Intel to renew commitment to desktop PCs with a slew of new CPUs

Four new enthusiast-friendly processors are on the way

Although Intel hasn't exactly been neglecting its desktop PC business in recent years, I think it's safe to say the company has had most of its energies focused elsewhere. Intel was famously caught off-guard by the ascendancy of ARM-powered mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, and it has been working feverishly to carve out a place in a mobile landscape that seems to prefer cheaper ARM-based silicon. That focus on mobility has caused Intel to treat its desktop business like something of a second-class citizen in certain respects. You've probably heard us complain about things like the lack of a socketed desktop version of Haswell GT3e, the CPU with Iris Pro graphics and a 128MB L4 cache.

Intel simply hasn't been addressing the desktop market with the appropriate enthusiasm, given that market's size and growth potential.

Fortunately, attitudes inside of Intel finally appear to be changing. The firm recently appointed a new GM and VP of its Desktop Client Platforms Group, Lisa Graff. She has analyzed Intel's desktop business and charted a new course for it. Today, in a press conference at GDC, Graff offered her assessment of the desktop PC market and offered a peek at some upcoming products intended to revitalize Intel's desktop CPU business.

Graff began her talk by sharing some data she has used to understand the desktop PC space. Everything begins with the fact that although the PC market isn't growing at the rate that mobile computing is, the PC market itself is enormous. Intel's PC-related revenues for 2013 amounted to $33 billion.

Although we didn't get exact breakdowns from inside of Intel itself, Graff shared some numbers from IDC that indicate notebooks make up 57% of PC shipments, while desktops make up 43%. Do the math, and that likely puts Intel's desktop PC revenues at somewhere around $14 billion.

What's more, Intel's desktop CPU shipments are growing. In the fourth quarter of 2013, she noted, Intel desktop CPU shipments rose 7% over the same quarter the year before, reversing the downward trend of recent years.

That growth is led by key segments of the desktop market—and yes, finally, someone is talking about the fact that the desktop PC space involves many different types of systems that don't always have a lot to do with one another. The growing segments include all-in-ones (like the iMac), mini PCs, and—what do you know?—high-end desktops. Graff said mini PCs like the NUC and Gigabyte's Brix went from essentially zero to over one million units shipped last year. High-end desktops also broke records. Core i5 and i7 unit shipments reached an all-time high in 2013.

Those simple facts run counter to the popular narrative that the PC market is in decline, and the fact that Intel is sharing them with us now indicates an important change in thinking. (To its credit, AMD has consistently projected growth in PC gaming hardware and software.) I spoke briefly with Graff at CES about her plans, and she observed that high-end desktop processor sales had been fairly flat in recent years—but when she looked at the performance numbers, the reason was clear. Intel hasn't given enthusiasts much of a reason to upgrade since Sandy Bridge. The performance gains in Ivy Bridge and Haswell have been modest, and we've not seen core counts, cache sizes, or feature sets change dramatically, either.

Graff has adjusted Intel's silicon roadmap in order to address that problem, and today, she revealed some key aspects of Intel's desktop product plans for 2014. Much of the plan seems like it could have been ripped from the pages of our CPU reviews; it addresses a number of our beefs with Intel's product decisions of late.

The most exciting of those products may be the one based on current Haswell silicon. Intel desktop processors since Ivy Bridge have had limited overclocking headroom due to excessive heat, and over time, enthusiasts have pinned much of the blame on the combination of packaging and thermal interface material (TIM) used in newer CPUs. Folks have even taken to de-lidding their brand-new processors in order to recover some of the clock speed headroom. Intel will address that problem head-on with a new unlocked Haswell part code-named "Devil's Canyon," coming in mid-2014. Devil's Canyon will have redesigned packaging and an improved TIM meant to increase overclocking potential.

Graff said this product should offer a "very nice performance pop," so I'm hoping its default clock speeds will be quite a bit higher than existing chips, too.

