In the first post of this series, I covered the overall Sandy Bridge microarchitecture and outlined techniques that you can use to “future proof” your embedded design. Now let’s look at a specific application.


Digital signage and electronic gaming are huge and growing industries that depend on embedded electronics, media processing, and complex software for success. In the latest incarnations, these embedded display systems must network with a remote server, interact with a user, and update multiple high definition screens at ever increasing data rates. Targeting these requirements, Intel® recently unveiled the 2nd Generation Intel® Core™ Processor Family, codenamed Sandy Bridge, to be produced using the latest 32nm process technology. This new architecture includes numerous media and graphics enhancements such as the integrated graphics processor for high definition hardware image decoding, the Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions instruction set for faster floating point capabilities, and a modular design to simplify upgrades. In this blog post, I will detail some of these Sandy Bridge features that you can use to shorten your next embedded signage, gaming, or similar graphics-based design.


One of the most significant features of the Sandy Bridge architecture is that the graphics processor is integrated on the same die with the CPU cores, Last Level Cache (LLC), and system agent/memory controller. All of these elements exchange data using a scalable ring interconnect system allowing the graphics processor to share the cache and memory controller with the CPU cores. The Sandy Bridge ring technology allows Intel® to adjust the number of cores and create variations that optimize cost, performance, and power requirements for a wide range of signage and gaming applications.  The graphics processor along with all of the CPU cores in the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture also support Intel® Turbo Boost Technology, where clock frequencies can be increased for short periods to handle heavy workloads.


The Sandy Bridge graphics processor is ideal for signage or gaming applications with optimized media architecture and programmability plus dedicated fixed function hardware for video processing. The graphics section is composed of an array of parallel execution units for 3D applications and hardware acceleration for high speed HD encoding/decoding of high definition video (See figure 1).  In order to maximize the throughput per watt, the graphics processor implements fixed function hardware in the 3D pipeline to replace programmable functions. The video processing section includes advanced logic for removing noise, sharpening, scaling, and color processing of video signals. Sandy Bridge also features a unified power management architecture where the graphics processor has a separate power plane and clocking so it can run at a different voltage than the CPU depending on the workload.

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Both digital signage and gaming applications require intensive floating point calculations to deliver the needed high speed graphics. Sandy Bridge incorporates Intel®’s new Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) instruction set optimized for audio, image, and video processing. Although the AVX data path has been increased to 256 bits to accommodate demanding floating point processing, it is backward compatible with previous x86 ISA (Instruction Set Architecture) extensions. With the AVX extended performance, you can potentially eliminate external hardware-based digital signal processing circuitry to reduce the component count and lower overall power requirements.  With signal processing algorithms programmed in AVX code, future updates can be made with a software modification.


As signage and gaming systems step up their performance and functionality, the supporting embedded designs naturally grow in complexity. For example a flight information board in an airport terminal and many of the latest electronic gaming platforms now require multiple displays which can result in added circuitry and possible external graphics processors. To deal with this possibility, Sandy Bridge supports the Hybrid Multi Monitor mode providing simultaneous operation of the integrated graphics processor along with an external discrete graphics processor, providing for more than two independently-driven displays on a single system.


While gaming equipment and the latest digital signage systems, such as the DSS-7042 from Advantech, are interactive, both are usually deployed in remote locations away from a system operator thus creating security and remote management problems for the support team.  Addressing this situation, Sandy Bridge is compatible with an advanced version of Intel®’s vPro technology allowing designers to remotely activate, reconfigure, and possibly, deactivate a remote embedded system. vPro includes Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT) with certificate-based security for remote access regardless of the operational status of the system. This technology provides signage and gaming support personnel a low cost method to collect usage data, perform maintenance, and manage software updates.


Along with performance and power-saving improvements, Sandy Bridge delivers an optimized and programmable media architecture plus hardware-based video processing. These powerful graphics features give the embedded platform designer an ample toolset to establish new directions and create next-generation signage and gaming applications. You can find more information about new features and enhancements from the Sandy Bridge: Processor Graphics presentation at IDF. If you think that Sandy Bridge fits your next graphics related project or if you have already started a project please share your concerns, questions,  and successes with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community. Also, there is more to come as I cover the flexibility and scalability of the Sandy Bridge I/O system plus the new Intel® Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) that defines a standardized module to ease the integration of digital signage components.


Warren Webb
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance



Advantech, is a Premier member of the by Intel® Embedded Alliance.