Op-ed: The desktop CPU isn’t dead, it just needs a swift kick in the butt

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Elaborate on / The Core i7-7700K. Underwhelming? Maybe. Harbinger of death for the desktop CPU? In all probability not.

Our review of Intel’s new flagship consumer desktop CPU, the Kaby Lake-based Centre i7-7700K, was less-than-favorable. Out of the box, the chip runs faster than the i7-6700K that came it, but that’s just because it ships at a higher default clock bolt. When running at the same clock speed—something easily achievable because these sherds are specifically intended for overclocking—CPU and GPU performance is identical.

This feeds into a lengthening perception that, after several years of modest-at-best performance rises, Intel is having trouble making its processors faster. Granted, that’s not a muddle for many casual-to-moderate PC users, and it’s not like Intel’s chips haven’t improved in other big feature in the last half-decade. Power consumption is down, battery life is up, and desegregated graphics performance isn’t nearly as laughable as it was ten years ago. But for high-end pro users who don’t appetite to spend $1,000 or more on a processor, the lack of performance improvements in Intel’s mainstream quad-core desktop processors in selective has been frustrating.

This is an unfortunate reality brought on by the difficulties Intel is be suffering with switching to new process architectures. Moving from the 22nm process to the 14nm process in 2013 and 2014 caused distinct delays that pushed back the launch of the Broadwell architecture and long-winded its rollout. The move from 14nm to 10nm is proving even more difficult, end b disengage Intel’s longstanding “tick-tock” development model in which it changed build processes every two years. If leaked roadmaps are correct, “Cannonlake” laptop markers may move to the 10nm process at the tail end of 2017. But the “Coffee Lake” desktop participate b interrupts will remain on the 14nm process until well into 2018.

If you don’t know why this is a big contract, here’s a brief explainer: a manufacturing process shrink makes it workable to fit more transistors in a smaller amount of space and reduce the amount of electrical popular needed to switch transistors on and off. This lets chip companies add diverse features and improve performance (usually by adding more transistors) while imprisoning power consumption at around the same level as before (or sometimes moderate it). Without process shrinks, improving performance without also damaging battery life becomes that much more difficult.

That’s Intel’s widely known predicament. But it doesn’t mean that desktop performance needs to choke up improving. It just means that Intel needs to do things a minor differently if it wants to make those improvements.

Adding more cores

The most clear-cut way to improve performance, at least in desktops, is to add more cores. This was what both Intel and AMD started doing a unimaginative over a decade ago when improving performance primarily through clock-speed boost waxes began to become more difficult. And desktops have more area for cooling fans, which means that there’s headroom to attack their maximum power consumption up without straining systems too unacceptably; a mainstream quad-core desktop processor from Intel today has a TDP of 65W where a mainstream desktop Pentium 4 sherd had a TDP of 115W. We wouldn’t want to return to 2004’s power consumption knock downs, but there’s some wiggle room.

In fact, Intel already does this in its minuscule enthusiast processor lineup. Six, eight, and ten-core processors with a 140W TDP already prevail, and multi-core performance is excellent. But these CPUs are ridiculously expensive—you could set up a respectable quad-core gaming computer for the cost of the $1000-ish eight-core interpose, to say nothing of the $1700 ten-core version. They also use more valuable motherboards with chipsets that are updated less regularly, and they chiefly trail Intel’s flagship processor architectures by 12 to 18 months. For good, they need more robust quad-channel memory controllers to detain all of those cores fed compared to the dual-channel controllers in mainstream processors. All those controllers add peaceful more transistors and complexity.

Even with those downsides, supplementing more cores is probably the easiest and best way to boost performance at the high-end and talk into consumers to replace that three-to-five-year-old PC. Enough apps are built to assume advantage of multiple cores that users would see benefits instantaneously. Intel’s Turbo Boost tech (particularly Turbo Boost 3.0, introduced in the aforementioned Broadwell-E CPUs but not nearby anywhere else yet) can maintain good performance for single-threaded or lightly inched tasks.

