Haswell gets a makeover

It has scarcely been a year since Intel debuted the 4th generation Haswell series of CPUs. With the release of Haswell, Intel’s plans were (apart from taking over the world) to introduce a low power processor to be used mainly in Ultrabooks and other machines.

For PCs, it wasn’t that special – many enthusiasts were disappointed when the processors failed to live up to the hype.The higher end i5 and i7 models seemed to be on par with the previous generation Ivy Bridge CPUs –  with maybe around a 5-6 FPS (Frames-per-second) in 3D applications. Then came the ridiculously high temperatures and unstable overclocks. The average i7 4770K (which is the highest end, consumer i7 CPU of the Haswell series) could not achieve a stable 4.4GHz overclock even when liquid cooled. Cue crashes and processing errors.

Voltages were raised to questionable amounts but with no avail (Sri Lankan room temperatures, of course, didn’t help). After the dozens of PCs I’ve built since Haswell arrived, I’ve realized that a Haswell i7 overclock to 4.5 Ghz is effectively a unicorn – you only hear about them. Ironically a Haswell i5 4670K could hit 4.6 GHz without breaking a sweat – which again made me question my sanity and what exactly Intel was boasting about.

Meet the new contender: Devil’s Canyon

Hardly a year into Haswell, Intel, in a bold move to address the enthusiasts, released the “Devil’s Canyon” – a small reworking of the Haswell architecture. To that effect, they’ve put out both i5 and i7 variants. These new models are true quad core CPUs reworked as the i7 4790K and 4690K respectively.

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Devil’s Canyon. Wait, what?

Now the most obvious, interesting thing is that the 4790K – that ism the i7 version – that comes with a base clock frequency of 4GHz, Yes 4, as in FOUR GIGAHERTZ! It’s interesting to see Intel crossing that 4Ghz limit – and indeed it’s historical. We’ve been waiting for this since the days of the Pentium speed-wars.

But wait, there’s more: the CPU has an inbuilt turbo mode (like a turbo in a car that activates only when needed for that extra spurt of performance) of 4.2GHz on all four cores and a single core turbo mode of 4.4GHz. Either way, that’s money right there as most CPUs nowadays need to be overclocked and tweaked to achieve this kind of performance.

The i5 variant, on the other hand, is more of a bumped up version of the 4670K CPU, with a base clock of 3.5GHz with a turbo mode of up to 3.9GHz. Both processors have slightly higher TDPs (Thermal Design Power), which means they run slightly hotter – in theory. In practice, Intel has replaced the rather useless thermal paste we saw inside the Haswell chips, which means that the chip, at least on the outside, conducts and dissipates heat better. For those willing to take the risk, delidding a CPU (removing the TIM off a CPU die and replacing it with aftermarket thermal material) is still possible, but not encouraged, as it voids warranty and can damage the CPU if not done correctly.

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Let’s overclock a – Pentium? 

Curiously, Intel also launched a fully unlocked 3.2GHz Pentium processor, calling it the “Pentium Anniversary Edtion” – as it coincides with the release of the first Pentium CPU 20 years ago. Given the model G3258, this CPU boasts two cores with an unlocked multiplier, which means you can now overclock a Pentium as you would an i5 or i7 CPU.

Overall, this is more or less a marketing gimmick. Realistically, said Pentium overclocked to 4.3GHz would match the performance of a Haswell i3 CPU. Counting in the need for at least an H87 or H97 based motherboard (as these are the minimum chipset based boards to overclock a CPU) with an aftermarket cooler, it just does not make any financial sense to splurge on something like this unless you want to do it as a personal achievement.

Can my existing Haswell machine support these new CPUs?

The answer to that question is: Yes. Most if not all motherboard manufacturers have released BIOS updates for their respective 4th generation motherboards. As the socket still stays the same (LGA1150), users need only to visit their motherboard manufacturer’s website and download and install the latest BIOS updates to be able to get maximum potential of the new CPUs.

The weirdly-named SOC Force from Gigabyte is turning out to be one of the best choices
The weirdly-named SOC Force from Gigabyte is turning out to be one of the best choices in this sphere

Additionally, Intel released the 9 series Z97 and H97 Chipsets to motherboard manufacturers, and they in turn released Z97 and H97 based motherboards to the consumer market. The primary reason for this is for users to have systems that are able to support the new Devil’s canyon chips just in case the older 8 series boards cannot. The Z97 also will support Intel’s 5th generation Broadwell series of CPUs that will be released in early 2015 (speculated) so if you’re in the market for a new system and want to make it somewhat future proof, now is the time.

Should I buy it?

If you’re going to overclock, and know what you’re doing, and are not already on Haswell or Ivy Bridge – then yes.

Yes, that’s a fairly large bucket list. Devil’s Canyon is basically an overclocker-friendly Haswell: if you know what you’re doing, Ivy Bridge can easily be pushed to decent overclocks, and the performance boost isn’t large enough to really justify an upgrade (remember, this is Sri Lanka: we pay in rupees).

Now overall, the Z97 chipset has nothing that makes us shiver with anticipation apart from the SATA Express (double the data transfer rate of SATA3) and support for M.2 expansion and storage cards – not something we see often used here. By and large, it’s still profitable to hang on to your Haswell motherboard and just install the update.

If, however, you’re upgrading from that eternal Lankan favorite, the Core 2 Duo E7500 (or anything that isn’t Ivy Bridge, really), then Devil’s Canyon and some decent cooling is a worthy jump. We’d recommend heading over to Redline Technologies – as of the time of writing, they’re the only people with the chips. Broadwell’s a year away.

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