Sandy Bridge, Part 1: Intel GMA HD 3000/2000 Graphics

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Intel's HD 3000 graphics processor is a huge leap over its predecessors, packing a level of 3D performance similar to that of an entry level discrete card like the AMD Radeon HD 5450. More impressively, the chip is on the same die as the CPU, occupying a small section of space and sharing cache and a memory controller with four processing cores. This arrangement gives the embedded GPU inherent advantages and allows it to dynamically alter the clock speed to an appropriate level depending on how many CPU cores are working and how much power the combined package is using. Power consumption has been kept in check even though the quad core i5-2500K we used for testing runs at pretty peppy 3.3 GHz (more with TurboBoost).

When it comes to rendering high definition content, HD 3000 doesn't seem to use fewer CPU cycles than GMA HD, though this may change with time as software develops. We got poor results playing Flash video, and some of the software players we tried did not work with GPU acceleration, so obviously there is room for improvement. With software compatibility and drivers, it is usually a matter of waiting for developers to optimize codes to take advantage of the new GPU. HD 3000 does play video with noticeably less power consumption. We were already pretty happy with energy efficiency of Clarkdale, so this is a very pleasant surprise.

While there is much to like about Intel's latest graphics chip, it will not make a dent in the desktop graphics market. For video playback, integrated solutions have been good enough for some time, although it is possible the boost from HD 3000 could make particularly demanding or poorly encoded HD video more easily playable. The 3D performance has been given a huge boost, but it is still not enough to produce a comfortable desktop gaming experience unless you're playing older titles or using an antiquated low resolution monitor. HD 3000 is also only available on the "K" series processors, so a large chunk of them will be purchased by those with intentions of overclocking. The P67 motherboards are better for this, but they require discrete graphics. It is as good as an entry level graphics card, but we aren't a big fans of those either. In our view, a US$40 card like the HD 5450 should only be purchased if the system lacks integrated graphics or has an older integrated GPU that doesn't accelerate high definition video. For gaming, just doubling the budget to a paltry US$80 will net you a significantly faster card that may actually play the latest PC games at modestly high screen resolutions without epileptic stuttering.

The potential of GMA HD 3000 is much higher for notebooks as it can fill it for an entry level card without sacrificing battery life, employing switching technology, and/or presumably, adding to the cost. Many end-users bemoan the relatively low resolutions of modern laptops (1366x768 is fairly standard for 11.6~15.6" screens), but this unfortunate fact makes HD 3000 much more valuable for mobile computing. These days, 1080p monitors for desktop use are ridiculously cheap and abundant, but gaming at lower non-native resolutions on one can be depressing.

To put all this in context, GMA GMA HD 3000 cannot be isolated from Sandy Bridge of which it is an integral part. There is another competitive graphics-integrated CPU looming. AMD's low-power mobile platform (code-named “Brazos”) and the Embedded G-Series platform for embedded systems (code-named “eBrazos”), both based on the first Fusion Accelerated Processing Units (APUs), AMD integrated graphics are scheduled for deployment in Q1 2010. These are not high performance parts, but AMD has consistently outpaced Intel in integrated graphics, so we are looking forward to doing a side-by-side comparison of the budget i3-2100 with GMA HD 2000 and the coming new 18-watt E-Series “Zacate” AMD APU.

Our thanks to Intel for the i5-2500K and DH67BL sample.

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