12 things you should know about Intel's Haswell processors

Intel has just released its new fourth-generation Core processors (formerly codenamed "Haswell"), which use a new 22 nanometre process and promise to give users the one-two punch of better energy efficiency and improved performance.

We're looking forward to seeing the results once we test the first round of systems using this new design of CPU – look for these reviews in the coming weeks and throughout 2013. But if you want to know more about Haswell right now, here are a dozen points to help you better understand what fourth-generation Core processors may be able to do for you and your computing needs.

1. Mobile PCs: Getting thinner and lighter

In years past, if you wanted the thinnest possible mobile PC, you'd have to buy a nettop built around a low power Intel Atom processor – and you’d have to endure the slow performance that entailed. If you need to power through a 10,000 cell spreadsheet, you want at least a Core i5 processor to work on those recalculations. Fourth-generation Intel Core chips will give you an Ultrabook that can perform those tasks while measuring in at 17mm thick (or indeed thinner than that) and weighing under 900 grams. These chips are more power efficient, which means that smaller, thinner batteries can be used, and they run cooler, so large cooling fans are no longer necessary.

2. All-in-one developments

High volume PC manufacturers like Acer, Dell, and HP will continue to produce tower desktops, but innovative all-in-one desktops won't feature a monolithic style of chassis as has been the case in years past. Improved power management will mean that these all-in-one systems will segment into more subcategories.

Because compact portable all-in-ones like the Dell XPS 18 use internal batteries, they're already portable around the house. Look for systems that are just as thin, but with battery life that rivals that of mainstream laptops. They won't be as apt for commuting needs, but your eyes will enjoy the large screens and higher quality 3D graphics. Needless to say, these new portables will have touchscreens.

3. Alphabet soup

As was true with previous Intel CPUs, a fourth-generation Core processor's model number tells you a lot about it. Each processor has a family name (Core i3, i5, or i7), which denotes the processing prowess of each family (i.e. i7 is more powerful than i5 and i3), and a model number that further denotes that CPU's power and placement. Together they let you know that, for example, an Intel Core i7-4770K is more powerful than a Core i5-4570.

If a letter follows the model number, that lets you know which segment a particular processor is designed for. Letters used include K which is for unlocked enthusiast desktops, and S or T for low powered desktops – think S for "power Saving" and T for "Thin chassis" such as those seen with all-in-ones. There’s also H (quad-core mobile with Iris Pro graphics), M (quad-core mobile with dual-core two-chip), U (Ultrabook with Iris graphics), and Y (low power Ultrabook system on chip for detachable hybrids).

4. Ultrabook battery life

Fourth-generation Core processors are intended to increase overall notebook or Ultrabook battery life and improve overall performance. Although combining a fourth-generation Core processor with a Series 8 motherboard chipset will let system manufacturers build even thinner and lighter laptops, placing one of the newer power efficient processors plus the new chipset in an existing chassis with the same battery pack will lead to much longer battery life. For example, Intel claims a three hour improvement (from six to nine hours) on an Ultrabook HD video playback battery life test when that system's third-generation Core i7 chip is replaced with a fourth-generation Core i7.

5. Haswell is a “tock”

Intel's 22nm manufacturing process was introduced with third-generation "Ivy Bridge" processors (the "tick" in Intel's "tick-tock" development process), which makes the fourth-generation Core a "tock," or microarchitecture change that makes fundamental improvements at the circuit level. Expect this process to continue with another die shrink (to 14nm) for the next-generation Broadwell processors in 2014.

6. One chip, two chip, go!

Intel's notebook and mobile processor engineers are taking a cue from Intel's embedded processor group by integrating the CPU and platform controller hub (PCH) on a single chip. This lets system manufacturers make smaller motherboards, and thus smaller or thinner laptops and mini PCs. Consolidating to one chip also makes energy usage more efficient, which leads to better battery life. For example, individual parts of the processor and chipset can be turned off to save power, and since there's only one socket, the laptop doesn't have to keep feeding power to two different chips.

The new one-chip solution is also designed to work with low power LPDDR3 and DDR3L memory, improving energy usage even further. Don't assume two-chip designs are down for the count, however. Traditional two-chip platforms will still support better graphics and still give system manufacturers more options when configuring different processors for different price points. For example, when a system manufacturer wants to build a system that supports the CPU's integrated graphics and third-party discrete graphics, using a two-chip solution will be less expensive as well as more flexible in terms of choosing different configurations.

7. Improved graphics

Fourth-generation Intel Core processors will feature improved Intel HD Graphics (with the Intel HD Graphics 4200/4400/4600/5000 monikers). Higher-end CPUs will come with Intel Iris Graphics 510 or Intel Iris Pro 5200, which will improve 3D gaming performance across the board (Iris Pro promises gaming at resolutions such as 1,920 x 1,080, with moderate detail settings enabled).

Other new features on Iris and Iris Pro graphics will include support for three screen multi-monitor setups, 4K resolution, and support for WiDi 4.1 on laptops and all-in-one desktop PCs. WiDi 4.1 has better support for more receivers including smart TVs, touch support, reduced latency, and support for full resolution S3D.

8. Ultrabook updates

For a system to receive Ultrabook certification, it will need to meet more requirements than before. These include: A mandatory touchscreen; waking in less than 3 seconds; the use of speedier storage; much improved battery life (seven days on standby, 6 hours of HD video playback, 9 hours of idling, and more); antivirus and antitheft protection; and support for WiDi and voice controls.

9. Desktops get touch

Touch and HD aren't just for convertible laptops. Intel will be promoting new all-in-one desktops, from the traditional models with desktop processors to the ultrathin portable AiO desktops with mobile processors and internal batteries. These all-in-one desktops will be touch enabled to better utilise Windows 8's UI, and you'll start to see more AiO desktops with higher resolution (1,600 x 900 and 1,920 x 1,080) screens.

10. Superior performance and overclocking

Some mainstream desktop processors will now have clock speed settings available to the end user. In the past, you needed to change settings like voltage limits or memory timing settings to increase the performance of a "locked" processor. Now you'll be able to simply increase the base clock rate of your fourth-generation Intel Core processor to give your projects a bit of a boost. This won't destroy the market for enthusiast motherboards and unlocked processors, but the new settings will let more mainstream users give themselves more performance without too much fiddly tweaking.

11. The next NUC

Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is a mini PC form factor that Intel introduced late in 2012. In 2013 the NUC will be updated with fourth-generation Core processors, giving the system builder or home tinkerer better performance in a desktop PC not much larger than a media set-top box like the Apple TV or Roku 3.

12. Don't count out Ivy Bridge

As was the case when Ivy Bridge replaced Sandy Bridge, you'll still get a good deal buying a laptop or desktop that uses the "older" processor. Third-generation Core powered systems will also continue to be useful, of course, as we estimate you should be able to get three to five years of service out of a laptop and a couple of additional years out of a desktop before it starts to become obsolete. You'll have to decide whether you'd rather get more performance out of a fourth-generation Core-powered system, or save a few quid by buying a PC with an older CPU.