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Week In Tech: Intel's Haswell-E Is Actually Interesting

It's 920 D0 all over again. Ish.

Remember when Intel's top platform was relevant? When proper CPUs didn't come with nonsense like integrated graphics and the Core i7-920 D0 was the weapon of choice for gamers and PC enthusiasts in the know? Good times. More recently, the LGA2011 socket and its CPUs have been irrelevant unless you had money to hose about with nonchalant abandon. Yeah, yeah, they've been the fastest PC platforms you could buy. But at a premium that massively outweighed the real-world benefit. No longer. Those good times are back. With its new 'Haswell-E' Core i7s, the new X99 chipset and revised LGA2011-v3 socket, Intel has finally delivered the goods that I, at least, have been waiting for. Haswell-E is something you'll actually want to buy. Ride your rodents to the other side to find out why.

Firstly, the new top chip is a real step forward and sports eight cores. But even more critically, the cheapest of the new Haswell-Es offers genuine value as a step up from the best of Intel's mainstream LGA1150 offerings. Admittedly, even this overall package isn't as good as Haswell-E could very easily be. And there are barriers to immediately dashing out and unloading on a Haswell-E rig and reasons why Haswell-E isn't an immediate slam-dunk for gaming. But there's absolutely no doubt as a family and as a platform, Haswell-E is the most compelling new high end proposition from Intel since 2008. Yay.

But let's get some of the speeds and feeds out of the way. At launch, there are three new Haswell-E processors. The eight-core 3.5GHz (Turbo) Core i7-5960X and two six-core models, the 3.7GHz (Turbo) Core i7-5930K and the 3.6GHz (Turbo) Core i7-5820K.

The first thing you'll notice is that every chip has an unlocked multiplier and is thus fully overclockable. Yay. All of them sport quad-channel memory controllers that require new-fangled DDR4 memory. More on that in a moment.

Next up, the two priciest models get 40 on-die PCI Express 3.0 lanes, the entry-level 5920K just 28. Actually, that latter number is just fine. PCI Express is the interface used most notably by graphics cards and in an ideal world you'd have 16 lanes for each card. More lanes means more bandwidth and better performance.

Increasingly in future, PCI Express will be used for storage, too - your hard drive - so having more than 16 lanes on your CPU will come in handy. Anyway, that lower 28 number is still far more than the 16 you get on-die with the mainstream LGA1150 socket and it's plenty for single-GPU graphics plus something fancy like the quad-lane M.2 solid-state drives that are beginning to appear. To be honest, it's probably enough for dual-GPU and that M.2 drive, which is certainly more than you can say for LGA1150.

Eight cores. Count 'em.

Speaking of pricing, we're talking $999, $583 and $389 respectively, which compares to $339 for the top LGA1150 chip, the Core i7-4790K. In old money, the numbers look like roughly £760, £430 and £290. The 4790K is about £250 here in Blighty.

Yep, £140 less for the 5820K than the 5930K at the cost of 100MHz and those PCI Express lanes. Now do you begin to see what I'm talking about? Hold that thought.

These Haswell-E chips are 22nm items and they all slot into the new X99 chipset and its LGA2011-v3 socket. It's worth noting that this new socket completely breaks backward compatibility with previous LGA2011 iterations. If you want to jump on the Haswell-E bandwagon, you will need a new CPU and you will need a new motherboard.

You also need some pricey new DDR4 memory in quad-channel format as that's another new arrival for Haswell-E. Now, DDR4 has plenty to offer. Higher speeds (in the long run, anyway). Lower power consumption. Greater data density. But, in truth, the last thing the quad-channel LGA2011 platform for desktop PCs needed was more CPU memory bandwidth. Especially, given LGA2011 chips don't have integrated graphics competing with the CPU cores for bandwidth.

Instead, DDR4 is more of a benefit for multi-socket servers, which is really what LGA2011 platforms are about. That said, DDR4 will be a boon for mainstream CPUs with integrated graphics when it arrives with Skylake, probably at the end of next year.

In that context, the benefit for general PC users of DDR4 in Haswell-E is that it gets the DRAM fabrication plants up and running punching out DDR4 chips, giving time for capacity and yields to build and thus see pricing gradually tumble between now and Skylake's arrival. If you go with Haswell-E any time soon, give yourself a pat on the back. You're helping make DDR4 cheaper for everyone else.

Loads of PCI-E lanes on the X99 platform, pity there's no native M.2 SSD support...

The other part of the puzzle is motherboards. A quick online scan puts the required starting price for an X99 motherboard at $209 bucks for the Asrock X99 Extreme3, which is nearly $100 more than the cheapest Z97 board for LGA1150 chips. In the UK, I can't see the Asrock for sale and the fun starts with Gigabyte's perennial UD3 model at around £160.

So there's a premium to pay over a Z97-based rig, no doubt. Then there's the DDR4 memory. Crucial will do you a 4x4GB kit for $208 or £170. This is not nearly as bad as I had feared even a few days ago.

Now, if you really want to split hairs, you could argue Intel could very easily clock these chips 500MHz higher across the board. It could offer even more cores. It has such chips in its Xeon family and these Haswell-E Core i7s are indeed really server chips.

Regards the clock speeds, Intel will say it wants or needs to hit certain power targets. But for me, the more likely explanation is that it wants to be able save as many CPU dies as possible. In a six or eight core chip, it's all too easy to find five or seven cores, respectively, that will happily do 4GHz or even 4.5GHz.

But one rogue core often won't clock up, rendering the whole thing unusable at those speeds. Instead, you keep the clocks modest and instantly improve yields and profits. Kerching.

The final snag to all this is ye olde multi-threading problem in games. Yes, even now not that many games scale well across many CPU cores. There are a few examples that do, like Total War: Rome II, but for most games, four cores running really fast is arguably all you need. At stock clocks, a quad-core 4790K will be a bit faster than any of these Haswell-E chips in some game benchmarks. And for that reason, some of you will immediately dismiss these new chips as overpriced irrelevancies. And I do not entirely disagree.

What have the Romans ever done for us? Thread-heavy games, that's what

My counterpoint is that a Haswell-E running at 4GHz-plus will deliver all the per-core performance you need but also give you a healthy dollop of future proofing and should be killer for all-round system performance.

Anyway, I'm much encouraged by the way Intel has specced and priced the 5820K model. I really like the idea of running a six-core chip at 4GHz-plus. If you're spending £250 on a quad-core, £290 for an unlocked six-core chip looks pretty compelling. I was actually expecting the DDR4 pricing thing to be a serious spoiler. But as it turns out, it's not nearly as bad as I thought.

Overall, then, I'm distinctly upbeat about the overall LGA2011v3 package. It's easily as good as I realistically was hoping for, especially the 5820K. DRAM prices tend to fluctuate, so even that could improve further in fairly short order. I doubt anything terribly exciting is going to happen on the mainstream LGA1150 desktop platform in the meantime (including the arrival of 14nm Broadwell) and AMD certainly doesn't have anything imminent that will have any impact.

So is it Core i7-920 D0 all over again? You know what, I really think it might be.

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Jeremy Laird