Intel's first Broadwell chips set the stage for faster PCs

The chips will make their way into desktops during the second half of 2014

Haswell, move over. Intel has provided an initial glimpse into the faster and more power-efficient fifth-generation Core processors code-named Broadwell, which will be in PCs during the second half of this year.

Intel announced on Wednesday Broadwell chips for desktops, which highlighted some big leaps in the chip architecture. Intel will reach new highs on the CPU core count, and Broadwell will support the new DDR4 form of memory. Intel did not address Broadwell chips for laptops.

The chip maker in the second half of the year will release an eight-core Core i7 Extreme Edition chip, which will be targeted at enthusiasts, mostly gamers. That is the highest core count for Intel on desktop CPUs, with previous Extreme Edition chips topping out at six cores.

The Broadwell chip will also support the new DDR4 memory. Core chips based on the current Haswell architecture support DDR3 memory, but DDR4 is more power efficient and has faster throughput, which could translate to more responsive gaming PCs.

The chip will be made using the 14-nanometer process, which will provide a speed boost and more power efficiency.

The eight-core Broadwell Extreme Edition chip will have a limited audience, but it's a group of users who are willing to pay "top dollar for top performance," said Nathan Brookwood , principal analyst at Insight 64.

Gamers are one of the few users who still care about CPU count and bandwidth, Brookwood said. With more powerful CPU and graphics cores, DDR4 adds up all the dots to boost system speed, Brookwood said.

Another Broadwell chip announced on Wednesday was an unlocked fifth-generation Core desktop processor, which will have high-end integrated Iris Pro graphics. Users will be able to tweak the clock speed to crank up performance. This is also the first time Intel is bringing Iris Pro graphics to unlocked desktop processors on boards with sockets.

Intel has boosted graphics performance in Broadwell partly by dedicating more silicon to graphics processing, Brookwood said.

"High-end gamers are still going to prefer a discrete GPU," Brookwood said.

Intel has also built a prototype all-in-one PC to test a Broadwell chip it's making for those types of PCs. The company is seeing a revival in the desktop market, with more people buying PCs that can be easily moved around the home, said Lisa Graff, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Clients and Platform Group.

"We're already working on the next-generation of all-in-ones," Graff said. She envisioned all-in-ones possibly having suitcase-like handles and 3D-depth cameras that can identify objects, recognize activities and improve gesture recognition.

Intel did not talk about Broadwell chips for laptops, which it has said are due also in the second half of this year. The thinner laptop chips may come with DDR3 DRAM support because the systems don't need the high-end performance of gaming systems. Initial DDR4 memory modules will also be expensive and PC makers may hesitate to put them in laptops until memory prices drop.

Intel showed the first Broadwell-based laptop prototype in September last year. The company is expecting Broadwell to be 30 percent more power efficient and faster than Haswell counterparts. That translates to longer battery life than Haswell laptops. Lenovo has claimed its ThinkPad X240 with Haswell chips could offer 17 hours of battery through internal and swappable batteries.

Intel has had its share of troubles with Broadwell. The chip maker delayed production of the processors due to manufacturing defects, which analysts said could postpone the launch of PCs based on the new chip architecture. Intel went on to say PCs based on Broadwell could be expected in the second half of this year, though no exact time frame was provided.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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