Thursday, July 10, 2014

In Depth: Intel Broadwell vs Haswell: What's new in Intel CPUs?

In Depth: Intel Broadwell vs Haswell: What's new in Intel CPUs?

In Depth: Intel Broadwell vs Haswell: What's new in Intel CPUs?

Broadwell is the next generation of Intel Core CPUs. It will power most of the laptops and desktops we'll see over the next 18 months, among other kinds of gadget. It's not here yet, but many, many people are eager for its arrival. Including us.

Broadwell is Intel's fifth generation of Core-series processor, and will define the sort of power we'll be able to get from our computers of the future.

It's pretty important, but what's new? We're going to have a peek into Broadwell to see whether it's worth holding off for, as the first Broadwell computers will start flying of shelves towards the end of the year.

Tick tock

Intel upgrades its core processor range every year to 18 months with a new genera tion of chips. However, it's not a whole new system every time.

It follows a 'tick tock' path of upgrades, something the company has used since 2007. But what on Earth does 'tick tock' mean?

If one year's upgrade offers a completely new processor architecture, the next will be a shrinking of that processor's layout. Shrinking a processor's architecture makes it more efficient, if perhaps not always radically more powerful.


Intel Haswell was a 'tock' upgrade â€" a new architecture. Intel Broadwell is a 'tick', and sees Haswell shrink down, make it that bit more streamline.

Intel goes Innerspace

So, how much smaller will Broadwell be? The architecture shrinking process isn't about getting the actual chips smaller, but the transistors that make up th e CPU's brain.

Intel Haswell uses 22 nanometer transistors, Broadwel;'s transistors will be 14nm. Back in 2006, the first Core processors had whopping great big 65nm ones. We've made a lot of progress in those eight years.

If you're wondering how big a nanometer is, a normal human hair is about 90,000 nanometers thick. These transistors are incredibly tiny, even the old ones. They are the switches that work together to perform the incredibly complex functions a processor has to deal with, and there are more than a billion of them in a modern CPU.

Why is slim in?

The big claim about Broadwell is that its chips will be 30% more efficient than Haswell's ones, using 30% less power while providing slightly better performance at the same clock speed. Everyone's a winner.

Haswell already made huge improvements to efficiency compared with the previous generation, Ivy Bridge, resulting in a huge upsurge in the battery life of Windows laptops last y ear. Looking at what Haswell did when it arrived in 2013 tells us what we can expect in Broadwell.


For an example, the 2012 13-inch MacBook Air was rated by Apple for seven hours of battery life when web browsing. It used the Ivy Bridge generation of Intel chip, one step behind the current Haswell models.

Today's Haswell 13-inch MacBook Airs last up to 12 hours. That's an extra five hours of stamina, and a lot of that was down to Haswell. With the upgrades of Broadwell in tow, we could be looking at laptops that last for more than 15 hours. Finally, we'll have laptops that can outlast current tablets.

Why Broadwell will start a whole new revolution

Pure battery life is not the most important part of why Broadwell really matte rs, though. Having better efficiency will enable a laptop screen revolution.

In the last few years, laptops have lagged way behind phones and tablets in terms of screen technology. If you have a good phone and a mid-range laptop, there's a good chance your phone's screen will have more pixels than your laptop's.

It's a bit mad when you stop and think about it.

Greater efficiency will allow laptops without giant batteries to use higher-res screens without a deal-breaking battery life hit. We won't see ultra-high res £300 laptops just yet, but this is the first step to affordable laptops whose screens aren't as blocky as Minecraft.

It also opens the doors to something many tech fans have been waiting for â€" the MacBook Air with Retina display. We had hoped to see this high-res version of the Air as part of the I/O 2014 hardware refresh, but all we got was a MacBook with a tiny processor upgrade. It's nothing to trade your 2013 model in for.

G iving extra room for high-dpi screens in slim laptops is why Broadwell really matters.

What about graphics?

There's more to the Intel Broadwell upgrade too â€" graphics. Intel's Core processors aren't just CPUs, they also incorporate graphics chips. The official term for this kind of all-in-one get-up is an APU, used to describe chipsets that provide processors other than the main CPU. In this case the main one is the graphics chip.

As in any Intel Core processor, graphics performance with Broadwell will depend on the model you fork out for â€" there's a big gap between the lowest-end Core i3 and the top Core i7. However, we do know that we'll see major upgrades across the range.

MacBook Air

For laptops, Broadwell chips are expected to use Intel HD 5500, HD 6000 and Iris HD 6100 chipsets according to CPU World. Names alone don't mean much, but while the graphics processor will use the same core architecture as the current Haswell models, the new ones will have 20% more 'execution units'. Essentially, the Broadwell graphics engine is going to be bigger, and that's a very good thing.

Broadwell is really going to squeeze the already-pretty-slimline entry-level dedicated graphics card market. There have been some reports of the GPUs offering up to a 40% performance increase, but we're not holding out breath for anything quite so good.

When is Broadwell coming?

We asked Intel when Broadwell processors would be here. While we didn't get an exact date ye t, we were told, "we expect the initial Broadwell-based devices, including fanless 2 in 1s built on the Core M processor, will be on shelves by the end of this year with more products and broader OEM availability in 2015."

Not all the kinds of Broadwell chip will come out at the same time, and there are three key kinds of Broadwell chipset that'll end up in the sorts of computers we'll see on shelves. In order to decode the code names of processors, you first need to know about the Y, U and H CPU types. They're used today in Haswell processors too.

Y chips are designed for super-low power devices, things so cool-running that they don't need a fan. Put one of these in a laptop and open up a dozen giant RAW photo files and it won't be happy. These are expected to be some of the first Broadwell devices that pop up, though.


The most important type for most of you is the U Broadwell group. This is the kind of chip that will be used in things like 2015 Ultrabooks and the next-generation MacBook Air. It's still a low-voltage chipset, but can handle things like hardcore video and photo editing pretty well.

For the real enthusiast, it's the H Broadwell series that matters. These are the all-guns-blazing chips that'll be used in desktop gaming rigs and other setups that don't have to worry so much about power consumption.

It seems like it'll be 2015 until some of the most important Broadwell chips appear, though. Microsoft has had real trouble shrinking its CPU down from the 22nm of Haswell to the 14nm of Broadwell, and it has caused a bit of a delay. Some manufacturers are unlikely to start upgrading laptop lines until wel l into 2015.

What happens after Broadwell?

Intel never stops, though. It already has plans for the next generation of CPUs after Broadwell, and a name to call it by.

Intel Skylake will be the successor to Broadwell. As we've already learnt about the Intel 'tick tock' style, it'll feature a new architecture but the same 14nm transistor size as Broadwell.

Early reports suggest we may be looking at as much as a 50% increase in GPU power, but for most of us, it's the efficiency of Broadwell that's really worth getting excited about. We can't be too far away from the MacBook Air with Retina display now.

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