Intel, the company that makes the processors used in every Mac currently being manufactured, officially announced the details of the new Sandy Bridge processors, otherwise known as the Intel Core 2011 processors. These are the second generation of the Core processors found in many of Apple's products (i.e., the Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs), and the new silicon could herald good news for future Macs. The Sandy Bridge processor family uses Intel's 32nm microarchitecture and is the first to put the processor, memory controller, and graphics on the same die. In a nutshell, this means more performance and better energy efficiency.
TUAW reported back in early December that Apple has committed to use the integrated Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) of the Sandy Bridge processor in future MacBooks, providing speculation that most future MacBooks may do away with a separate GPU. At the current time, the entire MacBook family uses NVIDIA GPUs to accelerate graphics processing. By using the built-in GPU of the Core 2011 processors, the component cost of Apple's future Macs will be reduced slightly. Whether or not that will translate to lower prices for consumers is unknown at this time. More on the new hardware after the break.
There are a total of 29 new chips in the Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processor families. For laptops, the new processors have achieved a 22% reduction in package size, with designs as thin as .8" (the MacBook Pro line is currently between .95 - .98" thick) becoming possible. Intel expects the mobile processors to boost performance as much as 30% over existing first-generation silicon. When looking at "Lifestyle PCs" such as the iMac and Mac mini, the new desktop CPUs again provide up to a 30% performance boost while operating at much lower power levels.
One of the new processors, the Intel Core i7-980X Extreme, appears to be destined for high-end "Desktop Enthusiast" machines, perhaps in a future Mac Pro. It's interesting to note that there are two new chips, the Core i7-2600K and i5-2500K, that are enabled for overclocking. Apple has never condoned overclocking of CPUs, and would most likely pass on using these in future Macs; however, hackintosh enthusiasts would welcome the opportunity to rock Mac OS X on an overclocked box.
So, how fast are these new processors when running Mac OS X? TUAW received information from the tonymacx86 blog featuring Geekbench benchmarks of Snow Leopard running on one of the Core i5-2500K processors running at 3.3 GHz. These enterprising folks took advantage of the expiration of Intel's NDA on the Sandy Bridge CPUs today to load Mac OS X on a PC running this chip, resulting in a Geekbench score of 8874. That's quite a bit faster (31.9%) than a stock Core i5-680 in a stock 21.5" iMac with the 3.60 GHz option, which scores in the range of 6727 on Geekbench.
Of course, that's just one example, and we're sure to see many more benchmarks in the future. What interesting is that this was a hackintosh installation; Apple engineers would likely tune Mac OS X and the CPU to optimize performance on a future Mac product. Will Apple announce new Macs using the Sandy Bridge processors in 2011? We'd count on it.