In 2006 Intel introduced its tick-tock cadence for microprocessor releases. Every year would see the release of a new family of microprocessors as either a tick or a tock. Ticks would keep architectures relatively unchanged and focus on transitions to smaller manufacturing technologies, while tocks would keep fab process the same and revamp architecture. Sandy Bridge was the most recent tock, and arguably the biggest one since Intel started down this road.

At a high level the Sandy Bridge CPU architecture looked unchanged from prior iterations. Intel still put forth a 4-issue machine with a similar number of execution resources to prior designs. Looking a bit closer revealed that Intel completely redesigned the out-of-order execution engine in Sandy Bridge, while heavily modifying its front end. Sandy Bridge also introduced Intel's high performance ring bus, allowing access to L3 by all of the cores as well as Intel's new on-die GPU.

The Sandy Bridge GPU was particularly surprising. While it pales in comparison to the performance of the GPU in AMD's Llano, it does represent the first substantial effort by Intel in the GPU space. Alongside the integrated GPU was Intel's first hardware video transcoding engine: Quick Sync. In our initial review we found that Quick Sync was the best way to quickly transcode videos, beating out both AMD and NVIDIA GPU based implementations in our tests. Quick Sync adoption has been limited at best, which is unfortunate given how well the feature performed in our tests.

Sandy Bridge wasn't all rosy however. It was the first architecture that Intel shipped with overclocking disabled on certain parts. Any CPU without Turbo Boost enabled is effectively unoverclockable. Intel killed the low end overclocking market with Sandy Bridge.

The overclocking limits were a shame as Sandy Bridge spanned a wide range of price points. The low end Core i3-2100 was listed at $117 while the highest end Core i7-2600K came in at $317. While you can't claim that Sandy Bridge was overpriced at the high end, there's always room for improvement.

Despite abandoning Pentium as a high end brand with the 2006 release of Intel's Core 2 Duo, Intel has kept the label around for use on its value mainstream parts. Last year we saw only two Pentium branded Clarkdale parts: the G6950 and G6960. This year, powered by Sandy Bridge, the Pentium brand is a bit more active.

Processor Core Clock Cores / Threads L3 Cache Max Turbo Max Overclock Multiplier TDP Price
Intel Core i7 2600K 3.4GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.8GHz 57x 95W $317
Intel Core i7 2600 3.4GHz 4 / 8 8MB 3.8GHz 42x 95W $294
Intel Core i5 2500K 3.3GHz 4 / 4 6MB 3.7GHz 57x 95W $216
Intel Core i5 2500 3.3GHz 4 / 4 6MB 3.7GHz 41x 95W $205
Intel Core i5 2400 3.1GHz 4 / 4 6MB 3.4GHz 38x 95W $184
Intel Core i5 2300 2.8GHz 4 / 4 6MB 3.1GHz 34x 95W $177
Intel Core i3 2120 3.3GHz 2 / 4 3MB N/A N/A 65W $138
Intel Core i3 2100 2.93GHz 2 / 4 3MB N/A N/A 65W $117
Intel Pentium G850 2.9GHz 2 / 2 3MB N/A N/A 65W $86
Intel Pentium G840 2.8GHz 2 / 2 3MB N/A N/A 65W $75
Intel Pentium G620 2.6GHz 2 / 2 3MB N/A N/A 65W $64
Intel Pentium G620T 2.2GHz 2 / 2 3MB N/A N/A 35W $70

The new Sandy Bridge based Pentiums fall into two lines at present: the G800 and G600. All SNB Pentiums have two cores (HT disabled) with 256KB L2 per core and a 3MB L3 cache. CPU core turbo is disabled across the entire Pentium line. From a performance standpoint, other than missing hyper threading and lower clocks - the Sandy Bridge Pentiums are very similar to Intel's Core i3.

Intel continues to separate the low end from the high end by limiting supported instructions. None of the Pentiums support AES-NI or VT-d. Other than higher clock speeds the 800 series only adds official DDR3-1333 support. The 600 series only officially supports up to DDR3-1066.

All standard Pentiums carry a 65W TDP. The Pentium G620T runs at a meager 2.2GHz and manages a 35W TDP. Regardless of thermal rating, the boxed SNB Pentiums come with an ultra low profile cooler:

These Pentium CPUs work in the same 6-series LGA-1155 motherboards as their Core i3/5/7 counterparts. The same rules apply here as well. If you want video out from the on-die GPU you need either an H-series or a Z-series chipset.

The Pentium GPU

When Intel moved its integrated graphics on-package with Clarkdale it dropped the GMA moniker and started calling it HD Graphics. When it introduced the Sandy Bridge Core i3/5/7, Intel added the 2000 and 3000 suffixes to the HD Graphics brand. With the Sandy Bridge Pentium, Intel has gone back to calling its on-die GPU "HD Graphics".

Despite the name, the Pentium's HD Graphics has nothing in common with Clarkdale's GPU. The GPU is still on-die and it features the same architecture as Intel's HD Graphics 2000 (6 EUs). Performance should be pretty similar as it even shares the same clock speeds as the HD 2000 (850MHz base, 1.1GHz turbo for most models). I ran a quick test to confirm that what Intel is selling as HD Graphics is really no different than the HD Graphics 2000 in 3D performance:

Intel HD vs 2000 vs 3000 - Crysis Warhead

All is well in the world.