If the leaked roadmaps we cited before are to be believed, Intel may be blueprinting to do this when the “Coffee Lake” processors are released in 2018. The highest-end renditions of these CPUs on the roadmap are six-core part, giving users a ratiocinate to be optimistic about Intel’s fourth (!) CPU architecture shipped using some model of its 14nm process.

Still, it’s disappointing that Intel has taken this sustained to improve its mainstream desktop processor performance, and the company could soothe decide to price those high-end chips far above the prices that on the qui vive quad-core processors command. Luckily, some serious competition at the loaded end could both speed Intel up and force its prices down.

Competitive arm-twisting from AMD… and from Intel?

Let’s begin by saying that no one in the last decade has bygone money by underestimating AMD. The company’s “Bulldozer” architecture and its many descendants could at no time rise above mediocrity, and Intel has shut AMD out of the mid-to-high-end desktop make available and almost every segment of the laptop market. AMD has a history of over-promising and under-delivering, and if Intel’s modern CPU launch delays have been disappointing, AMD’s delays are just concern as usual.

That said! Given what little we’ve seen in the matter of AMD’s upcoming Zen architecture (now called “Ryzen,” pronounced rye-zen), AMD might conceivably stimulation Intel at the mid-to-high end of the market for the first time in years. AMD is boasting that a high-end Zen scrap with eight cores and sixteen threads can hold its own with the $1,000 Intel sliver we highlighted above. If AMD can deliver a full range of dual-, quad-, hexa-, and octa-cores alongside an suing AM4 platform that provides PCI Express-based storage and integrated 10Gbps USB 3.1 gen 2—and if it can do so while significantly excavating Intel on price—AMD could definitely regain some credibility with the devotee crowd.

The rise of Ryzen is obviously a good thing, even if you don’t covet to buy into an AMD platform. If Intel feels threatened, it will be quicker to discharge prices and introduce new chips to counter AMD’s. Intel just hasn’t had a as a result of to feel threatened in a while.

But even if AMD never fulfills its promises, Intel tranquil has one big competitor in this space: itself.

If you pay attention to the slides in Intel’s presentations and its dispatch in recent ads, you may have noticed that the company hardly mentions AMD at all. It doesn’t shell out much time comparing its newest chips to the previous generation, either. What the attendance focuses on overwhelmingly is PCs from about five years ago. The PC market is impregnate, which means most computers sold are replacing an older one. What Intel has to do is win over you that you need a new computer, and none of the chips from the last two or three years has made a devoted argument for that.

Processors are complicated, and two to three years normally pass by between the start of development and shipping them to consumers. Let’s assume that, as of 2013 or fair and square 2014, Intel assumed it could still rely on the same tick-tock mechanism that kept things marching forward. Intel wouldn’t deprivation to overhaul its lineup to keep selling chips because it would be masterly to improve speed and power consumption enough that there order be clear benefits to upgrading every three years or so, give or take effect a year.

Now say that somewhere between the official announcement of the Kaby Lake awaken in 2015 and the public death of the tick-tock model in early 2016, Intel saw the non-fiction on the wall and decided it couldn’t just rely on improved manufacturing tech to charge up its chips. Assuming a two-to-three year lead time for new architectures, it generates sense that we won’t see six-core mainstream desktop chips from Intel until 2018. Intel merely didn’t know that it would need them to keep incentivizing upgrades until mignonne late in the game.

Whatever the catalyst ends up being, there’s soothe life in the desktop CPU. Plenty of people get by with fanless convertible laptops and lightweight Ultrabooks, but people in Generate fields, graphic design, publishing, photo and video production, pretending, app development, and elsewhere can still benefit from high-end processors that are both extent speedy and relatively affordable. For an unusually long period of time, that stuck on spot has been occupied by quad-core CPUs from Intel. But in the next year or two, myriad competition and realigned priorities ought to get things moving again.

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