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PC CPUs in 2013 – Year of the Haswell

The ‘End of the World’ year came to an end, is the next one going to be the end of PC CPUs? Not yet! Although, there might not be many launches to speak of…

This past year, we heard enough about the demise of PCs in favour of tablets, super-duper smartphones and such, haven’t we? Well, surely the phones and tablets went up on the performance – and productivity – ladder in 2012, however PC CPU development is continuing to slog on.

We can’t deny, however, that among PC CPUs there is somewhat less focus on the desktop front, and that more accent is on the mobile-centric power consumption and compact die + packaging size, rather than raw performance. When we look back at the Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge migration, there was zero gain on the CPU clock speed – staying at 3.5 GHz, just a few % on the IPC, but substantial ~20% power consumption benefits, both in idle and full performance modes.

Of course, Intel had no pressure to push the IVB performance forward as their main CPU competition all these years, AMD, seems to be on the way down and out of the high end PC processor business altogether, unless some sort of miracle happens to the company. Surely you’ve noticed how, as AMD grew weaker, Intel’s product rollouts slowed down, including the famed ‘tick tock’ now being some 18 months late compared to Intel’s statements five years ago. And that is for desktops and mobiles, add another year for workstation/server market.

So, what to expect in 2013 on the PC CPU front?

First, Haswell: yes, the much vaunted, power saving desktop and notebook Haswell processors will finally appear, but only middle of the year – expect to see them right at this June’s Computex. This is a bit later than then first quarter of the coming year as expected by certain other media.

Now the bad part: many key parameters – clock speeds, sizes, features, will stay the same as they were since the first mainstream desktop and mobile Nehalem CPUs appeared in 2009. Look, the quad core 3.5 GHz top speed of the LGA1150 Core i7-4770K will likely be the same 3.5 GHz as it was for the Ivy Bridge 3770K, or the Sandy Bridge 2770K some 30 months before. The 8 MB L3 cache size stays the same, as well as the default dual channel DDR3-1600 memory support – even though DDR3-2800+ should run just fine on the new ‘K’ chips, as it does on the K-series Ivy Bridge parts anyway. The unlocked parts still don't get VT-x support.

Of course, you do get some 10% core performance improvement, plus some more if your code gets recompiled for FMA/AVX2 instruction extensions, but again this is not earth-shattering news.

If you’re into integrated GPUs, then yes, do expect quite a bit of performance boost with the Haswell, both in desktops and in UltraBooks, where the promise of decent 3-D graphics and 4K display support in one device will finally be fulfilled. The HD4600 integrated graphics – at least the GT2 version in the desktop and mainstream mobile CPUs – should be at least half faster than the best Ivy Bridge HD4000, with decent ‘turbo’ frequency management on offer, up to and beyond 1.3 GHz GPU clock.

The 57 W top end mainstream notebook – not Ultrabook – parts are expected to be full quad core 3 GHz speed demons with full GPU and memory systems akin to the desktop parts. In fact, the top bin i7-4930MX mobile Haswell might have same 3.9 GHz top Turbo frequency as the desktop i7-4770K! Match if with a pair of nice mobile DDR3-2133 DIMMs and a 16:10 4 Mpixel or better retina-quality LCD, and you got a portable power machine good enough for anyone.

Right after the New Year, and well before Haswell, do expect some of the power consumption refinements to trickle into Ivy Bridge ultramobiles as well – the ten-watt TDP core i7-3689Y will bring dual core multithreaded 4 MB L3 part with full HD4000 graphics onto the border of the high-end tablet space! The 1.5 GHz base CPU speed can go all the way up to 2.6 GHz in Turbo, so yes this would be faster than any ARM on the market.

More about Haswell and ultralow power IVB in our other stories to come – how about the competition?

If all went according to the last year’s plans, 2013 would have seen the entry of AMD ‘Steamroller’ core in at least two parts relevant to the PC – ‘Kaveri’ and ‘Kabini’, the successors to the Piledriver based APU and PC CPU chips. The SOS signals emanating from AMD right now, as well as the associated media buzz, hint that there is high chance that these parts might never see the light of the day. What is going on? As we covered in detail two months ago, AMD fate will likely be decided in the next few months. Whether it is some sort of sale or ownership transformation to be managed by Morgan Stanley, or an internally-driven, we hope, massive company rehash to get it out of the doldrums, don’t expect much activity from AMD, especially its CPU division, in the early 2013. This leaves the PC CPU field now completely open to Intel.

If this didn’t happen to AMD, and they had competitive entries with committed roadmap, I bet we’d have seen the Haswell lineup already by now – it’s ready for quite a while, it seems.

So, the PC CPU 2013 arena will only have one battle-ready contender covering it all from ultramobile to high end PC: Haswell. If you are a power-conscious user planning a migration, then waiting for it makes good sense. If building an enthusiast gamer machine right now, with a proper discrete GPU, then the wait may not be necessary – the current Ivy Bridge CPUs provide all the oomph you’ll need.

However, this same year will likely see the emergence of two new CPU categories in specific – I accentuate this word – desktop and mobile PC rollouts, especially in Asia Pacific. One is, obviously, ARM, where there will be some attempts at Windows RT based “more than tablet” machines, in both mobile and mini-desktop sizes, not dissimilar to Intel’s cute SFF system Lennard reviewed last month.

The other one is Loongson in China, whose MIPS-based CPUs are even more power-efficient than ARM, and already have 50W-class CPUs in 32 nm process, like the 8-core vector-enhanced Loongson 3B-1500, that match FP power higher than Core i7-3970X in one-third the TDP, while using PC infrastructure like HyperTransport and, guess what, AMD I/O chipset. What about the software? Well, it helps to have a huge market with internal critical mass to gain the important initial software stack, and millions of school desktops with controlled software library, where the ISA lock on prevents the user from installing un-approved software easily at least, will help in large government sponsored deployments.

Ah, worried about that software lock-on? Well, it’s not any worse than those awful “Marketplace” or “Store” lock ons seen in the tablets or, worse, Windows ‘lucky’ 8, isn’t it? Either way, at least something new to look forward in this new year…

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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