Bridge to Give Intel New Direction

Intel managed to draw a standing-room-only crowd at its Wednesday press event. Even those who were fortunate enough to get a seat had to fight for elbow room. The main event, of course, was Sandy Bridge, the new 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 one device to another.

When it comes to things like HD, entertainment, home video capabilities and the ability to work with large photos, "it's imperative for PC and notebook 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 and Blu-ray content.

The chips' QuickSync capabilities can convert video from one format to another incredibly quickly, which means less sitting around while you're waiting for that video file to ferment and turn into something you can put on your phone.

Intel also took a big swipe at anyone selling discrete graphics processors. Sandy Bridge will feature powerful new integrated graphics capabilities, and it looks like it'll be able to handle big-graphics games fairly well.

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

It'll by no means be a replacement for higher-end GPUs, but it does shake up the price/power/bulk/performance equation.

By the way, does anyone have a newer gaming benchmark? "Crysis" turned three last November.

The DRM Demon

Reading various reports of the news Intel put out this week regarding its new family of CPUs, I noticed a strong vein of concern about IntelInsider, a technology that applies digital rights management to certain kinds of media. Ample mention was made about the new line's power and its ability to handle relatively heavy graphics jobs, but the part that really seemed to draw a reaction, judging by the comment sections of various news sites and blogs, was the very mention of that most foul of terms -- "DRM."

At worst, the initials evoke memories of Sony's (NYSE: SNE) awful rootkit debacle several years ago. At best, DRM schemes typically turn out to be clumsily implemented and easily circumvented. And when you talk about baking DRM into a whole line of chips, as is technically the case with Sandy Bridge, it's not completely unreasonable to think this is going to just be another obstacle that's going to trip you up whenever you try to play any file not given the official nod of approval by a major movie, TV or record studio. The term just has that stink on it.

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

"Frankly, the content providers wouldn't have allowed them to stream content from one device to another without DRM," King said.

Warner Bros.' Kevin Tsujihara, president of its home entertainment group, was trotted onstage to explain how his and other studios place a high value on HD, late-release content, which is why it's so hard to find new movies that'll stream to your PC in HD. They're worried about piracy. Their shipping lanes aren't clear. But with IntelInsider, the chipmaker has apparently convinced at least some major studios that its system provides safe passage from their servers to your computer without anyone ripping their content.

"You've taken the excuse away from us," Tsujihara told Mooley Eden, VP and GM of Intel's PC client group.

The example provided was a CinemaNow demo. If you have a Sandy Bridge processor, you'll get the option to stream a movie in HD on CinemaNow, and that movie will be protected from piracy by way of Intel's DRM provisions.

So who knows -- maybe a genius hacker will figure out a way around this one in six months (funny how that happens). At the moment, it seems your existing booty (whether attained legally or otherwise) will still safely play. It'll even stream from a PC to a WiDi-compatible TV. Eden told me that IntelInsider only applies to the link between the movie provider and the computer.

Timid on Tablets

Though tablets will likely be the star of this year's CES, they received very little attention from Intel at its event. The word did pop up from time to time, so perhaps Atom does have a future in tablet devices rather than only in netbooks and nettops.

One possible advantage of using Atom in a tablet is that its X86 architecture is backwards-compatible with a huge universe of existing applications -- it'll run a lot of the same programs you could run on a standard Windows machine (keep in mind, performance may be iffy for the high-caliber stuff).

Something like the iPad, on the other hand, is limited to the wares in its App Store menagerie. Still, over the last few years, that App Store has grown into being the Costco (Nasdaq: COST) of software distributors. And really, a lot of those Windows applications just don't translate well when applied directly to a touch-based interface.

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

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