Intel's 2nd-Gen Core Processors: Mega-Media Machines

Intel's follow-up to last year's Core processors hasn't exactly been a closely guarded secret. But even though the specs leaked months ago, what's clear now about Sandy Bridge is that Intel's taking direct aim at content.

The new batch of Core i3, i5, and i7 processors—twenty new products in all, including chipsets and adapters—look to address the complaints that were leveled against last year's integrated graphics. With Sandy Bridge, according to Intel's Erik Reid, you can expect to see an improvement of nearly 2x in graphics-intensive benchmark 3DMark06 compared with the current crop of Core processors. While you could expect a limpid 14 FPS on Starcraft 2 with your current Core machine, with Sandy Bridge you'll see a bump up to a playable 29FPS. Intel achieved the improvement by putting both graphics and processor on the same die, giving both access to all the cache memory in the system.

Just how well do the new integrated graphics stack up against discrete solutions? Really well, according to Anandtech, especially at the top of the line:

HD Graphics 3000 [found in the Core i7 2600K and Core i5 2500K] is a huge step forward. At 71.5 fps [playing Dragon Age: Origins] it's 70% faster than Clarkdale's integrated graphics, and fast enough that you can actually crank up some quality settings if you'd like. The higher end HD Graphics 3000 is also 26% faster than a Radeon HD 5450.

It can't catch the Radeon HD 5570, but that's still pretty smoking.

The benefits aren't just for gamers. Video transcoding also gets a major boost with what Intel's calling Quick Sync Video, which Reid says will result in a 17x reduction in time. That means converting a five-minute video to h.264 will take all of 18 seconds. Parents with Flip cams, take note.

In the content consumption arena, Intel's Wi-Di (wireless display) technology has gotten a spec bump as well, and will now transmit 1080p video from your PC to your television. Wi-Di 2.0 will require a Sandy Bridge processor, but the tech is compatible with the previous generation adapter.

It's increasingly clear what role Intel intends Wi-Di to play; the guts company is moving towards movie delivery with its new Intel Insider initiative. With partners including with CinemaNow, Warner Bros., and others, Intel Insider is a system that delivers HD movies to the PC on or before the DVD release date, with hardware encryption and decryption. Pricing will be left up to the studios, who are also being promised a "protected environment" for their content.

So the speed upticks are here, and the usual efficiency improvements. But Sandy Bridge is really here as Intel's answer to the Video Age, a world in which we upload over 35 hours of video to YouTube every minute. And now we'll be able to do it much, much faster.