Intel Outline Desktop Platform Plans At GDC

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅20.03.2014 00:21:51

Contrary to popular belief, the Desktop PC continues to exist whilst being pressed on all sides by the mobile sector seemingly replacing it. Indeed its absolute size appears to be growing, with Intel reporting that 2013 was a year of record shipments for their Core i5 and i7 product lines as well as desktop volume numbers being up around 7% in last year's fourth quarter. With Intel PC revenue now amounting to $33bn, for which the desktop market contributes ~43%, it's hardly surprising that Intel are seeking to keep an eye on this particular ball. With that background Intel are using GDC 2014 as a platform to unveiling their plans for the rest of the year in the desktop, with the timing being particularly apposite given the importance of gaming to the desktop as a whole.

Intel's plans for 2014 encompass three key themes:

(1) Reinventing the desktop form factor - developing both AIO and mini-PCs as a credible alternative,

(2) Experience reinvention - introducing new hardware-level technologies to improve how the user interfaces with their PC, supported by OEMs,

(3) Product reinvention - new Extreme Edition and K-Series CPUs, plus a 20th Anniversary Unlocked Pentium CPU with Quick Sync.

Reinventing The Desktop Form Factor

In the past few years the desktop PC has evolved from a mainly beige box to a whole host of form factors and usage cases, in a speed which eclipses the changes seen in the 10 years prior to that. In addition to the traditional desktop design we now have All In One PCs, nettop/mini-PC/tiny-PC designs, touch-based desktops and more. The sudden surge in innovation has been catalysed by a range of new technologies, including Intel's own drive in power efficiency and diversifying chipset capabilities, and doesn't look like stopping any time soon.

In 2009 Intel began investigating just how users interacted with their desktop, throwing out a number of old assumptions. They discovered that one in three users in the US and two in three in emerging markets didn't treat their desktop as a static device, moving it between rooms for often bespoke uses where applicable. This was in 2009 mind you, small and sleek desktop systems were hardly the norm.

From that core research Intel began developing the All In One platform which has matured into the portable All In One. The idea is to marry a large multi-user multi-touch desktop with a chassis design that allows for easy carrying, mounting etc. This year and 2015 will see the first in the next generation of portable AIO's, incorporating Intel's RealSense camera technology, high-quality audio and quad-array microphone input. Black Brook as it's currently known is in the working prototype stage and is built on 14nm Broadwell technology - earlier demonstration models utilised Haswell parts. Depending on the usage scenario, the AIO will utilise either parts from either Intel's mobile or socketed (desktop) product line, determined largely by weight and battery considerations.

Coinciding with today's announcement is the release of twelve new multi-user, multi-touch applications from a variety of well respected publishers as part of an ongoing initiative to develop new software tailored to the task. The titles range from educational through to entertainment software as you would imagine, and bring the total to well over 150 with yet more in the pipeline.

The other side to the equation when it comes to reinventing the form factor is further development of very small form factor PCs. They've been appearing for a while in the home have been used as HTPC's, but are booming in the business/enterprise sector where space is at a premium and the flexibility of a tower isn't required. Begun with the NUC, Intel are planning to continue to develop the mini-PC and tiny-PC form factor in-house bringing more computing power in ever smaller packages.

Whilst the business sector has been the primary growth driver in these for factors, consumers are sure to reap the benefits as more flexible PC desktop solutions filter through into the home. Of course the Steam Machine could be core this a new wave of small form factor designs reaching the hands of consumers.

Bringing New Experiences To The PC

As well as raw processing power, desktop hardware updates are also required to unlock experiences new to the PC, some of which may have already started to appear in other sectors but skipped the desktop. Through improved hardware Intel are bringing touch-screens, voice assistance, 3D Depth of Field Cameras and password-free authentication to the platform, underscoring its fundamental flexibility. RealSense is just one technological facet which will be brought to the desktop.

Additionally Intel continue to improve wireless connectivity and battery life within the platform as a whole, whilst also incorporating HD Displays and augmenting built-in graphics power through the Intel Iris Graphics technology as part of the 4th Generation Core CPUs.

