Haswell And The Next Generation Of Intel Processors

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In the twenty-year history of personal computing, there has always been a reason to wait a few months to buy the Next Big Thing. So let me tell you about the Next Big Thing, but with a disclaimer – if you need a new computer or tablet, go buy a computer or tablet. There are going to be some nice improvements down the road, but this is not game-changing, stop-the-presses stuff.

Intel is rolling out the fourth generation of its Core processors, code-name “Haswell.” The first Haswell processors have already begun shipping in MacBook Airs and a few of the latest Windows laptops and they will be flooding the market in new computers and tablets for the fall shopping season.This is a major upgrade of Intel’s processor lineup, perhaps offering more dramatic improvements than the Ivy Bridge update last year.

A bit of background will help you understand Intel’s goals with Haswell.

Intel processors dominate the world of desktop computing, of course, but it was slow to prepare for the current environment, when sales of desktop computers are sharply declining and all the momentum is in phones and tablets. Since Intel didn’t have the right solutions, manufacturers and developers looking for low-power chips and long battery life in small devices settled on ARM processors, an architecture licensed by a British company and manufactured by companies other than Intel – Qualcomm Snapdragon and Nvidia Tegra, for example. iPhones and iPads and Android phones and tablets are all built with ARM processors.

Intel was staring at a future built on control of a steadily declining market, increasingly less relevant – the same problem that Microsoft was facing. ARM processors are not compatible with the x86 instruction set used by Windows, so Windows programs written for Intel processors can’t run on ARM. Windows runs fine on Intel processors on full-featured laptops but there was no easy way to put Windows on a tablet with a battery that would last all day. Since Intel looked paralyzed, eventually Microsoft scrambled to produce Windows RT, a version of Windows that can run on ARM processors, and got Surface RT tablets on the market last fall.

When Intel finally got the message, it went into a full-tilt development frenzy to get low-power x86 chips ready for market. The Haswell chipset is more or less the result. It is Intel’s bid for glory, a chance to regain lost ground and create a computing environment that has it all: extended battery life, like we expect from tablets; sufficient computing power to run Windows or OS X; enough graphics power to satisfy all but the most rabid gamers; and new tricks to extend the time that devices can stay asleep and still be up to date with email and notifications when they wake up.

Haswell, then, can power thin and light laptops with batteries that easily last all day, as well as hybrids with detachable keyboards and even devices like Surface Pro that are more like tablets than laptops. There are enough improvements to fill advertisements through the holidays. The greatest battery life increase in Intel history! 20X+ improvement from the prior generation! Revolutionary improvements in idle power consumption!

Then came Intel’s announcement yesterday, which promises to push the envelope even further. By the end of the year Intel claims it will have Haswell processors that sip power so daintily that they will not require a fan. Imagine a true tablet – the thickness and weight of a Surface RT or iPad, instant-on, all-day battery – but running the full x86 version of Windows 8.1, with 100% compatibility with all Windows programs and devices. It answers all the criticisms of Windows RT, and potentially makes it unnecessary for Surface RT even to exist as a separate product. Microsoft claims to be committed to Windows RT for the long term, and that might be wise, since Intel’s claims are so far untested and it’s unlikely that ARM is standing still while Intel prepares to race ahead.

The Xmas shopping season, then, promises an array of laptops and hybrids that make extravagant claims for battery life in a variety of thin and light form factors. By the end of the year or early 2014, expect to see tablets running Windows 8.1 with full compatibility with traditional Windows programs.

This is Intel, however, and nothing is ever simple with Intel. The other area where Intel lost ground to ARM is in the market for very, very cheap devices, and Intel wants a piece of that market as well. In the next couple of months Intel will also be introducing a new line of processors code-named “Bay Trail,” separate from Haswell, which also promise extended battery life for laptops and tablets that are fully Windows-compatible.

Sigh.

Bay Trail is an extension of Intel’s Atom line, which has become well-known in the industry for crappy performance. It was the poor performance of Atom processors that was largely responsible for the crash of the budding netbook market a few years ago.

When you see tablets this fall built on Bay Trail processors, proceed cautiously. Intel is encouraging an unhealthy trend of creating unrealistic expectations for cheap devices. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said during a conference call with financial analysts a few days ago that Intel is committed to pushing its low-cost Atom processors into sub-$300 laptops and $150 tablets. Sorry, folks, but if you buy a sub-$300 laptop, you’re getting a crappy laptop, and an improved processor won’t help much.

Benchmark testing still has to be done on Bay Trail and Haswell processors. We can’t know yet what promises will or won’t be fulfilled. Shop carefully! There are many exceptional laptops on the market now, if you choose carefully, and the selection will only get better in the next few months. Look for Haswell processors this fall, and watch for a new generation of Windows tablets that offer the best of everything. And be realistic about prices – if it looks too cheap, it’s probably cheap crap, regardless of the advertising hype.