of unoptimized software, since support for Intel's new Sandy Bridge hardware is still limited and we had to use a beta version of CyberLink PowerDVD 10 for this test.

Intel Quick Sync

Intel has been touting its Quick Sync technology as a way to speed up the process of decoding and encoding videos. Again, the software support is limited at this point in time, with only two programs, ArcSoft's Media Converter 7 and CyberLink's Media Expresso 6, able to take advantage of the fixed function processing hardware on Sandy Bridge. We tried Media Converter 7, which is handy for those who wish to transcode their videos to a more portable, smaller format for smartphones and media players. A list of profiles for various popular devices are present, making it a very user-friendly piece of software.

One has to install the right Intel drivers ( worked for us) before Media Converter recognizes the Quick Sync capability on our Sandy Bridge processor. Users can then select between using Quick Sync or None, which presumably then gets the CPU to do it via software. NVIDIA's CUDA and AMD Stream are also supported and can be selected if you have a compatible discrete graphics card installed. There's however no way of telling how optimized this software transcoder is when it comes to its hardware acceleration support for CUDA or Stream.

Anyway, it's in the transcoding that Sandy Bridge looked convincing against the usual discrete graphics suspects. The Core i7-2600K was racing through the 1GB MKV file (transcoded for AppleTV, H.264, 720p) and finished faster than the Core i7-975 Extreme Edition (CPU) and way ahead of the NVIDIA GT 220 using CUDA. It all sounds very positive, but then we discovered that when we had the NVIDIA GT 220 installed on our Core i7-2600K, there was no option in the software to toggle Quick Sync, even though it was a H67 board that supported the integrated graphics.

What this means is that users who have a discrete graphics card on their Sandy Bridge machine will not be able to switch to the faster solution in the application. One probably has to change the display output in the BIOS and make use of the integrated graphics to use Quick Sync. It's quite a hassle for a desktop machine and makes it less attractive, though notebook users won't find that too inconvenient, what with switchable graphics technologies becoming so common.  

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