Tablets should be here in time for holiday 2013; 22 nm smartphone chips likely shelved till 2014, though

Intel Corp.'s (INTC) fourth generation of Core i-Series processors is upon us.

I. Meet Haswell

At the 2013 Computex trade show in Taipei, Taiwan, Intel announced the availability of its latest personal computer CPUs, powered by the new 22 nanometer Haswell core design, an architecture redesigned from last generation's 22 nm Ivy Bridge.

Here's a table of the SKUs announced by Intel:
Fourth generation core i-Series
Note, the models in Intel's tables show only the processors model geared towards mobile and pre-packaged desktop processors (denoted by the 'HQ', 'R', 'Y', and 'U' lettering), which are ball grid array (BGA) designs soldered by OEMs onto their circuit boards. currently lists a variety of socket-style desktop Haswell i5- and i7-Series chips ranging from the 3.0 GHz quad-core i5-4430 ($189.99 USD) up to the 3.5 GHz quad-core i7-4770K ($349.99 USD).  These chips either have no letter, an 'S', or a 'K', with the letter indicating clock speed ('K' being the highest/most-expensive and 'S' the lowest/least-expensive).

Haswell die
A colorized Haswell die

System builders will have to buy a new socket; Intel has moved to LGA 1150.  The good news is that the socket will be compatible with next year's die-shrink, Broadwell, just as the LGA 1155 introduced by Sandy Bridge was compatible with Ivy Bridge.

II. Iris Pro Shines, But Lower-End iGPUs in Desktop Chips Struggle

According to early benchmarking by AnandTech, the new chips offer particularly impressive double digit floating point and x264 video processing gains over Ivy Bridge.  Overall the processor managed about an 8.3 percent average bump over Ivy Bridge in CPU performance in various tests, a 17 percent average bump over the two-generation-old Sandy Bridge, and a 44 percent bump over Nehalem.

While the new architecture is more of an interative refinement of the Core design, rather than a reinvention, it nonetheless delivers solid gains.

The story on the side of the integrated on-die GPU is a tail of two chips.  Mid-range desktop models like the i7-4770K ($349.99 USD) pack a HD 4600 GPU.  While more or less living up to Intel's claims of a 50 percent bump in frame rates over the previous generation (HD 4000), Intel's performance is still pretty abysmal compared to Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD).

For example, the AMD A10-5800K ($129.99) ties or beats the HD 4600 in most game benchmarks by AnandTech.  In some cases the win appears to be enough to make a game that would be unplayable on the Intel chip playable on the AMD chip.

Is it amazing to see AMD's Fusion processors compete against a chip that is nearly three times as expensive and manage a modest win?  It is pretty astounding and a testament to AMD's targeted strategy -- building gaming-ready systems on a budget.

Of course the Intel chip destroys its rival in CPU performance, but that's to be expected when you're paying approximately 2.7 times as much.

On the other hand, the Iris Pro (the HD 5200) -- the integrated GPU found in pricier Haswell SKUs -- is a completely different story.  Not only does it blow away its Fusion foe, it trades blows with an NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) GeForce GT 640, a discrete graphic card that retails for around $79.99 USD.  The key to that performance is a 128MB L4 cache, dubbed "Crystalwell".

So what's the price and why aren't we finding this mean performer on Newegg?

The bad news is that high-end desktop parts don't get Crystalwell -- you'll only see it (and Iris Pro) in ball grid array (BGA) designs from OEMs, which are soldered to the motherboard of high end laptops and mid-range desktops.  Thus the price premium to get Iris Pro and Crystalwell is unknown.

Crystalwell makes Iris Pro a stud, but isn't available in socket-style SKUs yet.

Also up in the air is how the situation will look when Iris (HD 5100) -- the little brother of Iris Pro -- lands.  Intel's first batch of processors did not include any chips with the mid-range Iris.

Thus the situation is that CPU-wise Intel remains the king of single and multi-threaded performance, albeit with pricey chips.  But in terms of gaming or performing other graphics heavy functions without a GPU, Intel's pricey chips fall flat -- except the Iris Pro.  But Iris Pro and its Crystalwell are only going to be found in a few desktops, plus a smattering of gaming laptops and pricey ultrabooks.

Thus we're left with a release in which Intel makes good on nearly all its promises and shows some great performance, but leaves something to be desired in terms of selection and flexibility for system builders.  

Perhaps follow-up releases will fill in those gaps, but for now builders of budget (GPU-less) desktop systems must either sacrifice the ability to upgrade their CPU for better performance at a higher price (going the Intel route), or pay less and retain upgradability albeit at lower performance (going the AMD Fusion route).  As budget gaming is today one of the biggest PC markets, it should be interesting how the sales play out.

III. Mobile

The final piece of the story is the mobile side.  

Intel is boasting that its latest chips allow "9 hour" battery life via designs reaching as low as 7 watts (most of the i3-Series chips announced have 15 watt TDP).  As previously discussed, standby battery life is expected to receive an even bigger boost.

The chipmaker's Executive Vice President Tom Kilroy boasted of "more than 50 different 2-in-1" (ultrabook-cum-tablet) design wins.  But Intel's flagship tablet architecture -- the Intel Atom line -- won't receive its update until later this year.

Haswell ultrabooks and tablets
Intel's 2-in-1 lineup is starting on the pricier end with Haswell based designs.

Intel promises that even slimmer form factors with 8 hours of battery life will be available this holiday season with the release of 22 nm, quad-core tablet-geared Atom design(core: Silvermont; SoC: ValleyView; chipset: Bay Trail).  

Thus far Intel tablets haven't sold great.  But the company is rumored to be scoring some big Android design wins, even ahead of Silvermont and Intel is also hopeful than Windows 8.1 will outperform its embattled predecessor in sales.  The best-case scenario for Intel is a dogfight between hot-selling Android and Windows 8.1 tablets, with Intel acting as the arms supplier on each side of the battle line.  Whether that plays out, though remains to be seen.
Intel Atom Z2760
The next generation of Atom SoCs will arrive in time for the holidays.

The company is facing strong resistance from entrenched ARM chipmakers like NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) and Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM).  It will likely have to prove that its x86 Silvermont designs can not only beat these rivals' ARM-powered designs on computing performance, but also price and power performance.

Intel will look to add value by pairing its next-generation Atoms with its multi-mode LTE die, the Intel XMM 7160, in is holiday partner products.  That chip should see more traction in upcoming smartphone product, however 22 nm smartphone Atom chips are not expected to trickle out until early 2014.

Sources: Intel [press release], Intel [Haswell product page]

“And I don't know why [Apple is] acting like it’s superior. I don't even get it. What are they trying to say?” -- Bill Gates on the Mac ads

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