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Intel's 'Sandy Bridge' to use new specialized silicon

Chip giant's upcoming processors will include a feature that makes converting files from one format to another a lot faster.

Intel's upcoming Sandy Bridge processors will include new circuits for handling demanding multimedia tasks, according to sources, more evidence of processor changes in store as the chip giant gets ready to shift over to a new processor architecture.

Sandy Bridge is Intel's next microarchitecture, or redesign, of its processors--which the chipmaker does every two years. The current design, Nehalem, was introduced in November 2008 and is used in all Core i3, i5, and i7 processors, which now populate the newest PCs worldwide. Sandy Bridge chips are scheduled to go into commercial production in the fourth quarter, and the first PCs are expected before or during the January 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

For the first time on any Intel chip, Sandy Bridge will include silicon dedicated to handling the transcoding, or converting, of data from one format to another. The transcoding circuits will be separate from the main processor and the on-chip graphics function, according to sources at system makers.

Sandy Bridge'sbasic layout.
Sandy Bridge's basic layout. Intel

Transcoding, for instance, converts a movie on a PC to a format that makes it viewable on an iPhone or iPod. More generally, transcoding is used whenever a movie or audio clip is transferred from a camera to a computer. Sandy Bridge will excel at this task, compared with current Core i series chips, sources said.

Sandy Bridge, like Nehalem, is a big step for Intel. It will be the first mainstream Intel chip to integrate the graphics function, or GPU, onto the same piece of silicon as the main processor, or CPU. This is possible courtesy of Intel's latest and greatest 32-nanometer manufacturing technology.

Sandy Bridge will also include new instructions for handling multimedia tasks. Called Advanced Vector Extension (Intel AVX) instructions, they will assist in accelerating a host of multimedia tasks, including video and audio processing.

During Intel's second-quarter conference call last month, CEO Paul Otellini said the company is moving quickly to Sandy Bridge. "Due to the very strong reception of Sandy Bridge, we have accelerated our 32-nanometer factory enable us to meet the anticipated demand," he said at the time.

It's a big deal for PC parts and system makers, too. Recent reports citing Wall Street analysts making ominous-sounding statements about the sudden drop in PC demand is not only attributable to weakness in the U.S. and European economies but also likely due to a lull before Asian manufacturers shift to Sandy Bridge-based products later this year, said Doug Freedman, an analyst at Gleacher & Company.

Intel declined to comment.