Intel's Ivy Bridge chip packs understated goodies

Intel's imminent Ivy Bridge chip includes two technologies that will be crucial to consumers and gamers, respectively.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

Intel's upcoming Ivy Bridge processor will pack two key--some might say essential--technologies that will make it the platform of choice for Ultrabooks. Hint: one of them is not Thunderbolt--the widely publicized connection technology that is now part of the entire Apple MacBook lineup.

For the uninitiated, Ivy Bridge is Intel's next-gen processor that is being manufactured now and is due to land in laptops by the first quarter of next year. It will have more powerful graphics silicon than the current Sandy Bridge chip and offer improved power saving features to boost battery life.

But those marquee features have overshadowed one technology that probably directly affects more PC users: USB. Intel elected not to update USB 2.0 in its silicon for 10 years, leaving many data-intensive devices like high-end digital cameras, video cameras, and external hard drives stuck with USB 2.0's relatively pokey connection speeds.

Laptop manufacturers like Foxconn were showing off Ivy Bridge-based laptops at Intel's developer conference. Many Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks are expected to have USB 3.0 ports.
Laptop manufacturers like Foxconn showed off Ivy Bridge-based laptops at Intel's developer conference. Many Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks are expected to have USB 3.0 ports. Brooke Crothers

Ivy Bridge should change that. Intel is, for the first time, building in support for USB 3.0, which offers a peak data throughput about 10 times that of USB 2.0. And Microsoft is doing its part with full support in Window 8--which should be released just about the time that Ivy Bridge-based laptops are hitting the market in force.

Market researcher In-Stat has forecast that while nearly 80 million USB 3.0-enabled devices will ship in 2011, this will explode to 400 million next year. "When it's offered in Ivy Bridge it allows PC makers to offer USB 3.0 essentially for free. All they have to do is buy the Ivy Bridge chip and they get USB 3.0 thrown in," said Brian O'Rourke, an Analyst at In-Stat.

This will, it turn, drive device makers to add USB 3.0 to products like digital cameras, video cameras, and external hard disk drives. Jeff Ravencraft, president of the USB Implementers Forum, told CNET this week that he knows of at least two imminent "major" announcements of USB 3.0-enabled camera products.

And don't expect Thunderbolt to catch on in a big way anytime soon, according to O'Rourke. "It's an Apple-only technology essentially for now. It's too expensive for others," he said, adding that most PC vendors will be satisfied with USB 3.0.

The other hidden gem in Ivy Bridge is DirectX 11, a multimedia and game acceleration technology that Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia have already been supporting.

Erik Reid, general manager of the Mobile Platforms Division of Intel's PC Client Group, confirmed this week that Ivy Bridge will support the technology in an interview with CNET. To date, Intel had only supported older versions of Direct X.

The upshot is that Intel will be able support some higher-end gaming and multimedia features that its chips have been incapable of to date. This might include, for example, advanced lighting techniques to enhance the mood of a scene in a game or enhanced shadow effects.