The budget CPU overclocking dream may still be alive at Intel

Intel's Pentium Anniversary Edition chip was a surprise to us when it launched a little over two years ago. Sure, that 53W chip offered just two cores and two threads, but the thing overclocked to 4.8GHz and kept pace with much beastlier chips from Intel and AMD in our review. Good times were had, and the chip became a fixture of our budget builds.

When Skylake rolled around, however, a G3258 replacement wasn't among the many dual-core parts at the base of the towering sixth-gen Core processor model lineup. This omission made us sad. Sure, the Core i3-6100 is a great chip, but its $125 price tag is nearly double that of the $70 the Pentium Anniversary Edition still commands. In budget builds where every dollar counts, $55 could be the difference between a lower-end graphics card or a more powerful one, to name just one potential trade-off.

Intel overclocking honcho Dan Ragland held a session about the overclocking features in Broadwell-E and Skylake processors today, and I caught up with him after to inquire about the prospect of future Pentium AE-esque products in upcoming generations of the company's CPUs.

While Ragland unsurprisingly wouldn't commit to any definite statements about Intel's product roadmap, he did indicate that the extreme overclocking community has expressed strong interest in a Pentium AE successor, and that the company has been thinking about ways to expand processor overclocking to more value-oriented chips in the future. That's a glimmer of hope for those of us who just want to have fun with cheap CPUs.

I wouldn't get too excited about the prospect of a Kaby Lake Pentium AE-type chip, though. Ragland cautions that Intel's first job is to turn a profit, and it doesn't take a genius to see that it's easier to get strong margins out of $220-$320 quad-core parts and $1650 ten-core CPUs than it is to justify a $70 part that can beat those chips at their own game.

That said, whether strong per-core performance will rule thread count in the era of DirectX 12 and Vulkan, as it did when the Pentium G3258 first broke onto the scene, remains murky. We will never, ever complain about stronger IPC performance, but some very informal testing on our part shows that well-coded Vulkan titles like Doom can achieve Skylake Core i7-like performance on older eight-core AMD hardware, all else being equal.

That behavior suggests Intel might not be at as much risk of cannibalizing its own model lineup with a strong dual-core part today as it might have been in the past. Whatever seventh-generation Core chips look like, eight-thread or even 20-thread chips might deliver performance commensurate with those bigger numbers in the future better than they do today.  

Even with all that in mind, overclocking began as a way of beating The Man—the Mendocino Celeron 300A and its effortless 50% clock speed headroom is just one example. Given that heritage, it's no shock that Intel would rather not release another officially-sanctioned chip that can punch out parts higher in its model lineup. Still, Ragland didn't agree with my description of the Anniversary Edition chip as an anomaly in Intel's modern lineup, so I guess we'll just need to take his advice and stay tuned.

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