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Hard Choices: Intel's 'Orrible New Haswell Chips

Chips with everything

Move along. There's absolutely nothing to see.

Still here? Fine. Intel's new Haswell CPUs are a non-event for the desktop PC. In fact, with Haswell Intel's indifference to the desktop might just have been upgraded to spite. If you really must have an explanation, here it is.

The NDAs have lifted, the reviews are out and I've had my own hands-on time with Haswell. The familiar refrain when introducing a new Intel CPU architecture is to explain that the main priority is mobile but nevertheless the net result is still pretty peachy for the desktop PC. Not this time. This time the main priority is mobile. The end.

For starters, Intel's latest PC processor family – and let's be clear about this, it's being pitched as a major architectural upgrade, no less than the 4th generation of Core processors – boils down to two key advances, one of which is almost entirely irrelevant to the desktop and the other doesn't even appear on the desktop – at least not in the first batch of socketed desktop chips.

Oh no, not laptops again
The first is mobility. Haswell might just be revolutionary in that regard. There are some as yet unreleased system-on-a-chip versions of Haswell which promise a 20x reduction in power consumption, in some scenarios at least.

A 22nm Haswell wafer, yesterday

That's bonkers. Indeed, Intel reckons Haswell is the biggest step forward in processor efficiency in the history of its x86 CPUs. Yup, even bigger than the transition from Pentium 4 to Core.

Thus, if Haswell is anything like as good as Intel claims, it's going to shake things up. Think tablets that combine iPad proportions with proper PC levels of processing prowess. Microsoft's Surface Pro, as nice as it is in some ways, doesn't quite deliver on that. Haswell, according to the hype, will. I've long wanted a tablet convertible that's no bigger than an iPad but has the power of a proper PC. So I'm genuinely excited by the prospect. But it's got naff-all to do with gaming PCs.

It's got graphics, apparently
Then there's graphics. To cut a long story short, Intel has more than doubled up on graphics power in Haswell. The maximum graphics execution unit count leaps from 16 to 40 units, and the clocks are up slightly, too. But at launch, that 40-unit graphics core - usually but not always sold under the new Iris brand name – isn't available with socketed desktop chips. That includes the intriguing Iris Pro version with 128MB of eDRAM.

Just one desktop chip gets Iris and it's a soldered-down BGA chip, not a socketed LGA model (more on sockets in a moment). Moreover, the execution units are pretty much the same as before in terms of architecture, so the 20-unit Intel HD Graphics 4600 effort in the desktop chips launched in the last few days are of zero interest.

4th generation, same old experience

I've also had trouble getting the new graphics core to run certain games, so the drivers are still half baked. Anyway, mobility and graphics are essentially non-relevant to the first desktop Haswell chips.

The new Core, er, core
Which leaves the CPU cores and the platform. Both of which basically suck.

OK, that's unfair. The CPU cores don't suck. They're just not clocked any higher. There are no more of them than before. And on a core-for-core and clock-for-clock basis, they're only a tiny bit faster.

Spot the difference...

There are new models to mirror most of the previous Ivy Bridgers. So the new Intel Core i7-4770K replaces the Core i7-3770K. And the i5-4670K replaces our old favourite the i5-3570K. Just as before, the K means unlocked, the i5 doesn't have Hyper-threading, the clockspeeds don't change. You don't even get any extra cache.

I've done my benchmarking bit and the results are of virtually no interest. Haswell is a little bit faster. But it's not even close to being enough that you can actually feel the difference.

Overclocking, sockets 'n stuff
Then there's overclocking. The chips I've tested so far (three of them) have been pretty much identical to their Ivy Bridge progenitors. But rumour has it that actual retail chips are much more variable than before. The engineering samples I've been playing with may not be entirely representative.

As for the new baseclock strap overclocking option, I could see how it would be worthwhile if it was widely available. But it's reserved for K series chips which already have unlocked multipliers. So, I'm really struggling to care.

Next up, sockets. Yup, there's yet another new one, namely LGA1150. That breaks backwards compatibility. Again. In recent years, we've had LGA1156, LGA1155 and now LGA1150. Honestly, I haven't asked Intel why we have to have a new socket. I can't bear the answers they'll roll out, I've heard it all before. I'm unapologetic in that regard. I know they've moved more of the video interface kit onto the CPU proper. But I simply don't believe it has to be this way.

Haswell gets yet another new CPU socket. I thought you'd be pleased...

Put simply, why can't Intel show just a little solidarity for its faithful desktop customers? More cores or clocks. Baseclock strap overclocking for all. Just something!

It's just not interesting
Thus the only thing I can think of that might make 'orrible Hassie a little bit interesting is that a BGA quad-core model with Iris Pro exists and in something like the teensy Intel NUC it might make for an interesting Steam Box sort of system. But that's assuming games will actually fire up correctly on the thing. Which is to assume a lot. And the chip alone will cost a fortune. Forget I even mentioned it.

And that's all I've really got to say. Haswell isn't interesting on the desktop because Intel isn't interested in desktops and it's willing to exploit its current advantage over AMD to the cost of customers. You and I, in other words. Saying that kind of thing won't endear me to Intel. And these new chips remain the best gaming CPUs by far, I certainly can't deny that. The Core i5-4670K enters the world as the new RPS gaming CPU of choice.

But the fact is, Intel could very, very easily be doing so much more on the desktop. There's no point in pretending that isn't true.

The only hope is that AMD's upcoming Steamroller CPUs (due early next year, allegedly) are good enough to wake Intel from its slumber.

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About the Author

Jeremy Laird