ConclusionWhen Intel launched Sandy Bridge in January 2011, it received a very favourable welcome but what was a ‘Tock’, which is to say a new architecture, was in fact also a sort of ‘Tick’, ie a new engraving process. The 32nm engraving launched a year earlier had in fact only been used on two and six-core processors and the combination of the new (ish) engraving process with the new architecture allowed Sandy Bridge to steal quite a march on its LGA 1156 predecessors launched in September 2009, which were in fact simply a general consumer roll-out of the LGA 1366 Core i7s from November 2008!
The situation isn’t the same for the arrival of Ivy Bridge which has the heavy task of outdoing Sandy Bridge with just some small micro-architecture improvements and the move to a new 22nm process with Tri-Gate. Intel has rather put the accent on the graphics part of Ivy Bridge, something we can expect to be the case for the next few generations. The new HD Graphics 4000 and 2500 IGPs do indeed offer significant 3D gains on the previous IGPs, though AMD still has the advantage here and should be able to extend it further with the forthcoming arrival of Trinity.
In spite of these gains, the level of performance is still insufficient for comfortable 3D gaming usage, unless you’re using these IGPs on laptops with screens with 1366*768 pixels that Intel itself hopes to see disappear in the medium term. On desktop PCs, 1920x1080 is now the norm and no HD Graphics solution allows you to use such a resolution correctly in 3D, which makes paying extra for a 4000 version rather pointless as HD Graphics 2500 will suffice for other usages.
In terms of the actual CPU part of the processor, there is of course less of a difference with Sandy Bridge. The gains at equal clocks are 3.4% on average with peaks at 7% in the most favourable cases such as H.264 encoding and photo processing, which is pretty good for what is only a ‘Tick’, especially as Sandy Bridge was already performing very well here.
The most problematic thing seems to be the lack of maturity of 22nm Tri-Gate. In terms of energy consumption first of all; while there is a notable reduction, it isn't as significant as expected and this results in higher temperatures of the cores because of the increased power dissipated per mm². We did however note that our test processors performed promisingly with respect to undervolting and that with Intel increasing the maximum temperature threshold to 105°C, no additional cooling is required.
The other issue is that there isn’t as much of a margin for overclocking as with the latest Sandy Bridge models. While a recent Sandy Bridge can be clocked close to if not up to 5 GHz, we had to settle for 4.6 or 4.7 GHz on our two samples of the new Ivy Bridge models and this seems to be representative. This completely annuls the IPC gain for anyone looking to push a CPU to its limits, especially given the slight pricing increase! We do however expect improvements here in the months to come, as is often the case.
The Sandy Bridge Core i5s and i7s are indeed a hard act to follow, especially when the accent is put on the IGP. No doubt a little too much was expected of the Ivy Bridge Core i5s and i7s. Overall the verdict is positive nevertheless as Intel is giving better performance at the same price with these new models, whether this be via the IPC gain or the Turbo, the more powerful IGP or the power efficiencies. It is however a shame that Intel hasn’t been more aggressive when it comes to pricing, particularly with the K processors. It's worth noting that the Sandy Bridges haven’t been reduced in price since their launch over a year ago! This is a first and due to the lack of competitiveness in the AMD offer.
At the end of the day then, the Ivy Bridge Core i5s and i7s do represent a better choice than their predecessors and constitute the best of what is currently available, but the difference is rather tiny and this evolution doesn't justify an upgrade in spite of the welcome compatibility of the new range (such as, say, moving up from a Sandy Bridge Core i5 to an Ivy Bridge Core i5).