Intel is having a very interesting year in 2014. They’re less than a week away from the Haswell refresh and 9-series chipset launch and on the way to preparing for the launch of Broadwell, their first 14-nanometer processors. On the mobile side they’re trying to bring in Broadwell hardware as quickly as possible and for the high-end desktops they’re focusing on a 2H 2014 launch for Haswell-E along with the X99 chipset, the migration to DDR4 and a whole new way of interacting with storage drives thanks to M.2 and SATA Express. Its a busy year for them even into 2015, which is why a recent leak concerning their next platform after Broadwell, called Skylake, has me a bit puzzled.
Typically Intel runs on a tick-tock product cycle, with the tick representing a switch-over of an existing architecture onto a new production process, while the tock represents an introduction of a new architecture on a proven, existing production process. Intel says that this process normally takes place over two years, but in previous years the tick-tock switch was not as close together as they would have wanted. The cycle has been more or less consistent since its introduction in 2007 with the Core family but Intel hiccupped on a few occasions with the strategy, notably taking almost two years to shrink the Nehalem architecture down to 32-nanometer to form Westmere.
The move to Haswell and Broadwell is a very odd one for Intel. Haswell launched with the LGA1150 socket and the 8-series chipset and DDR3 compatibility in June 2013. That then switches over to Haswell refresh and the 9-series chipset later this month (almost a year later) which requires different socket pinouts and supports all previous Haswell processors. Then you have Devil’s Canyon, which are the refreshed K-series chips with a metal solder underneath the heatsink and the Pentium Anniversary Edition, which is rumored to have an unlocked multiplier to return the Pentium brand to its insane overclocking roots, both coming in a few week’s time.
Broadwell is a 14-nanometer die shrink as well as a graphics upgrade, making it another tock-plus. It will use the LGA1150 socket and the 9-series chipset, but won’t work on older boards. In addition, it’s only launching in very late 2014, so you can expect it to kick up around December 2014 – January 2015. From there on, Broadwell will have to carry on the sales until Intel can roll out their tock, which is Skylake.
Intel wants to put out Skylake in 2015, which isn’t that far away now. By the time Skylake is out, DDR4 production will be far more mainstream and cheaper for consumers to adopt. Almost certainly Skylake will first appear in mobile products like laptops and high-end tablets, where the most benefit from the energy savings will be seen. Beyond that, though, having two entirely different platforms launch within a year of each other may not be the best thing if you’re already on the fence about upgrading.
Still, the leaked details on Skylake, if they’re real at all, are interesting. There’s new everything – a new WWAN LTE chipset as well as a discrete GPS tracker, a first for Intel. Perhaps 2015 would also be the year that Thunderbolt actually gains some real traction, seeing as Intel is still bothering with it.
But I hope that Skylake is the last time we see the old PCH designs from Intel. From here on they need something with a lot more bandwidth and much more connectivity if they want to improve the platform wholesale. With M.2 using PCI-Express connectivity and SATA express saturating on-board SATA controllers, the entire approach Intel has is becoming old really fast. Beyond Skylake and the 14-nanometer process things are going to have to scale up significantly if Intel’s domination is to be assured.
All told, if you’re thinking of upgrading soon, I’d wait until at least July to make your final decision. By then Devil’s Canyon and the rest of the Haswell refresh will be out and things will be more settled than they are now. DDR4 isn’t going to benefit most people so it would be wise to avoid for now until you’re ready for another platform upgrade. If you’re shopping in the Haswell-E price range, though, definitely wait for that.