Intel has just released its new updated processor, code-named Ivy Bridge, for both desktops and laptops. You’ll find these new products listed as the 3000 series and you can buy at least some of them now (stock levels permitting, of course).

You may be wondering what the new processors bring to the table. Are they worth the upgrade, or are they just an incremental improvement?

Ivy Bridge Basics

Intel’s business strategy revolves around a “tick-tock” business strategy. As the name suggests, it is a model that focuses on putting out new products with rhythmic precision. Each “tick” is die-shrink, while each “tock” is a new architecture. With this model Intel constantly improves the design and production of its processors.

Ivy Bridge is a tick – and a particularly significant one. The company is moving to a new 22nm production process (down from the previous 32nm process) and is also introducing its new tri-gate transistor. The new processors are the first consumer products based on these technologies.

Since this is not an entirely new architecture, you won’t be seeing new features. Instead, the new products are a refinement of existing processors. They’ll be quicker and more efficient than before while retaining features (like Turbo Boost) that made previous processors great.

The chipsets have been updated, as well. Most of the improvements are under-the-hood enhancements that don’t impact the end user significantly, but the new chipsets do offer integrated USB 3.0 support. This represents the turning point in USB 3.0’s proliferation – from here on, new computers will have many USB 3.0 ports available.

Processor Performance – A Decent Boost

A die shrink of microprocessor architecture improves efficiency. This means that it’s possible to extract more performance within the same thermal and electrical limits. New processors made with a better process will be slightly quicker and more efficient than those before.

Ivy Bridge is no different. You’ll see a performance boost of 5% to 20% in most situations, which is significant. In my testing I found that converting video with the new Ivy Bridge mobile processors are 10-20% quicker no matter what software is used to do the conversion.

If you already have a 2000 series Intel Core processor there’s no reason to upgrade. The performance boost is nice, but it’s far from essential for most users, and there are no new features that will lure you towards the new processors.

Big Gains For The Integrated Graphics Processor

While Ivy Bridge makes no significant changes to the processor architecture there are some changes to the integrated graphics processor, or IGP. Intel has improved it yet again and will be offering two new versions – Intel HD 2500 and Intel HD 4000.

Intel HD 2500 is a minor improvement over the previous Intel HD 2000. It has the same maximum clock speed in desktops and a slightly higher clock speed in some laptops. The number of execution units remains at six.

Intel HD 4000, on the other hand, has four more units than Intel HD 3000 – making a total of 16. Combine this with improved drivers and other tweaks and you have a respectable graphics solution and a significant improvement over the preceding hardware. In fact, Intel HD 4000 is on par with low-end discrete graphics solutions such as the Nvidia GT 525M or GT 620M. In some games the new IGP is twice as fast as the outgoing Intel HD 3000.

The performance of the IGP is more impressive for laptop users than for desktops. This is because of the lower average resolution of a laptop display. Intel HD 4000 can handle 95% of games on the market at 1366×768 and medium detail, but at desktop resolutions like 1680×1050 or 1980×1200 the IGP is barely adequate.

AMD Is Left Behind
Intel processors from the previous generation were already beating AMD processors in most benchmarks. The Ivy Bridge update only rubs salt in the wound. At this point it is difficult to justify buying an AMD processor at any price point unless you want to do so in protest of Intel’s near-monopoly on the consumer processor market.

This is particularly true in the mobile market. The Ivy Bridge processors are much quicker than anything AMD has available in laptops and Intel HD 4000 is generally quicker than the IGP found in an AMD Fusion A4/A6/A8 APU.

Expect Limited Availability

The launch of a new processor often results in stock shortages. Ivy Bridge is unlikely to be an exception. Intel is leading off with just a few processors, particularly on the mobile side, where quad cores are the first to market. In May and June we’ll see some Core i5 dual-cores become available, but the new processors won’t be ubiquitous in laptops until this fall.

You may be wondering if the wait is worthwhile. That depends on your usage. While the new processors are undoubtedly quicker, the existing 2000 series processors offer more than enough performance for today’s users. If you really need a new processor or laptop now, you shouldn’t feel terrible about buying the older product – but if you can wait, you should wait.

Don’t expect to see huge discounts on the old product, either. The limited initial availability of new processors will give stores plenty of time to sell off their old stock. You may see $50 shaved off a laptop here or there, or $25 shaved off some desktop processors – but that’s all you should hope for.

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