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How does Intel's Haswell compare to Ivy Bridge CPUs?

Around this time every year Intel releases a new set of processors on the scene, with a laundry list of improvements over the previous generation. This year we’ve seen the release of the fourth-generation Intel Core processors (codenamed Haswell) – but that doesn't mean that last year's third-generation Intel Core CPUs (codenamed Ivy Bridge) are going away.

Instead, Ivy Bridge will become the processor you'll see in PCs for the cost-conscious customer. But is Haswell really that much of an improvement over Ivy Bridge? We’re going to break down what has changed (and what hasn't) between Haswell and Ivy Bridge in this article.

Ivy Bridge trickles down

With the release of Haswell CPUs, Ivy Bridge CPUs now move into the more budget-friendly PCs. We are seeing fourth-generation Core processors being installed in high-end systems for this year's back-to-school and Xmas seasons. That means that if you want to save a hundred notes or more on that new laptop, you can buy a new system with a third-generation Intel Core processor. The mainstream and budget laptops and desktops will be where you'll find the best bargains. There are reasons to go with the new processor (which we'll get to below), but if you want to save money go for a third-gen Core processor instead.

Tick vs. Tock

Intel is holding to its "tick-tock" model, where the "tick" is a die shrink (new manufacturing process), and the "tock" is a new microarchitecture. Ivy Bridge was a die shrink of Sandy Bridge (the second-gen Intel Core CPU), moving down from a 32nm process to a 22nm process. Haswell continues to use a 22nm process, but it's using a new microarchitecture that's more power efficient.

Are you my motherboard?

If you're one of the small, but proud, percentage of users who build their own desktops PCs, you'll have to buy a new motherboard if you're thinking of getting a Haswell processor. People upgrading from Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge could do so with a BIOS firmware flash, due to both CPUs sharing the LGA 1155 socket. Haswell (and presumably its Broadwell successor) use the LGA 1150 socket, which is electrically incompatible with the previous models.

Haswell has better graphics, but...

New Haswell processors have upgraded Intel HD Graphics and new Iris/Iris Pro graphics, so 3D performance will improve over that of the Ivy Bridge CPUs. Our tests bear out that theory, but so far, we're only seeing an improvement of 5 frames per second (fps) to 10 fps on our mid-level (1,366 x 768) 3D game tests, which only brings frame rates to a (still unplayable) 17 to 23 fps. That said, if you bring up a less strenuous game that was barely playable on Intel HD Graphics 4000, then one of the new processors would most likely make a difference.

A speed bump with a lower clock

Haswell is a speed bump, but manufacturers may choose to drop in a lower clocked processor in an update. Take, for example, the Apple MacBook Air 13in, which used to have a 1.8GHz Core i5 processor in its 2012 model. The new 2013 model with Haswell comes with a 1.3GHz Core i5, which has a slower clock speed, yet provides similar performance to the older model. Benchmark numbers on Windows systems are trickling in, but we're seeing similar performance numbers. Which brings us to the real reason the lower clock speed is better...

Battery life wins

The MacBook Air is a prime example, but other Ultrabooks will start to show much better battery life real soon. We tested the MacBook Air 13in (Mid 2013), and it achieved over 15 hours and 30 minutes on our battery rundown test. That's more than double the longevity of the previous model, the MacBook Air 13in (Mid 2012). Likewise, the Haswell-equipped Sony Vaio Duo 13 stopped five minutes short of nine hours. This is phenomenal, since laptops bought earlier this year topped out at around six hours on the same test, with most lasting far less than that. If you're looking for a laptop that you want to use away from the power plug, wait until you can get a fourth-generation Intel Core processor in it.

The best is yet to come

If past history is any indication, the current Core i5 and Core i7 mainstream Haswell processors will be joined by low-end (Core i3) processors at the budget price points, as well as higher end (Extreme Edition) processors much, much further down the road. We'll be waiting.

There are plenty of other differences between Haswell and Ivy Bridge CPUs, including the integrated voltage regulator (formerly part of the chipset), a new focus on lower temperatures and power saving for use on thinner desktops and all-in-ones. But any of those features will make your eyes glaze over unless you're a hardware engineer or a software developer. Suffice it to say that we will continue to review systems and individual components here on ITProPortal, so stay tuned!