Intel’s Sandy Bridge: PC Sales Supercharger?

Better graphics plus improved power management could make Intel's chip design a winner.

Intel's upcoming Sandy Bridge microprocessor design is generating a lot of buzz, primarily because it'll integrate the chipmaker's high-end graphics technology with its CPUs. If it delivers as promised, Sandy Bridge could finally bring respectability to the term "integrated graphics," which has long been code for "crappy performance" -- at least as far as gamers and other power users were concerned.

Integrated graphics systems have long been standard in many consumer and business PCs, but they've gotten less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Power snobs have knocked their feebleness at playing 3D games or running other graphics-intensive apps. Not only does Sandy Bridge offer better performance for HD video and 3D titles, it also provides better power management -- a big plus for laptops. Intel's new chips will ship in volume early next year.

Intel isn't alone in this market, of course. AMD, its processor archrival, is developing a competing integrated-graphics design called Fusion, which should debut in low-end laptops in early 2011.

A Bridge to Buyers?

Could Sandy Bridge be the engine that revs up PC sales? Its appeal to consumers -- better graphics for 3D games without the added cost of a dedicated GPU -- are obvious. But its power management skills may lure business buyers too.

"Graphics aren't as big a deal for buyers of business systems -- typically they don't like people playing games on company time," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, a market research and consulting firm.

But one thing Sandy Bridge does will make business buyers take notice. "It will have higher performance and better battery life than today's products," Brookwood says. "Since the majority of the market today is in notebooks and mobile systems, as opposed to desktop systems, battery life matters."

Sandy Bridge's single-chip design is another plus.

"If you look at units that are in the market today -- the package that Intel's been selling since early this calendar year -- they're actually two chips," Brookwood adds. "All the little electrons that make things go have to travel between the two chips. Moving electrons off one chip and onto another is a very power-consumptive activity compared to moving them around a single chip."

Timing Is Right

Market conditions may also help Sandy Bridge. Heated competition from AMD, for instance, will likely prevent Intel from charging much of a premium for its new chips. And business buyers who've avoided upgrading to Windows 7 may be ready to upgrade.

"Back in January of this year, Windows 7 was still very new and some people were scared of it," says Brookwood. "Now it's been out there for a while, and people trust it. All of those factors combine to drive (an upgrade) cycle: A combination of new notebooks, better battery life and performance, and a more mature Windows 7."

Wild Card: Economy

A recovering economy would help too -- but where it's heading is anyone's guess.

"If the economic situation is positive, and businesses feel like they can spend money, that could combine to drive new purchases in business and enterprise accounts," Brookwood says.

Recent Gartner and Intel forecasts have projected weaker-than-expected worldwide PC shipments for the second half of 2010. It seems that consumer and business demand isn't there yet. Will 2011 be any better?

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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