An intrinsic is well defined on Wikipedia, to summarize: it is a function 'macro' to be handled by the compiler. The JIT compiler supports a large list of such intrinsic function macros . The beauty of the 2 concepts joined together(intrinsic functions and JIT compilation optimizations) is that the JIT compiler can optimize whole functions into single processor instructions, for the particular processor detected at runtime, and get a great performance boost.
Where it all gets a bit confusing is that the intrinsic functions show up as normal methods or native methods when browsing the source code. Regardless of what they look like (native/Java) they will magically be transformed to far more performant alternative when picked up by the JIT (Caution must be taken with this piece of advice as the JIT compiler behavior can change from JVM to JVM implementation and turn your crafty choice of functions from a speedy chariot to a soggy pumpkin... one such important JVM is the Android Dalvik)
To get an idea of the range of functions which benefit from this nifty trick you can check out this list on this Java gaming Wiki, or have a look in this header file where you can find a more definitive list(look for do_intrinsic) and also get a view on how these things hang together. Some classes/methods on the list:
- The wonderful Unsafe. Almost all intrinsics.
- Math: abs(double); sin(double); cos(double); tan(double); atan2(double, double); sqrt(double); log(double); log10(double); pow(double, double); exp(double); min(int, int); max(int, int);
- System: identityHashCode(Object); currentTimeMillis(); nanoTime(); arraycopy(....);
- And many many more...
One take away from this is that looking through the code is not enough to reason about the performance. In some cases where the performance is surprisingly good you will find an intrinsic standing behind that little boost you didn't see coming.