The next generation of Intel processors is here: on the opening day of CES, the processor giant finally unveiled its new family of fifth-generation Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs, as well as Celeron and Pentium models, based on the new 14nm Broadwell architecture. Laptops powered by the new processors will be on shelves later this month.
Intel Broadwell at a glance
- - 14 new mobile processors launched today
- - Fifth-generation Celeron, Pentium, Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 processors due on shelves this month
- - New HD Graphics 6000 and Iris Graphics 6100 GPUs
- - Core i5 and Core i7 vPro models for business
- - Desktop-class chips to follow in mid-2015
Intel Broadwell: should we be excited?
Not long ago, such a launch would have been expected to bring a significant boost to all-round performance as well as improved power efficiency. In recent years, however, Intel has allowed desktop performance to stagnate somewhat: the PR material for Broadwell promises a modest 4% improvement in productivity performance versus Haswell. The focus has instead been on progressively beefing up the GPU while reducing overall power consumption.
That may be a smart calculation. Even budget tablets and laptops are fast enough for everyday computing these days, so it makes sense to focus on the areas where they're weaker – namely, gaming, and that tiresome need to keep recharging them. It makes the launch of a new architecture much less of a significant event, however: the promised 22% improvement in 3D graphics is a good thing, but won't make much difference to businesses and power users. And while longer battery life might be appealing, the process shrink to 14nm (from the 22nm Haswell core) sadly doesn't translate to a commensurate improvement in longevity.
Intel Broadwell: a small battery life increase
To see why, we can turn to Intel's own marketing documentation for Broadwell. A helpful graph shows how the Broadwell SoC consumes significantly less power than the corresponding Haswell part – approximately 0.2W versus 0.4W while idle, and around 1.1W versus 1.9W while playing video.
Unfortunately, the SoC is only one small part of what's draining the battery, and in both scenarios the screen and the rest of the platform together are also consuming around 4W, meaning that even according to Intel's own figures the overall power consumption gap is less than 5% when idle, and just over 13% when watching a film.
We can't really blame Intel for this – actually in this generation it's done something rather clever by re-engineering the audio controller, to save around half a watt while sound is playing. Overall, though, it's clear that constantly refining and shrinking the CPU die is yielding diminishing returns when it comes to battery life.
Intel broadwell: wait – there's more…
It's also evidently getting harder for Intel to keep up its momentum. CEO Brian Krzanich admitted in October that Broadwell was behind schedule, and while the company did get its lightweight Core M chips out the door in time for Christmas, the mainstream chips launched today come a full 19 months after Haswell – the longest gap since Intel adopted its “Tick-Tock” model in 2007.
What's more, the wait isn't fully over: the chips launched today are all dual-core mobile models with TDPs of 28W and below. While some OEMs will doubtless stick these into all-in-ones and compact NUC-style devices, proper desktop chips with quad-core designs and TDPs of 45W and above won't be with us until the middle of the year.
Again, one can't really criticise Intel for this: no other company has ever put a 14nm microprocessor into mass production, and, it's perfectly normal for the company to release a new architecture in phases, typically starting with flagship mobile and desktop parts before filling out the range and eventually filtering into Xeon and E-class chips. But it's unprecedented for a roll-out to be quite so drawn-out, and that again diminishes the impact of today's announcement.
Two cheers for Intel Broadwell
If, for some reason, you've been desperately waiting to replace your Haswell processor with a new 14nm part – which will be possible, BIOS permitting – then you're likely to be disappointed by how long the upgrade has taken to appear, and by the moderate advances it brings. The biggest upgrade is to the GPU, and for the sort of user who doesn't invest in discrete graphics, we suspect this will be little more than a nice bonus.
But of course, very few of us upgrade our PCs every year. As Intel's Karen Regis pointed out at the launch, there are now more than 600 million PCs in use that are more than four years old. Based on Intel's own figures, jumping from a system based on 2010's 32nm Westmere architecture to a comparable Broadwell laptop will deliver a boost in productivity performance of 250% and a doubling of battery life – while lifting 3D performance up by a remarkable 1,200%.
In other words, the cumulative refinements of Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Haswell and Broadwell add up to a terrific upgrade. If we were hoping for more, it's probably because we're still expecting the arrival of a new microarchitecture to be the sort of epoch-marking event that the “Tick-Tock” image suggests. In reality, that may no longer be feasible, and it's certainly not necessary.
So instead of that model, it's time to get used to an image of more gradual progress, in which generations segue organically into one another. We welcome Broadwell, absolutely, but if the arrival of the new Core processors lead to price cuts on last-generation hardware, the coming weeks might be a smart time to invest in a Haswell system instead.