Haswell — Intel’s fourth generation of the incredibly successful Core CPU — is here. As vendors begin rolling out hardware to keep up with one another in the renewed specs and performance race, that age-old game that inevitably follows is about to start again. Will users buy equipment featuring the new CPUs? Will deals on third-generation Core equipment be enticing? And what’s really in it for business users, anyway?
Let’s dive into what Haswell means for potential business customers.
New architecture, faster performance. Haswell is available for both laptop and desktop computers, with a wide variety of clock rates, L3 cache sizes, and power consumption levels supported. Discussing all the ins and outs of how the 4th generation Core CPU architecture is different from the 3rd generation Core CPU architecture is delving a bit heavily into the weeds, but the highlights are as follows. Haswell is smaller, which means laptops will be able to be constructed in lighter, thinner packages. The CPU will have up to four cores, currently an option only on Intel’s highest-end (and most expensive) CPUs on the market today.
That said, PC World benchmarks on desktops using the new Haswell Core i7 haven’t exactly showed the new chip demolishing its predecessor. A high-end Haswell showed just a 5 percent improvement over a high-end 3rd generation Core i7 system on our standard test battery, and the figures showed a 15 percent improvement when compared to a more common 3rd generation Core i5 computer. These numbers alone aren’t remotely likely to convince any business buyer to upgrade, unless the company is still operating very old equipment.
However, there are other issues to consider…
Power savings all around. Haswell’s architectural changes are heavily designed — as have most of Intel’s recent CPU upgrades — to seriously reduce power consumption. For desktops, this means lower overall electricity bills, but for laptops this is obviously much more important, as battery life will be directly impacted by the changes. Intel says laptops using Haswell’s new voltage regulation technology will achieve 50 percent more battery life , but real-world test results aren’t likely to bear that out, especially as laptop LCDs get brighter, pack in more pixels (requiring a higher GPU load to fill), and run more graphically-heavy applications. Still, any power savings is still power savings, but the real impact of the new Haswell architecture on battery life will remain to be seen.
Will enhanced graphics matter? Consumers are excited about upgrades to the integrated GPU that comes with the Haswell processors. “Integrated graphics” have long been a death sentence for would-be gamers and video encoding mavens, sending them scrambling for a higher-end (yet expensive and power-hungry) discrete graphic card. But don’t get too excited yet. Intel has so far released only one desktop CPU with the new GPU — called Intel Iris — included. (Performance on graphics benchmarks running Iris is about double that of the previous generation.)
So far, all the other chips in the lineup, including laptop chips, use a more modestly upgraded version of the current Intel HD Graphics system. Laptops with Iris are coming, but these will likely be larger, gaming-oriented systems and not the sleek ultrabooks that everybody, particularly business users, are looking for. Now businesses don’t historically care much about graphics performance, but that has slowly been changing, as applications become more graphically intense and work like photo touchups and video editing trickles down to the rank and file from more specialized staff. Heck, even mining for bitcoinsis best done with a high-end GPU. The bottom line: Haswell is going to be good for graphics no matter what chip you buy, but as with the promises of hours of extra battery life, the results will have to be seen to be believed.
Prices aren’t likely to change. The best news of all is that, once Haswell desktops and laptops arrive, computers aren’t going to get more expensive. Intel’s current prices for 4th gen Core chips are largely in line with what pricing was for the previous generation, before Haswell’s arrival. That said, if you’re willing to settle for a 3rd generation (or even 2nd generation) Core computer, deals are likely to abound, as the chips remaining on the market are likely to become available at fire sale prices. Don’t need bleeding-edge performance or Skyrim in your lap? An older Core i5 should serve you just fine.
Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.