After months of teasers, Intel kicked off shipments of fourth-generation Core processors code-named Haswell, with the first batch being quad-core chips for laptops and desktops.
The Haswell chips, which also include dual-core chips to be announced at a later date, will be in PCs, laptops and tablets that are thinner, less expensive and have longer battery life. Intel claims Haswell will improve battery life in laptops by 50 per cent, and up to triple the graphics performance compared to Core processors code-named Ivy Bridge, which shipped last year.
The first Haswell quad-core chips announced include five Core i7 mainstream laptop processors and 12 quad-core Core i7 and i5 desktop chips. Dual-core Haswell chips for thin-and-light laptops and hybrids are expected to be announced on June 4 at the Computex trade show in Taiwan.
The Haswell launch is important for Intel, which generates a large chunk of its revenue from PC processor shipments. But the PC market is in a free fall due to tablets and smartphones, said research firm IDC last week. IDC is forecasting PC shipments to fall by 7.8 percent in 2013, higher than the drop of 1.3 percent this year originally estimated.
Intel wants to rejuvenate the PC market with Haswell while retaining its lead in the market. The chip maker also hopes to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops with Haswell.
At Computex, Acer, Asustek, MSI and Dell will announce PCs, tablets and hybrid systems that can be laptops or tablets. Hewlett-Packard has announced new laptops starting at under US$500, desktops starting at $289, and all-in-ones starting at $619.
"We think this is one of the most important launches in a while," said Dan Bingham, marketing manager of Intel's PC Client Group.
Haswell processors were designed for thin-and-light laptops and tablets, with focus on performance-per-watt and longer battery life. The longer battery won't hurt performance, and in idle or standby mode the chips can extend battery life by up to 20 times.
Beyond power efficiency, Haswell's biggest improvement is in graphics, which was a weak spot in previous Core processors. Fourth-generation Core chips will get up to a two times boost in graphics, which grows to three times for desktop chips compared to previous Core processors code-named Ivy Bridge. The graphics processor will support 4K displays, or a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, without the need to plug in an extra graphics card.
"They've beefed up graphics. It's Intel's hope that with improved graphics people won't need a [discrete] graphics card to play games," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.
The company's high-end Iris graphics, which will likely be in high-end PCs, will have more floating point units to boost graphics performance. Additional features like QuickSync will hasten MPEG video encoding and decoding and improve video playback.
Applications will also run faster with the GPUs. For example, web browsers render video via GPUs, and imaging software offloads filtering, image editing and other applications to GPUs. Haswell supports DirectX 11.1, OpenGL 4.0 and OpenCL 1.2, which are parallel programming tools to write applications that harness the combined processing power of CPUs and GPUs.
"Many more applications are taking advantage of GPUs to speed up computing," Brookwood said.
The Haswell desktop CPU improvements are just 5 to 15 percent compared to Ivy Bridge. That number is considered an incremental improvement, but it adds up over years. Intel compared a Core i5-4570S Haswell chip to a five-year old Core 2 Duo 8400 chip, and the Haswell chip was 2.2 times faster on office applications, 9.2 times faster on video and 21 times faster on 3D graphics.
Haswell processors have been tweaked for touch interaction, which is enabled by Windows 8 software. Intel's chips will support gesture and face recognition, and are also tuned for Microsoft's upcoming OS called Windows Blue.
"We're certainly ready for Windows 8.1," Bingham said, declining to offer further comment as the OS has not been officially announced.
Intel acknowledged USB 3.0 standby issues on some Haswell chips, which could affect data being pulled directly off USB drives. PC makers decided to go ahead with PC shipments as the issue is minor, an Intel spokesman said. For example, if a video is being played directly off a USB drive and a laptop goes idle, the corrupted data will automatically be recalibrated when the system awakens.
Intel has broken down its quad-core laptop chips into M-series, which has three new processors, and the H-series, which has two new parts. The prices mentioned are in units of 1,000.
The $378 Core i7-4800MQ and $568 4900MQ chips draw 47 watts of power and operate at base frequencies of 2.7GHz and 2.8GHz respectively, with maximum clock speed of 3.7GHz and 3.8GHz respectively. The fastest M chip is the $1096 Core i7-4930MX, which draws 57 watts, and has a base frequency of 3GHz that tops out at 3.9GHz. The chips include Intel 4600 graphics, and the company expects 13 new M chips to be introduced this year.
The H-series mobile processors includes the $468 Core i7-4850HQ, which has a base frequency of 2.3GHz scaling to 3.5GHz. The $657 Core i7-4950HQ has a frequency of 2.4GHz scaling to 3.6GHz. The chips draw 47 watts of power and have the high-end Iris Graphics. Intel said it would release six new H chips this year.
The quad-core desktop chips are priced between $192 and $339. The chips are clocked between 3.0GHz and 3.9GHz, have up to 8MB of cache, and draw between 35 to 84 watts of power. The fastest chip is an unlocked $339 Core i7-4770K chip, which draws 84 watts and has a clock speed between 3.6GHz and 3.9GHz.