On 29 April Intel will release to customers 14 new PC processors – the third generation of its Core processor family, more commonly known as Ivy Bridge when combined with the 10 new Intel chipsets that launched at the beginning of April. The initial Ivy Bridge launch includes eight Intel Core i7 processors, one Core i7 Extreme Edition chip and five Core i5 products. Ivy Bridge promises better graphics, media performance and energy efficiency. It is expected that Apple will include Ivy Bridge processors in new MacBooks. 

The initial launch includes only quad-core processors. This is no value chipset, although Intel promised that less expensive dual-core processors will launch later this year, and Ivy Bridge for laptops will launch in the early summer. Interestingly, although Intel is claiming performance gains for Ivy Bridge, it's focusing more on the areas of graphics and energy efficiency, faster media processing, and the potential for more thin-and-light laptops, or Ultrabooks.

Ivy Bridge's key technological advance is the reduction of the previous generation's 32-nanometre (nm) microarchitecture to a 22nm manufacturing process. This makes Ivy Bridge Intel's first platform built using a 22nm technology. According to the company, this creates extra space to allow for greater performance from less power consumption, and much better integrated graphics capability. (To put this into context, human fingernails grow at 1nm each second; to understand just how small 22nm is, watch how far your nails grow in 22 seconds.)

Ivy Bridge: Improved performance

Intel is claiming six major areas of improvement for Ivy Bridge. 'Smart Performance' is said to offer improved energy efficiency and performance, which suggests that Ivy Bridge PCs should start up quicker, enjoy better network connectivity, and access stored files more quickly.

Intel also suggests that power consumption is lower with Ivy Bridge. It told us that quad-core processors would pull down up to 95W under strain, and dual-core up to 65W – but said these were maximums, and both can go much lower.

But Intel's major push is for the media experience and 3D performance that Ivy Bridge facilitates. It said that roughly 30 percent more space on the chip is now being given to the graphics subsystem. The new processors are said to offer up to twice the graphics capabilities of Sandy Bridge.

Intel is also boasting about improvements to Quick Sync Video, its dedicated video-transcoding and -conversion hardware codec. It said the native graphics capability of every Ivy Bridge processor is "a significant improvement over Sandy Bridge... roughly equivalent to an entry- or mid-level discrete graphics card". Intel told us, for instance, that the integrated graphics of any Ivy Bridge processor could play out-of-the-box Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 at a screen resolution of 1920x1080p.

This isn't great news for graphics card makers, not least because – unlike AMD's CrossFireX technology – Intel processors are unable to combine integrated and discrete graphics systems. Intel told us that its Lucid Virtue technology will allow parallel usage, so both graphics subsystems can handle different tasks at the same time, and promised a new version soon. Included in Ivy Bridge is support for DirectX 11, OCL 1.1 and Open GL 3.1.

Ivy Bridge processors also offer more tangible new features. Display enhancements mean that the chipset can natively support three independent displays at HD resolutions. There's also HDMI 1.4A support and what Intel calls 'Premium Audio'. In terms of I/O performance there's standard support for PCIe Gen 3.0, SATA 6Gbps (otherwise known as SATA 3.0) and integrated USB 3.0, as well as broader wireless support.

Integrated security functions include smartphone-like hardware-native anti-theft capabilities, created with partners McAfee, Symantec and Absolute. You can, for instance, set up encryption key exchange for file sharing buried deep in the chipset, potentially making more secure activities such as online banking – provided that you use only a single Ivy Bridge system to access the bank. Anti-theft capabilities allow Ivy Bridge users to purchase products from Intel's software partners that allow them to brick stolen laptops, or wipe sensitive data from them.

Although Ivy Bridge works with all Intel 6 Series motherboards built since the turn of the year, it will most often be paired with products from the Intel 7 Series chipset, known as 'Panther Point'. This supports third- and second-gen Core processors.

Intel 7 Series chipsets offer Intel Rapid Storage Technology 11, integrated USB 3.0, support for multiple HD displays and Thunderbolt connectivity as standard... or, rather: "There is Thunderbolt support within the chipset, but there are additional components required - specifically the Cactus Ridge controller that actually implements Thunderbolt," according to Scott Pendrey, Intel's desktop product manager for Europe.

There's also support for Intel's 'Small Business Advantage' technology, which allows small businesses to manage a shop full of PCs without having to employ an IT expert, 6Gbps SATA connectivity for SSDs and hard disks, legacy PCI support, and what Intel calls 'Storage Power Savings'. The chipset is built using a 65nm process.

Ivy Bridge for Ultrabooks

Intel also outlined some of its plans for Ivy Bridge in Ultrabooks. Although tablets are immensely popular for the consumption of media, Intel believes thin-and-light laptops are required for its creation. Ivy Bridge will also allow second-generation Ultrabooks to start almost instantly from sleep mode.

Like desktop Ivy Bridge chips, the mobile processors will offer Smart Response, a technology in which information that is often required is stored on an SSD, and less frequently called on data sits on a hard disk, increasing response times.

Another Ivy Bridge technology that is particularly relevant to Ultrabooks is Smart Connect, which allows applications to be updated on the fly.

As with quad-core Ivy Bridge processors, the laptop processors will include 'anti-theft' and 'ID-protection' capabilities