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Week in Tech: Intel Shrinks Desktop Apathy Down To 14nm

A desktop PC? What on earth is that?

Spool up the apathy drive and buckle in for yet another family of unexciting new CPUs from Intel. The 14nm Broadwell generation is nearly upon us and Intel has begun the slow drip feed of info about a CPU hardly anyone will notice or care about in desktop PCs. It'll be a while yet before we get full speeds and feeds. But we already know enough to say that Broadwell is more of the same. No more cores, barely any additional CPU performance, better graphics and battery life. Deathly dull and disappointing? Yup, except possibly for mobile gaming. It's all too familiar. Of course, if it's exciting desktop stuff you crave, Intel's Haswell-E is, surprisingly, shaping up rather nicely. Pity I can't tell you any more about that, for now...

Back to Broadwell. As ever, there are two key aspects to any new CPU from Intel. The tech used to manufacture it, and the chip's actual features. Tech-wise, we're talking 14nm and long overdue at that.

14nm has apparently been the most difficult production node yet for Intel, with yields still a long way off what the existing 22nm node achieved at the same point in its development cycle. As it happens, this fits in with the broader hunch that Moore's Law is slowly grinding to a halt.

The figures can't be denied. If Moore's Law was fully on track, we'd have cheap chips with 20 or 30 billion transistors by now. Instead, it's more like two or three.

On the other hand, Intel also says the 22nm node was its most successful and best yielding process ever. As our American cousins are wont to say, go figure. Whatever, 14nm is said to be fit enough for full scale production. Intel has flicked the switch and the first 14nm Broadwell chips will appear in retail boxes of some kind (mobile devices, actually) by the end of the year.

14nm yields closing the gap to 22nm at PRQ. It's never easy!

It's also worth noting, if you care about this kind of thing, that 14nm will maintain Intel's conspicuous advantage over the competition. Everyone is struggling to keep the process-shrink train on time these days.

As for Broadwell's features, what have we learned from this week's announcements? We start with the earth-shattering news that the CPU cores will offer something in the region of five per cent better IPC. In other words, for each clock cycle, a Broadwell CPU core will do five per cent more work than the existing Haswell core found in Core i3s, i5s and i7s. Woot.

At this stage, Intel's full-fat x86 cores are surely highly honed. And Broadwell is a Tick not a Tock in Intel's chip-dev nomenclature, which means the emphasis is on the 14nm production node, not the chip's internal gubbins. But still, the crushing sense of stasis remains.

On the CPU-core side, there's not much more to report. As for graphics, the same basic GPU architecture remains but with a few tweaks. The partitioning has been revised so that the smallest modular block now contains eight execution units (EU) instead of 10 and the mainstream GT2 config gets three modules instead of two. So that's 24 EUs up from 20. Hazzah.

The graphics gets some further tweaks to boost performance and overall it looks like GT2 should be good for about 30-something per cent more performance compared to Haswell. No word on what the top GT3 config will look like, but 48 or 56 units (Haswell GT3 has 40) are the two most obvious options.

So, not much about actual CPU performance, then...

That still boils down to a relatively incremental improvement. It's hardly the difference between not really being able to game with integrated graphics and suddenly flicking all the eye candy switches at 1080p.

Where Broadwell does hold some interest, inevitably, is power consumption. The big push is fanless cooling. The idea is to put it into properly thin tablet PCs and have them passively cooled. Like ARM-powered Android and Apple iOS tablets, just with desktop-class CPU cores. Nice.

Our own Fingers McMeer is the proud owner of an MS Surface Pro and I've little doubt he would like the idea of a revised model that was thinner, lighter, slightly faster, had better battery life and was passively cooled. I know I would.

It wouldn't be a killer mobile gaming machine. But it would be a super all-round computing device with a just-about-tolerable turn of speed for casual gaming, so long as you pick and choose your game titles carefully.

For the record, Broadwell mobile CPUs will also see some rebranding, with 'Core M' the new epitaph upon the gravestone of our desktop CPU hopes. So look out for that. Just don't expect any exciting action on the desktop. We'll still be stuck on four cores and I doubt Intel will crank up the clocks much – given the problematic birth of the 14nm process, big clockspeed boosts may not even be an option.

Core M should make for a pretty super Surface Pro, to be fair

Broadwell CPUs for desktop PCs won't actually appear until next year and will, I assume, be sold under 5000 series branding. IE, today's Core i7-4770K will come a Core i7-5xxx something or other. Thus, by the 5xxx suffix shall ye likely know them.

Finally, I mentioned Haswell-E. It's the new ultra high-end CPU from Intel that slots into the server-derived LGA2011 socket. Normally, I struggle to get excited about this high end Intel platform.

It's fairly cynically rebadged Xeon server kit priced in the stratosphere and hobbled in terms of core count. Up to now, we've only seen six-core chips where Xeons can be had with 12 or 15 cores and even more due soon. Admittedly, most aren't necessarily suitable for desktops, but the sense of epic sandbagging remains.

Anywho, what we already officially know is that the next LGA2011 chip for desktop PCs will have up to eight cores for the first time. What I can't tell you is some other really interesting stuff I learned about overclocking and performance. Because it's under NDA. I'm not actually under NDA, but the chap who shared the info is and it just wouldn't be sporting. The truth will out by the end of the month.

To be clear, this LGA2011 clobber will still be catastrophically expensive. But the potential performance leap for this generation is at least interesting in a 'look, there's a Ferrari, isn't it fast!' kind of way. And that's better than nothing.

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Jeremy Laird