The Bridge That Intel Built

Intel managed to draw a standing-room-only crowd at its Wednesdaypress event. Even those who were fortunate enough to get a seat had tofight for elbow room. The main event, of course, was Sandy Bridge, thenew line of processors Intel broke news with earlier this week.Wednesday’s event was a more formal and thorough introduction.

The company put Sandy Bridge’s focus on consumer-related activities:content consumption and creation, gaming, and moving content from onedevice to another.

When it comes to things like HD, entertainment, home video capabilities and theability to work with large photos, “it’s imperative for PC andnotebook vendors to create products that support that activity,”Pund-IT Principal analyst Charles King told me as we waited in line.

HD video technologies took a prominent role on Intel’s stage,including WiDi 2.0, which features HD streaming from laptops to TVs.This new second version will feature 1080p playback and DVD andBlu-ray content.

The chips’ QuickSync capabilities can convert video from one format toanother incredibly quickly, which means less sitting around whileyou’re waiting for that video file to ferment and turn into somethingyou can put on your phone.

Intel also took a big swipe at anyone selling discrete graphicsprocessors. Sandy Bridge will feature powerful new integrated graphicscapabilities, and it looks like it’ll be able to handle big-graphicsgames fairly well.

The demos featured “World of Warcraft” and a sneakpeek at “Portal 2,” which is coming in April. It’s not exactly”Crysis” at full bore, but this will let vendors build machines thatoffer an adequate gaming experience without having to add in a pricey,power-draining and bulky discrete graphics card.

It’ll by no means bea replacement for higher-end GPUs, but it does shake up theprice/power/bulk/performance equation.

By the way, does anyone have a newer gaming benchmark? “Crysis” turnedthree last November.

The DRM Demon

Reading various reports of the news Intel put out this week regardingits new family of CPUs, I noticed a strong vein of concern aboutIntelInsider, a technology that applies digital rights management tocertain kinds of media. Ample mention was made about the new line’spower and its ability to handle relatively heavy graphics jobs, butthe part that really seemed to draw a reaction, judging by the commentsections of various news sites and blogs, was the very mention of thatmost foul of terms — “DRM.”

At worst, the initials evoke memories of Sony’s awful rootkit debacleseveral years ago. At best, DRM schemes typically turn out to beclumsily implemented and easily circumvented. And when you talk aboutbaking DRM into a whole line of chips, as is technically the case withSandy Bridge, it’s not completely unreasonable to think this is goingto just be another obstacle that’s going to trip you up whenever youtry to play any file not given the official nod of approval by a majormovie, TV or record studio. The term just has that stink on it.

From what Intel explained, the DRM contained in Intel’s SandyBridge chips is only going to kick in during very specificcircumstances: only when you’re streaming high-definition,late-release content from certain Intel partners.

“Frankly, the content providers wouldn’t have allowed them to streamcontent from one device to another without DRM,” King said.

Warner Bros.’ Kevin Tsujihara, president of its home entertainmentgroup, was trotted onstage to explain how his and other studios placea high value on HD, late-release content, which is why it’s so hard tofind new movies that’ll stream to your PC in HD. They’re worried aboutpiracy. Their shipping lanes aren’t clear. But with IntelInsider, thechipmaker has apparently convinced at least some major studios thatits system provides safe passage from their servers to your computerwithout anyone ripping their content.

“You’ve taken the excuse away from us,” Tsujihara told Mooley Eden, VPand GM of Intel’s PC client group.

The example provided was a CinemaNow demo. If you have a SandyBridge processor, you’ll get the option to stream a movie in HD onCinemaNow, and that movie will be protected from piracy by way ofIntel’s DRM provisions.

So who knows — maybe a genius hacker will figure out a way around thisone in six months (funny how that happens). At the moment, it seemsyour existing booty (whether attained legally or otherwise) will stillsafely play. It’ll even stream from a PC to a WiDi-compatible TV. Edentold me that IntelInsider only applies to the link between the movieprovider and the computer.

Timid on Tablets

Though tablets will likely be the star of this year’s CES, theyreceived very little attention from Intel at its event. The word didpop up from time to time, so perhaps Atom does have a future in tabletdevices rather than only in netbooks and nettops.

One possible advantage of using Atom in a tablet is that its X86architecture is backwards-compatible with a huge universe of existingapplications — it’ll run a lot of the same programs you could run on astandard Windows machine (keep in mind, performance may be iffy forthe high-caliber stuff).

Something like the iPad, on the other hand,is limited to the wares in its App Store menagerie. Still, over thelast few years, that App Store has grown into being the Costco ofsoftware distributors. And really, a lot of those Windows applicationsjust don’t translate well when applied directly to a touch-basedinterface.

And smartphones? Their only moment in the spotlight was when Intel CEOPaul Otellini told us to expect to see something at Mobile WorldCongress next month.

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