Devil's Canyon will be compatible with Intel's upcoming 9-series chipsets, according to Graff. Motherboards based on those chips are widely expected to be released this spring, so they should be plentiful by the time this CPU hits store shelves.

Also coming in mid-year is an anniversary edition of the Pentium to "celebrate" 20 years of that brand. These days, Pentiums are low-cost variants of Intel's Core processors, usually selling for under $100, which have been neutered in various ways. This anniversary edition looks like it could be interesting, though, for a couple of reasons. One, some Pentium chips recently gained support for Intel's QuickSync video transcoding engine thanks to a driver update, and the anniversary edition will benefit from that change. Two, the anniversary edition Pentium will be unlocked to enable overclocking. We don't know the exact specs of this future product, but today's Pentiums are dual-core Haswells running at 3.3GHz or less. If we can get our hands on one of these chips and take it to 4.7GHz or higher, that could be a very compelling option for the price. At that speed, a dual-core Haswell ought to be more than competent to run most of today's games.

A third upcoming product Graff highlighted tackles several beefs we've had with Intel's product plans. The 14-nm Broadwell refresh of the Core i3/i5/i7 has largely been pegged as a mobile chip, but Graff revealed Intel will be producing a socketed version of Broadwell that will drop into desktop boards based on 9-series chipsets. Not only that, but it will be unlocked to make overclocking straightforward.

Amazingly, this CPU will also include Intel's Iris Pro graphics technology. Now, a relatively fast IGP is one thing, but we suspect Broadwell's Iris Pro implementation will be similar to Haswell's and include an on-package eDRAM cache of 128MB or more. That cache benefits graphics, but it can also improve CPU performance generally in the right workload (like it did for Haswell GT3e in our LuxMark and computational fluid dynamics tests.) Thanks to the cache and the presumptive goodness of Intel's 14-nm fab process, I'd expect this CPU to become Intel's fastest and most energy efficient desktop processor when it arrives. Graff didn't share a time frame for this product's release, though.

Whenever it hits, the socketed Broadwell will likely have to contend for the title of "fastest overall desktop processor" with a formidable sibling: a new Core i7 Extreme Edition based on Haswell-E coming in the second half of 2014.

Intel's enthusiast-class desktop CPUs are based on the same silicon as its server-class Xeon lineup, and the Xeons have been running about one generation behind the mobile and mid-range desktop processors. We noted in our trippy Ivy Bridge-E review that Intel has been holding back on core counts and cache sizes for its Extreme CPUs. Xeons that fit into the same socket have twice the core count and L3 cache capacity of their thousand-dollar desktop counterparts. The upcoming Haswell-E part looks to rectify that deficit somewhat by finally raising the core count from six to eight. Those cores will be better fed with the addition of DDR4 memory, a first on the desktop. Also, this new Core i7 Extreme will come with a new chipset, dubbed X99, that hopefully packs more USB 3 and SATA 6 ports than the aging X79.

Those four new CPUs are obviously the highlights of today's news, but Graff also made a simple announcement that rights another wrong. When got our first look at Haswell, we were surprised to find out that much of the power-saving mojo intended to reduce power consumption at idle just didn't do much for our desktop test rigs. That's evidently because those features weren't enabled on desktop systems.

Graff indicated Intel is moving to correct that oversight by introducing something called Ready Mode Technology. Ready Mode requires the support of the motherboard and a separate piece of software provided either by Intel or the PC maker, and it enables the new low-power C7 sleep states built into Haswell silicon. When it's working, the power consumption of a desktop system at idle should drop to 10W or less.

Graff noted that Ready Mode could allow the family desktop PC to remain on at all times, so it can serve as a home hub for media files and the syncing of mobile devices. We nodded.

Most of the talk around Ready Mode concerns PCs from major OEMs, and apparently several Ready Mode-capable systems are already shipping now. We're hoping makers of DIY motherboards will get on board and support this tech, as well.

Tags: CPUs Chipsets Systems

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