IDF San Francisco is a bit like Christmas for IT hacks so, when Intel presents something like Sandy Bridge and claims it is revolutionary, there's no real option but to shut up and watch.
Following Paul Otellini's keynote, the Intel CEO bowed out and ceded the stage to the man who usually brings along the techie slides and talks Intel's core business - making chips - David "Dadi" Perlmutter.
In typical Dadi fashion, the General Manager of the IA Group, introduced the attending masses to a few concepts, a sort of short view of things to come - things are getting smaller and smaller and smaller, Moore's Law rules the coop but interaction is the new driver behind computing. Interfaces will evolve tremendously and we are all on the express train to realtime multimedia that we can wave our hands at and things happen.
A bit out of place, Dadi made the mandatory pitstop on Westmere-EX, the follow-up to the Beckton server chip. This is a 10-core dual-threaded 32nm processor with twice the memory capacity of Gainestown (2TB on a 4P system, in case you're wondering). Powerful, but it's in the way of Sandy Bridge.
This all was a light appetiser that built up to the "why we made Sandy Bridge" explanation.
Perlmutter, with unrestrained pride, presented Sandy Bridge as the revolutionary piece of silicon that will transform just about everything about the way visual data is processed on a PC.
Sandy Bridge will use the brand name "second-generation Intel Core architecture", and if the demos were any measure of what's to come, will make your Extreme Edition Core i7 965 completely obsolete by the beginning of 2011 (you might want to put off buying that PC for Christmas).
The new microarchitecture, finally integrating both CPU and GPU in a single die, is a Billion transistor strong and has had, according to Dadi, not only introduced the graphics component, but introduced a number of new features and/or improvements of older ones.
First off, the block diagram shows how Intel brought the GPU into the CPU silicon and how they are all one big happy family that shares a single ring bus and cache to push bits around, as well as having display, I/Os and memory controllers attached to that same bus.
One of the features that got a decent overhaul was Turbo Boost. Things get quite interesting here, as in its second generation, it will not only constantly boost frequencies above the norm, it will also take it slightly over the CPU TDP for short periods of time. "Ah!" you say "but what's special about that?" well, Turbo Boost can now - apparently - do that to all four cores, rather than just a single overclocked core. Oh, did we mention the GPU also overclocks in the same way?
The Intel man then proceeded to demo several (optimised and tricked-out) apps that took advantage of Intel's new Media Transcoding Engine and AVX SIMD extensions. Basically, in video transcoding, photo filters and just about anything FPU intensive, processes are massively sped up by the AVX and Media Engine, in a way that puts the original Core i7 to shame... and then some. After seeing these demos, you'll think Intel has positively ruined desktop sales until early next year.
Despite the brief intro on Westmere-EX, Dadi wrapped things up with a preview of Sandy Bridge servers - and Ivy Bridge, for that matter - that will, it seems, occupy the 1P through 4P server box segment, in the near future.
If even half of the gains Intel demonstrated are even remotely accurate, then AMD is in for a rough patch until it can get Bulldozer out the door, and even then, we're not sure. The 2nd Generation Core processor is packing.
We will take all of this with the proportionate grain of salt, until we can get our hands on one of these puppies, but it all looks like Intel has the overwhelming advantage as of early 2011.