Last year, Intel's Ivy Bridge processors provided a modest but very welcome speed bump, just in time for all of the crazy transforming computers which heralded the launch of Windows 8.
This year, the company's new Haswell CPUs are poised to actually give those touchscreen computers the battery life and graphics power they so desperately need. Intel's launching its fourth-generation Core processors this week, and it sounds like they'll be a significant enough improvement in laptops and tablets that you'll actually want to look for their name, perhaps even choosing a processor whose digits start with "4" rather than a cheaper one with "3" if a Windows 8 portable is what you need. While Haswell will obviously be in desktops and all-in-one computers as well, its benefits will probably be felt best in the thinnest crop of new machines.
What makes a Haswell processor so special, if you take Intel at its word?
Last year, the very thinnest, most power-efficient Ivy Bridge machines you could find were still power-hungry beasts, maybe just 20 percent better than the Sandy Bridge computers that came before. For 2013, Intel claims its ultra low-voltage Haswell processors will be 20 times more power efficient at idle than Sandy Bridge was.
Three more hours of video playbackTo put that into perspective, with the very same class of processor — a new Core i7-4650U versus a Core i7-3667U from last year, both of which you'd find in high-end thin and light machines — Intel says the new chip gets three more hours of HD video playback. And when you're not using your computer, while it's sitting idle or asleep, Intel says it's actually doubled the longevity. You can leave a laptop suspended for 10 days, the company claims, with this processor connected to an ultrabook-sized 50Wh battery.
Haswell processors are built on the same 22nm 3D transistor process as Ivy Bridge, so how is that possible? It gets a little technical, but Intel engineers explained that they fully integrated the power management system this time around, integrating a whole host of voltage regulators into a single controller. That controller can dynamically ramp the voltage much quicker, allowing the chip to work harder when you need it to, and cool down when you don't. (It also should allow these laptops to wake up faster from sleep mode.)
For the very lowest voltage laptop chips, the U series and Y series, Intel has also crammed the whole chipset onto a single tiny board. The end result is that where the best Ivy Bridge had to offer last year was a 20W TDP, combining a 17W processor and a 3W chipset, the new U-series Haswell only needs 15W TDP worth of cooling for both components.
In the near future, Intel's hoping for power savings even when you connect a laptop to an external display, convincing manufacturers to put a technology into their monitors called Panel Self Refresh. Instead of constantly using your graphics processor to refresh the image on-screen even when nothing's happening, the monitor can do it itself, and tell your GPU that it can shut down for a bit and save power. "It will be widely adopted," claims Intel.
"It will be widely adopted."
While all of that could mean that manufacturers will simply put the new chips into thinner laptops and tablets with smaller batteries, negating the battery life advantage in exchange for thinner machines, that won't necessarily be a worry here. The Verge understands that several OEMs will drop the new Haswell processors into their existing laptop designs to get those extra hours of battery.
That doesn't mean there won't be thinner computers than ever before, though. That's where Intel's Y-series parts come in. As we discussed back when Ivy Bridge first introduced the idea, the parts require even less cooling, but it comes at a price: they won't be quite as powerful, and what power they have won't necessarily be sustainable for heavy-duty tasks like gaming or video editing.
Still, where Haswell's U-series parts only stretch down to 15W TDP, the Y-series can go as low as 6W SDP. (Read more about SDP here.) Intel anticipates the Y-series will primarily appear in detachable "processor behind the glass" computers, and in tablets as thin as 10 millimeters.
Not only could Haswell save some battery, it could allow you to play games as well. As we've discussed, Intel's introducing a new generation of integrated graphics alongside its 4th-gen Core processors, and they're quite noticeably improved, with modest increases at the 15W ultrabook level (with Intel HD Graphics 5000) and huge ones for slightly heftier laptops.
While a new Core i7-4558U chip suffers a much higher 28W TDP, it comes with Intel's new Iris graphics, which Intel claims can actually play some of today's demanding games at low settings: it manages 37 frames per second on average in Tomb Raider at 1366 x 768 and medium, 60FPS in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 at 1080p and medium, and only falls a little short with BioShock Infinite at 27FPS at 1366 x 768 and low. Take a look at at the difference between HD Graphics 5000 and Iris in the video below:
Alongside the U-series, Y-series, and standard M-series laptop chips, the company's also introducing the H-series this year, a beefy 47W TDP series of chips which come with even better Iris Pro graphics.
More gaming muscleAt that wattage, it might make sense to add a discrete GPU, but Intel argues that's basically what it's already done, claiming that the Iris Pro graphics are already at the level of last year's (quite capable) Nvidia GT 650M GPU. We got to take a quick look at what Iris Pro can do, and came away impressed. We haven't been able to benchmark yet, but it's already hard to believe that level of performance could be integrated into the same chip.
Beyond gaming, Intel's latest integrated graphics are going to be faster at encoding and decoding, and Intel claims its Quick Sync Video transcoding technology can now convert H.264 videos at up to eight times faster than real-time playback.
A refined Ultrabook
Last but not least, if you're buying into Intel's ultrabook campaign, you'll theoretically be getting a better machine across the board. Not only has Intel made touchscreens and Intel's Wireless Display a requirement for every ultrabook, but it's promising improved battery life, too, with over six hours of HD video playback, nine hours when Windows 8 is sitting idle, and seven days in standby mode for every new ultrabook sold. You can argue whether that truly counts as "all-day battery life," but it should definitely bring the average up if PC manufacturers are willing to play along.
They also all now need to wake from sleep in less than three seconds, practically guaranteeing that fast solid state storage will be included with every machine, and each needs to have a stereo microphone to be "hardware-ready" for voice command software down the road.
All of this adds up to what could be the most significant update for laptop processors in years, if not necessarily desktop SKUs. Intel wasn't particularly forthcoming about straight-up CPU performance, and we'd suggest waiting for plenty of reviews before upgrading a desktop PC... or buying a new machine, period. But if you're dead-set on a thin new laptop or tablet and notice that the Ivy Bridge version has dropped in price, it might not necessarily be the best choice this time around.
With faster graphics and what Intel's characterizing as the most significant battery life increase in its history, Haswell could be well worth looking for. You won't have to look hard, though: Intel's formally launching Haswell on June 4th, and you can expect every PC manufacturer to jump on board before long.