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Winning the Processor Waiting Game

System builders will have to decide whether to use Intel’s Broadwell processor in their systems now or wait for its successor. By Hank Hogan

To Broadwell or not to Broadwell? That is the question, particularly for system builders pondering 2016.

Available in late 2014, Broadwell is the code name for a processor line from Intel Corp. In the “tick-tock” manufacturing model the chip maker uses, Broadwell is a “tick,” or a shrinking of the technology that delivers higher performance in a smaller package. More specifically, “Broadwell is largely a process shrink of Haswell, going from Intel's 22-nanometer process to its latest 14- nanometer process,” says Kevin Krewell, principal analyst with Tirias Research.

A big benefit from going smaller is a drop in power consumption. Consequently, Krewell says that with Broadwell, Intel is targeting ultra-thin notebooks, devices that prize lower power consumption.

For system builders, though, incorporating the new processor in their systems isn’t a straightforward decision. That’s because Intel has announced a “tock,” a microarchitecture change with new instructions and other improvements, scheduled for release just a half-year after Broadwell. Code-named Skylake, the new processor should offer greater performance relative to Broadwell while being just as power stingy.

The pileup in processor advances is due to manufacturing difficulties Intel encountered when going into mass production on its 14-nm process. Those problems have been ironed out, enabling Broadwell to ramp into production. And, because SkyLake will run on the same process, it will benefit from those manufacturing solutions as well.

Unfortunately, the architecture difference between the two processor lines means they are not pin compatible, with Broadwell using an LGA 1150 socket and Skylake its successor, the LGA 1151. Moreover, Broadwell and Skylake require different supporting chipsets. The result? One motherboard won’t support both chip families.

A Decision to Make
So what’s a system builder to do? Caution is warranted, says Glen Coffield, chief executive technologist at Smart Guys Computers, a Sanford, Fla.-based system builder. “Skylake being released so quickly after Broadwell means new boards,” he says. “They always seems to take longer than chips to be available, and with Intel out of the motherboard business, the company has no real leverage to release new boards.”

Broadwell is supposed to work in existing motherboards that use Haswell processors, and that compatibility provides a path forward for the new family of processors. “If Broadwell, as alleged, will work in the H97 and Z97 boards we are currently using to build Haswell systems, then we will move to Broadwell, assuming there is price parity with Haswell,” Coffield says.

But what dictates the processor decision for system builders extends beyond pricing, says Coffield. Motherboards, processors, cooling solutions, memory, and other components that make up a complete system must also be available. And, for his part, Coffield never believes in a new piece of gear or software until it can be ordered. Even then, he’s skeptical until the item actually arrives.

An Alternate View
A different yet still cautious approach is advocated by Tirias Research’s Krewell. He notes that Broadwell is an interim chip, which, because of the arrival of Skylake, will have an abbreviated lifespan. For low-power, small-form-factor designs for which performance is not critical, Broadwell could be a good solution. However, Skylake is likely to offer higher performance and greater longevity.

Krewell’s advice is to extend existing Haswell designs or even those of an earlier Intel processor line, Ivy Bridge, for as long as possible. Then, make the switch to Skylake when the processor and supporting components become available.

There is a danger in playing the waiting game based upon when new chips are scheduled for release, however. The key word here is scheduled, indicating a forecast and not a fact. As Krewell notes, “One of the challenges with a roadmap is that you know something better is coming, and the temptation is always to wait for the next, better thing.”


About the Author

HANK HOGAN is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev.

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