Preface: Where's The Innovation In High-End Desktops?
Disclaimer: As with our recent Core i7-4960X preview, the following story is based on an early engineering sample Xeon E5-2697 V2. Intel was not involved in the story, and was not asked for comment prior to its publication.
It’s in vogue to rag on the desktop market and point to analyst data that shows tablet and smartphone shipments accelerating. So begins another race to the bottom, where form factors shrink and ASPs drop.
Yeah, sure, those small touch-oriented devices are great for a lot of the tasks that used to require a PC. But they don’t replace PCs. And despite the financial services companies responsible for prophesying the continued contraction of desktop computing (or perhaps because of them), enthusiasts want assurance that they’ll always have high-end hardware options.
The problem is that enthusiast-class gear represents a sliver of what companies like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia sell, even if the technologies that go into those components filter down into higher-volume products. Every manufacturer, including Intel, claims that it's still looking out for the small but elite group of power users. To say otherwise is blasphemous. But my early look at the enthusiast-oriented Ivy Bridge-E configuration (Intel Core i7-4960X Preview: Ivy Bridge-E, Benchmarked) turned up a distinct lack of progress in this upcoming generation.
In the company’s defense, it’s simultaneously fighting higher-stakes battles on other fronts that require financial resources and engineering talent, which have to come from somewhere. Silvermont (Intel Silvermont Architecture: Does This Atom Change It All?) has the makings of an ARM-killer, and that’s where Intel is focusing its attention.
That’s not to explain away two successive desktop launches that left enthusiasts feeling a little underwhelmed, or to recommend that you buy a new system when your coming-up-on-three-year-old Sandy Bridge-based box is still plenty fast. Ivy Bridge and Haswell were both decidedly mobile-focused. So, in light of IDC's forecast that that tablet shipments will outpace desktops and laptops combined by 2015, it's really no wonder that Intel's emphasis is on low power and new form factors.
Simply, that’s where most of the innovation is happening right now. From Intel’s work with power to Nvidia’s computational photography, and Qualcomm’s emphasis on tightly integrating a broad portfolio of IP, there’s still a ton of differentiation going on. Meanwhile, what is keeping power users at their desks and buying high-end hardware? Gaming, largely. The recent Worldwide PC Gaming Hardware Market report from Jon Peddie Research confirms this. Occasionally I’ll get to write something like Next-Gen Video Encoding: x265 Tackles HEVC/H.265, where we catch a glimpse of an upcoming workload that’s going to make you want faster hardware. But even then, a relative few need powerful workstations for encoding 3840x2160 video.
Whatcha Got There, Mac Pro?
Intel introduced its Sandy Bridge-E architecture almost two years ago to much enthusiast excitement. The platform wasn’t for everyone—after all, the least-expensive LGA 2011-compatible chip sold for more than $300. But if you bought one, it held you over through the mainstream Ivy Bridge and Haswell launches.
The company plans to launch Ivy Bridge-E at this year’s IDF in September. But don’t hold your breath for the same magnitude of fanfare. While our aforementioned Core i7-4960X preview turned up some really cool efficiency data, minor performance improvements won’t compel you to upgrade. And if you held off onSandy Bridge-E altogether, you can look forward to building a new PC with X79 Express—a chipset that even lacks native USB 3.0 support. What’s more, we can’t even blame the lack of enthusiast appeal on Intel’s new phone and tablet focus. The fact that its top-end Ivy Bridge-E chip is a six-core processor with 15 MB of shared L3 cache, just like Sandy Bridge-E, is really a marketing call.
Sandy Bridge-EP featured as many as eight cores and 20 MB of L3 (we tested it in Core i7-3970X Extreme Review: Can It Stomp An Eight-Core Xeon?). But with the Xeon E5-2687W selling for $2000, Intel was under no pressure to introduce an equivalent Core i7. Soon we’re going to start seeing 12-core Ivy Bridge-EP CPUs (at lower 130 W TDPs, no less), but those are likewise turning into server- and workstation-oriented Xeon E5s.
Rather than turning its next Mac Pro into a big dual-socket affair, Apple is capitalizing on the fact that Ivy Bridge-EP will ship in 12-core configurations, and it’s consolidating the platform into a 9.9-inch-tall cylinder with up to one Xeon E5-2697 V2 CPU. Regardless of whether you love or hate the “wastebasket” design, the system’s specs are very impressive for the volume of space it occupies.