Where the vanilla HD Graphics loses is in video features: Quick Sync, InTru 3D (Blu-ray 3D), Intel Insider (DRM support for web streaming of high bitrate HD video) and Clear Video HD (GPU accelerated post processing) are all gone. Thankfully you do still get hardware H.264 video acceleration and fully audio bitstreaming support (including TrueHD/DTS-HD MA).

Missing Quick Sync is a major blow, although as I mentioned earlier I'm very disappointed in the poor support for the feature outside of the initial launch applications. The rest of the features vary in importance. To someone building a basic HTPC, a Sandy Bridge Pentium will do just fine. Personally I never play anything in 3D, never use the Clear Video HD features and never use Intel Insider so I wouldn't notice the difference between a Sandy Bridge Pentium and a Core i5 for video playback.

The Matchup
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  • 86waterpumper - Wednesday, August 24, 2011 - link

    It's not really a attempt, they have it all sewn up. Intel has dropped their prices and I don't see anywhere at all that amd can compete with the exception of someone that needs a six core for cheap. Everyone here is talking about unlocking cores and o/c and such. This is not the intended purpose of these nor is unlocking cores ever a sure thing. The new bar to hit is power consumption with acceptable performance. A g620 and h61 is perfect for a fileserver or htpc etc. I have always liked amd but they have even overpriced llano. The a8350 ought to be 100 bucks let alone the a6350. Their cpus use too much power, even the zacate. My buddy is building a new computer and doesn't care about overclocking. I told him to go with a h61 and i3 2100. It just makes more sense since he can upgrade to a i5 or i7 down the road. a x3 may be cheap but it's on a old platform. Intel has a much better sata driver also. Someone said above they never could find a decent intel motherboard for cheap. For 65 bucks, I can buy a h61 biostar board that has vga, dvi, and hdmi out, plus 2 usb 3.0 etc. This is even on a matx format. The only thing missing other than sata 6gb is usually firewire and esata but these are absent from alot of full size boards these days too. Firewire isn't used much anymore and esata can be had for 2 bucks and a backing plate with some wires.
  • mino - Thursday, August 25, 2011 - link

    AMD competes with Llano. And there was a reason Intel lowered prices - they now have to squeeze a GPU into a budget where AMD needs none.
  • frozentundra123456 - Thursday, August 25, 2011 - link

    This is true to a certain extent, but I would also argue that for 90 percent of the users on the low end, especially if you dont game, the integrated graphics on the Pentium would be more than sufficient.
  • 86waterpumper - Thursday, August 25, 2011 - link

    AMD competes and outstrips with Llano on the graphics front but not on price and not on cpu. No hardcore gamer is going to buy these chips. I still cannot understand the target marget on these Llano desktop parts? It's sure not for htpcs, because they don't need this much graphics power, and it's certainly not for hardcore gamers because it's not enough gpu and nowhere close to the cpu power they need. There is no compelling reason at all to pay 140 bucks for a a8350 instead of the i3 2100. Now I do see where Llano has it's place in the laptop market, but they need to get the power consumption down.
  • mino - Sunday, August 28, 2011 - link

    i3 without a GPU is good for SuperPI. And that is about it.

    You may wanna look-up Steam statistics what most people play with.

    As for "but they need to get the power consumption down", I am just wondering what are you tlaking about when Llano has comparable idle and LOWER load consumption to Intel (without proper GPU!).

    Sure everybody should keep getting power down. But that claim of yours smell ignorance and/or PR warfare.
  • najames - Wednesday, August 24, 2011 - link

    Do you have an idle power comparison test??? These would make a dandy server if they idle without taking much power. It would be nice to see IGP power, not using the normally tested large video card.
  • azcoyote - Thursday, August 25, 2011 - link

    To anyone disparaging these Intel Pentium chips, I challenge you to show me a way to build a newest architecture PC for around $200. I just bought a combo deal from NewEgg for like $239 that has 4GB, 500GB HDD, G620, MSI Mobo, Case, Power supply, Keys, Mouse, and speakers. When you need a PC for someone who does mostly Facebook and legacy games, that is pretty hard to beat. Gonna throw an old X1900 I have handy in there for them and call it good. Thrilled to see these available!
  • ClagMaster - Friday, August 26, 2011 - link


    Thank you for comparing the Core 2 Duo E6850 and Q6600 in this article. One of my pet peeves is I upgrade every 3-4 years and its really hard to assess performance over these so-called legacy parts. I only upgrade if I get double the processor performance (PC 2005) of the processor to be replaced for the same price.

    I personally would go with the A8 for a HTPC or offline private PC because of its better graphic performance and hardware accelerated graphics converters.
  • najames - Saturday, August 27, 2011 - link

    I second that motion!! I still use a lot of older hardware and found it interesting to see it all listed too.
  • rockfella79 - Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - link

    I still don't feel i need to upgrade from my E5200 and 2 GB DDR2 hohoho.

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