New computers in 2011 based on competing processors from Intel and AMD will initiate a new era in personal computing: the combination of a CPU and GPU (graphics processing unit) on a single chip. Intel's offering is refered to as Sandy Bridge; AMD's is Brazos (part of the Fusion program). In both cases a line of processors will be introduced that will be distinguished by part numbers. Systems are being built now and should be first available to consumers in January, with many more systems and variations on the processors available as 2011 progresses.
Over the last decade in particular graphics processing has increased in importance for the vast majority of computer users. People watch and even edit video on a regular basis. 3D virtual realities, including games, are a common part the computer experience. Even business applications are increasingly visual and three dimensiona. Starting with Windows Vista, computers needed improved graphic computation just to allow the operating system to present all of its graphic features.
If there is one thing consumers (including business buyers) need to know about computer graphics, it is that DX 11, introduced with Windows 7 in 2009, is the graphics standard for today's applications. DX 11 is short for DirectX 11, which Microsoft designed to handle multimedia, including video and 3D graphics. The prior generation, DirectX 10, was introduced in 2006. While a powerful advance in that era, it is now seriously out of date. While many applications still use DX 10, most new software introduced in 2011 will run best with DX 11. When DX 11 is not available, they will default to the lower graphics standards of DX 10 or earlier.
When a computer runs a DX 11 game or application by substituting DX 10, it loses graphic details that enhance the visual experience.
Sandy Bridge cannot run DX 11. If you buy a computer with an Intel Sandy Bridge processor, you will have two choices. Sub-optimal graphics, or buying an add-in graphics card from AMD or NVIDIA. AMD's Brazos chips (and all their Fusion chips to be introduced in 2011), on the other hand, do run DX 11. If you think about the computer replacement cycle, this is a remarkable difference. Intel computers bought in 2011 can be expected to remain in use for 2 to 4 years. By the end of that cycle they will be running a decade-old graphics standard.
Intel is going to spend a hefty amount of money trying to convince people that Sandy Bridge based computers have graphics on par with AMD Brazos based computers. I've seen some of how that will work already. One online technology reviewer in England used a factually correct article that first appeared at Anandtech to argue that Sandy Bridge is about as good, possibly better, than AMD offerings. He used the following graphic to support his argument [see also the full Sandy Bridge Preview at Anandtech]:
What you see hear is that a desktop Sandy Bridge Core i5 (the top bar) shows a good improvement on Intel's earlier integrated graphics attempts. It is also significantly better, for this particular game, than a AMD Radeon 5450 card. That is great, but it is not a valid comparison for people buying new computers in 2010. The Radeon 5450 card, as you can see from the chart, could do remarkable things for an older Intel CPU with integrated graphics. But it is a card you can now get, retail, for $33.99 [See HD 5450 at TigerDirect]. It supports DX 11. It is the very bottom of the AMD discrete graphics line.
Fair enough, though, Sandy Bridge has the graphics equivalance of the cheapest, slowest discrete video cards made with AMD graphics chips, except it can't do DX 11. Brazos has, as its graphics engine, the equivalent of either a Radeon HD 6250 or 6310, depending on the exact chip used, but those don't correspond to any discrete chips released by AMD. However, graphics capabilities of the Brazos APU are only slightly less than for the 5450.
The Brazos chips, draws just 9 watts of power in the C versions with 6250s, or 18 watts in the E versions with 6310s. The Intel Core i5 2400 draws 95 watts (according to Anandtech). In fact [See Sandy Bridge Preview] they list no Sandy Bridge CPU that draws less than 65 watts.
In other words, in order to make Intel integrated graphics look better than AMD APU graphics, you need to take an expensive, power-sucking chip designed for desktop computers and compare it to a relatively inexpensive, power-sipping chip designed for netbooks and notebooks. And the Intel based desktop computer won't do DX 11.
The way it works out, AMD is releasing its Fusion (combined CPU/GPU) notebook & netbook chips in January. Intel is releasing its desktop chips with integrated graphics January. So direct mobile to mobile and desktop to desktop comparisons are not available yet.
AMD will be releasing more powerful Bulldozer chips designed for desktops later in 2011. They will support DX 11. Intel uses Atom for its netbooks; expect no DX 11 support there.
DX 11 adoption is well underway. Games tend to adopt a new graphics standard most quickly, but only when new games are introduced. See a list of games with DX 11 support. Note that Windows 7 itself supports DX 11. Expect new versions of most major application programs coming out in 2011 and 2012 to support DX 11.
What consumers need to know is that Intel based computers are essentially defective as they come off the assembly lines unless (1) you just do simple tasks like e-mail that are not graphics intensive or (2) they include a discrete graphics card from AMD or NVIDIA.
Who will tell them that? Not Intel. And Intel's advertising budget is such that you can expect a lot of obfuscation in media outlets, including technology magazines and web sites dependent on Intel for much of their advertising revenue. Intel also pays many large retail chains to promote its products over AMD products (by paying for ads).
If anyone is going to get the truth out, it is the millions of ordinary tech people who help everyone else with their buying decisions year-in and year-out. If they can get the typical buyer to ask the typical seller, "Does it do DX 11?" then AMD is going to pick up a lot of market share in 2011. On the other hand, if they stick to the "Intel is the premium brand," line, AMD will continue to have a hard time getting its message heard.