Intel brings next-gen 'Broadwell' processor tech to mainstream notebooks, desktops

intel broadwell u die shot
Credit: Intel

LAS VEGAS—Intel’s Core M processor promised a new wave of small-screen tablets. But at CES 2015, Intel hustled in the main event: the launch of the fifth-generation “Broadwell-U” Core processor for mainstream desktops and notebooks.

The new Core processors—over 14 of them, including new chips designed for consumer and business PCs, as well as Pentium and Celeron-branded chips—were launched on Monday, the preview day before the Consumer Electronics Show begins.

Intel’s new Broadwell ships are now shipping—except for the high-end, 28-watt parts that include Intel’s premier integrated graphics, the new Iris Graphics 6100. Those will wait until the end of the first quarter to ship. And with Intel’s next chip, Skylake, waiting in the wings, it’s no wonder Intel’s hardware partners plan to show off a slew of Broadwell systems at CES. 

intel processor hierarchy Intel

The various Intel processor brands that will use the new Broadwell architecture.

Karen Regis, director of Intel’s notebook roadmap and strategy, said that Intel expects the Broadwell transition to be the fastest ever, and no wonder: Intel delayed the new Broadwell chips by months after an unfortunate manufacturing glitch, which has now been fixed. But there's one important note: the desktops shown off at CES will use the 15-watt "mobile" parts, indicative of the fact that the lines between a desktop and a mobile PC are blurring.

"We have to remember that Broadwell is an Intel “tick”, so most of the work went into dramatically shrinking the transistors, die and package," added Patrick Moorhead, principal at Moor Insights and Strategy."This enabled Broadwell to go as low as 4.5 watts in power and also enabled Intel to add a lot more 3D graphics horsepower and specialty silicon for transcoding. The highlights of Broadwell are the new experiences the platform enables driven by RealSense, WiDi-based wireless docking, and biometric passwords."   

The real story: Intel was happy to spend a great deal of time detailing the speeds and feeds of the new chip, as outlined below. But I suspect that Intel and perhaps its OEMs are much more interested in some of the chip’s other capabilities—wake on voice, and a new voice assistant—that will help remake the PC. Like many other tech companies, Intel seems less concerned about the paper specifications, and more interested in providing a better overall experience. 

Better battery life, better PC experiences

The Broadwell chips are Intel’s first 14-nm parts for mainstream desktops and notebooks, and will enjoy enhanced performance and battery life simply by being manufactured on the finer process. Intel says notebooks should enjoy about 90 extra minutes of battery life compared to a comparable 4th-gen “Haswell” Core chip, with 22 percent faster integrated graphics and 50 percent faster video conversion.

All told, a dual-core Broadwell contains 1.9 billion transistors. To give that a bit more meaning, Intel launched “Tukwila” in early 2010, with about 2 billion transistors inside. But Tukwila was an Itanium chip designed for high-end database crunching, which should underscore the complexity of the new Broadwell parts. 

The dramatic improvements that go beyond the benchmarks. Intel’s new SmartSound technology includes a more sophisticated audio DSP built into the chipset, allowing PCs to wake up simply through a verbal command. The built-in Wireless-C 7265 802.11ac radio included in the 28-watt Broadwell chips should consume 50 percent less idle power, 30 percent less active power, and improve throughput by 15 percent. Intel’s WiDi wireless dispay technology has also improved: Version 5.1 includes gaming support, Pro features for manageability, and 4K resolutions. 

Intel is also working with Nuance to bundle what it’s calling Voice Assistant into PCs—a virtual assistant that will serve until Microsoft is expected to add Cortana into Windows 10.  Finally, Intel is also encouraging its customers to include the RealSense depth cameras it launched last year into notebooks, which include collaboration and gaming capabilities

All in all, the 5th-gen Core chips “can really be summed up like this: great PC and performance, more natural and immersive experiences,” Regis said. 

Speeds and feeds

Ten of the Core chips Intel's launching will operate at 15 watts, and another four will run at 28 watts. (The 28-watt chips all use the Iris Graphics 6100 GPU, however, meaning that they’ll launch by the end of the first quarter.) The single Pentium and two Celeron chips will also be designed using the new Broadwell architecture. Almost all of the new chips are dual-core models with four threads, with base clock speeds ranging from 1.6GHz to 3.1GHz. Using the overclocking “turbo” mode available on the Core i5 and i7, the chips can run up to 3.4GHz, depending upon the model.

intel 5th gen core chips 15 w Intel

The Broadwell-U chips Intel launched at CES all are dual-core chips.

intel 5th gen core chips 28w Intel

Intel will launch these more powerful 28-watt Broadwell chips by the end of the quarter.

Intel didn’t say much about the performance of its new graphics cores. The GPUs integrated into the Haswell generation are pretty robust, provided you don’t mind playing slightly older games at lower resolutions. Intel did say that a new Core i7-5600U Broadwell chip with an Intel Graphics 5500 GPU would be 22 percent faster than a Haswell-based Core i7-4600U with an Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU, running the 3DMark IceStorm 1.2 benchmark. And business travelers should benefit from an additional 90 minutes of HD video playback, from about 7.2 to 8.7 hours, Intel said.

Intel is eager to pounce on what it thinks are 600 million PCs that are four years or older and ripe for a refresh. So, undoubtedly, are its hardware partners, exploring a range of all-in-one desktops, two-in-ones, and traditional clamshell PCs. But Intel said that it also plans to capitalize on the explosion of Chromebooks, with a Broadwell Chromebook announcement expected at CES, and shipments set to begin in February. Who will it be? Intel wouldn’t say.

Although sales are being spurred by the end of support for Windows XP, Regis also said that buyers are snapping up new systems “not because they need to but because they’re finding something that they really want.” A significant chunk of the computing industry is hoping she’s right.

This story has been updated with comment from analyst with Patrick Moorhead.

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