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Week In Tech: Haswell Mobile, AMD Goes GHz Gaga

Hardware Matters Of Great Import

Some of you were a teensy bit miffed by my unceremonious defenestration of Intel's new Haswell CPUs as desktop chips. In fairness, when you've only played with the desktop iterations, that's going to influence your outlook. And Intel really was asking for it. Anyway, while I mentioned Haswell has some serious mobile chops, it's worth having a closer look at what it all means for mobile gaming and what you should be looking out for when bagging a laptop. In other news, AMD has annouced a 5GHz processor. Surely this can't be the beginning of a new GHz war...?

Haswell as a mobile gaming chip, then. Frankly, I blame Intel for the avoidably negative coverage Haswell has generated. M'learned colleague on PC Format Magazine, Dave James, and I were discussing this only yesterday.

Haswell has plenty to offer. But Intel utterly failed to give us good reason to shout about that thanks to the products it supplied for review.

Imagine what the hack community would have said had Intel fired out reference tablets running its fancy new 40-core graphics, Windows 8 and some serious software to play with. Instead, we got crap desktop CPUs that were no faster at stock clocks and don't overclock as well as the previous generation.

Incidentally, I fully do not buy the argument that Haswell as a desktop chip had to be a pitiful step forward because everything is now dominated by mobile. If AMD had more competitive chips to offer, I'm certain things would be very different. More on that in a moment.

Mobile or desktop, they're all cut from the same wafers

As ever, the launch materials I got from Intel were incomplete. But I've been digging around and I've finally found what I've been looking for.

The thing about Haswell is that the vast, vast majority of its derivatives are flatly uninteresting. That includes most of the mobile efforts. We're talking incremental upgrades, even to power consumption.

Put another way, Haswell isn't exciting for proper, full-power gaming laptops. Most variants are only a bit more power efficient, it's really no faster and the improvement in integrated graphics is irrelevant. The 3D performance remains ultimately pretty pants in a serious gaming context. You still need a discrete GPU.

Where things get a but more interesting involves the bequeathing of a new class of devices with moderately useful gaming chops. I'm talking Ultrabooks, tablets and tablet convertibles.

This is the one you don't want. It doesn't have 40 graphics units...

In other words, we're in ultra-low voltage territory. Where things get complicated is idenitifying Intel's new 40-unit graphics core. It wouldn't be an Intel launch without some simultaneously idiotic and cynical branding. And sure enough, Haswell's graphics branding is a minor atrocity.

Intel has introduced the new Iris brand. You'd think that would apply to all Haswell chips, but no it's just the ones with the most powerful graphics.

Fair enough, apply Iris to all chips with the new 40-unit graphics. Ha! That would make too much sense. Instead, Iris only applies to certain 40-unit graphics cores. There are some that retain the old Intel HD Graphics branding. If you went out of your way to confuse customers, this is exactly how you'd do it.

Anyway, as far as I can work out, the 40-unit graphics that will give you half a chance of gaming joy are indicated by the numerical suffix. Anything starting with a '5' has 40 units. So that's Intel HD Graphics 5000, Iris 5100 and Iris Pro 5200. Geddit? Phew.

Next question, are there any of these cores on offer in an ultra-low voltage chip? Not among the launch chips according to the docs I have from Intel. But I saw reference to a few such chips on the web and some digging around on Intel's site throws up this comprehensive list.

Hope for Hasell: Genuine PC gaming in something the size of an Android tablet

And joy, there are some 'U' ultra-low voltage CPU models with the 40-unit graphics. Here's the bad news. They're all very expensive. $342 bucks a piece when you buy them in bulk (1,000 units), currently.

Any machine with the 40-unit graphics is therefore going to be pricey. For the foreseeable, I doubt you'll be able to get one for less than £1,000. That's a shame because the idea of a tablet convertible with enough gumption for some games is super seductive.

To be clear, we're not talking about graphics grunt to lay waste to AMD and Nvidia's finest GPUs. But going on Anandtech's test of Iris (bear in mind that was the most powerful Iris Pro iteration with 128MB of eDRAM), it should be just about gameable.

Anyway, if you're in the market for that kind of thing, stick that Intel reference page in your favourites. It will come in very handy when you go shopping.

If I get a chance to take a ULV Haswell with 40-unit graphics for a spin. I'll let you all know. The only device I've seen in the metal is the new Macbook Air. But that would mean Bootcamp and that's a bit complicated.

AMD goes GHz gaga
Next up, AMD's new 5GHz FX processor. What are we to make of that? Firstly, it's symptomatic of Intel's sand bagging. If Intel had even made the slightest effort to move the game on the desktop, AMD wouldn't have bothered with this GHz ruse. It would have been futile.

But I'm hoping that Intel's complacency has finally caught up with it. If you look at benchmarks of overclocked FX chips running near 5GHz, you'll see that AMD will have something highly competitive with Intel's best LGA1150 processors.

In truth, I don't think the new AMD FX models will actually be worth buying. They'll be super expensive. They're just speed binned and upclocked versions of the existing 32nm Vishera die, as far as I can tell.

Indeed, they'll be expensive because I doubt AMD can knock out very many of them. May as well price them to discourage sales but maintain the PR vitctory. Anywho, for the record the new top chip is known as teh FX-9590 and tops out at 5GHz. There's a slightly lowlier FX-9370 that's rated at 4.7GHz.

Note these are Turbo frequencies, not nominal clocks. Baseclocks are 4.7GHz and 4.4GHz respectively. I doubt they'll offer much overclocking headroom and you can get near those speeds by overclocking an existing FX. Price wise, I believe AMD has whispered something along the lines of $800 for the top chip. Call that £600-700 in the UK and there's no point in actually buying one.

Symbolically, however, they're significant. Like I said, they only exist because Intel has been scorning the desktop so comprehensively.

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