Intel's Ivy Bridge arrives: Here's what you need to know

Do Intel's new third-gen Core i-series CPUs mean you should run out and buy a new laptop or desktop today? Not so fast!

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

You've likely heard the name Ivy Bridge tossed around over the past six months or more, and might even know that it represents the next generation of Intel CPUs and chipsets. But what do these new parts mean if you're currently shopping for a laptop or desktop PC?

This basic FAQ should answer some of your most immediate shopping questions (with more background on Ivy Bridge and its new 22nm transistors here). For a more in-depth look at Ivy Bridge performance results on laptops and desktops, check out our system reviews, benchmark scores, and analysis at the related links below.

Should I look for an Ivy Bridge sticker at the store?
Post-launch, you'll likely rarely hear that name again. It's an internal code name (like Sandy Bridge before it), that we use as a quick shorthand. In reality, this is Intel's third-generation Core series processor family, which will use the same Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 names as the previous two generations.

If the names are the same, how can I tell which PCs have the newest parts?
On the mobile side, it's easier. The 2012 Ivy Bridge (or third-generation) CPUs have a part number that begins with the number 3. For example, one of our test systems has an Intel i7-3720QM CPU. Our Sandy Bridge test system from last year had an Intel Core i7-2820QM. The new mobile CPUs are: i7-3920XM, i7-3820QM, i7-3720QM, i7-3612QM, and 3610QM. The desktop CPUs are: i7-3770K, i7-3770, i7-3770T, i7-3770S, i5-3570K, i5-3550, i5-3450, i5-3550S, and i5-3450S.

So if I buy a laptop now, it'll have the new CPUs, right?
Hold on, partner. You knew it wasn't going to be that easy, right? The first systems with Ivy Bridge CPUs are getting reviewed right now, but they won't be available to order until at least April 29. Additionally, those are just going to be the very high-end quad-core Core i7 versions. The more-mainstream dual-core Core i5 and Core i3 parts should start appearing sometime around the end of May.

Is the third-generation Core i-series much faster than the second-generation?
The leap between generations is not going to be as great as between the first- and second-gen Core i-series chips. In fact,when it comes to actual CPU performance, we really don't expect you'd notice too much of a difference at all in everyday use. Where the new platform really shines is in its integrated graphics.

Intel's new HD 4000 graphics replaces the current HD 3000, and the company promises that you'll be able to play current high-end PC games without needing a separate Nvidia or AMD GPU. Of course, they say that with just about every generation of integrated graphics, and it's never quite true.

Two of the first Ivy Bridge laptops, from Origin and Asus.

So, how good are the new integrated HD 4000 graphics?
Definitely better. If you keep the detail levels turned down, you can get a very playable experience from most current PC games. But, keep in mind the early test systems we have all include very high-end quad-core Core i7 CPUs, which can help in some games. We'll have to wait until we can test midrange Core i3 and Core i5 laptops to see if you can skip the discrete GPU and still play Skyrim on your midprice laptop (on these high-end system, Skyrim worked fine at full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, but with detail levels set to low).

For a more in-depth look at the HD 4000's gaming chops, read this detailed analysis.

Will these new CPUs make my next PC cost more?
From the vendors we've spoken to, there should be no price difference to consumers once second-gen CPUs are swapped out for third-gen ones.

Does Ivy Bridge improve battery life?
After the big leap made by last year's Sandy Bridge Intel chips, both battery life and application performance are in for modest gains. In comparing somewhat similar 17-inch Origin gaming laptops (one Ivy Bridge, one Sandy Bridge), we saw a small drop in battery life, but those were both outlier systems with power-hungry overclocked parts. In comparing two similar Asus N-series laptops, the newer Ivy Bridge version ran for an additional 12 minutes (226 versus 214 minutes). Keep in mind that these are all examples of high-powered Core i7 laptops that aren't expected to have great battery life. We'll have to wait until the mainstream versions of Ivy Bridge hit to really test battery life.

I really need a mainstream laptop right now, should I tough it out and wait four to eight weeks?
This is a topic recently debated here at the CNET offices, and you can see the arguments for and against waiting here. Besides Intel's new chips, it may also be worth waiting for Windows 8, or at least the free upgrade coupons we expect to see bundled with new laptops starting in late summer.

One thing to definitely watch out for is new laptop models or refreshes announced right now or in the next few weeks. In some unfortunate cases, if you order (or preorder) right away, you'll actually be getting a laptop with the older second-generation CPUs, but if you wait another week or so (for quad-core, longer for dual-core), the same systems will be for sale with newer Ivy Bridge parts.

The PC makers in question blame Intel for shifting the release dates of these new CPUs. We say, if you're launching a new product right around the time of a processor upgrade, don't take people's money for an extra week or so and make sure every customer has the newest parts.