Today Intel are also announcing Intel Ready Mode Technology for the desktop. This new power saving state applies to both CPU (through the C7 state on 4th Gen. "Haswell" CPUs) and Chipset, unlocking a very low power mode which allows the desktop to operate as a silent partner for mobile devices in synching and other background processes. Unfortunately this new mode requires some tweaking by OEMs and so isn't available to all Haswell-based systems, nor all vendors, and the API is currently only being developed for Microsoft Windows 7 and 8 so perhaps will need to be sought-out rather than assumed. Ready Mode could however have significant application as the world begins to get more frugal with energy needs whilst expecting an ever improving user interface quality across all devices - static and mobile.

New parts in the Enthusiast Product Line.

Although the previous points are interesting with regards to plotting the future of desktop technology, the enthusiast line is likely to be your core area of interest dear reader. Thankfully Intel aren't leaving us hanging, with confirmation at last coming for new Extreme Edition parts, updated Haswell SKUs, socketed unlocked Broadwell CPUs and something a little special.

First off, in the 2nd half of 2014 Intel will be releasing the next generation of Core i7 Extreme Edition processors. Ably supported by the upcoming X99 motherboard platform, these new CPUs will be their first 8-core, 16-thread CPU for the desktop market. Likely the fabled Haswell-E, they will also be the first platform to support DDR4 for greatly increased memory bandwidth vs DDR3 solutions. We don't yet have an exact date, but wouldn't be surprised to see more news at or before Computex.

Next up is the some clarification of what we can expect from the 5th Generation processor (codenamed Broadwell). You may recall rumours last year that the 14nm CPU would be limited to embedded solutions with no socketed parts, potentially throwing the whole industry into turmoil. Perhaps thankfully that won't be the case, as Intel have stated that not only will there be socketed Broadwell CPUs, but that there will also be unlocked SKUs capable of overclocking and they will feature Iris Pro graphics. There's certainly no ETA, and it's almost certain their time to market will be dictated by market conditions when they're ready, but the news should some as some relief.

Oh, and one other point: Broadwell should be drop-in compatible with 9-series motherboards, implying they Intel are re-using the LGA1150 socket for the platform. It's also possible that it will be compatible with 8-series motherboards, but at this stage that shouldn't be taken as a given.

Third on the list is the confirmation of the rumoured Haswell Refresh and Intel 9-series motherboard range. Once again no exact ETA is given - Intel state mid-year 2014 - but given demos at CeBIT last week we don't imagine that it's as far off as June/July. Furthermore Unlocked 'K-Series' SKUs will feature heavily in the updated lineup as part of the Devil's Canyon platform, for which Intel have incorporated both a stock speed boost and (due to popular demand) improved Thermal Interface Material to boost overclocking potential and reduce overall temperatures.

Finally, in a cute surprise Intel are also marking the 20th anniversary of Pentium, their classic desktop CPU range. What was once the flagship brand is now doing sterling work shoring up the entry level, chiefly through slimmed-down dual-core SKUs based around the latest CPU architecture. In celebration of the 20-year milestone however a new Intel Pentium Anniversary Edition CPU will be released which is unlocked for overclocking and incorporates Quick Sync for the first time. Although the market for such a CPU may be small (perhaps not as small as you might imagine though), it's gratifying to see a big company wax nostalgic once in a while. Expect this SKU to appear mid-2014, compatible with both 8-series and 9-series motherboards.


And so that's a small taster of what Intel have in mind for the coming year. Some we already knew, or at least suspected, whilst other points are going to be important for enthusiast consumers planning their next system and seeking to understand what to expect over the next half a year or so. For Intel's part, the critical point will be if AIO's and Mini-PCs continue to exhibit the high growth levels seen in the recent years; for consumers, technology filtering down into the mainstream will be the most interesting part of the roadmap.

Keep your eyes peeled for more information coming out of GDC later this week.