Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Intel's rollercoaster of processors makes buying decisions "difficult"

This past weekend I took a hike to the closest retailer selling laptop computers, in this case Best Buy. I had some minimum requirements in mind, since I was looking for an “entertainment,” rather than a “productivity” model. These included an Intel i7-6700 Skylake processor, DDR4 memory, a 17.3-inch screen, a Blu-ray optical drive, and (hopefully) “cheap.” There was only one model in the whole place with at least four of the five requirements, an HP Omen. The only item missing was an internal Blu-ray drive, which I was told was included in none of the models on hand. In fact, the only 6th-generation laptops with Blu-ray drives to be found anywhere are either the ultra-high-end gaming laptops sold online, or refabricated used models sold by third-parties. Checking HP’s website, Blu-ray drives were not included in the configuration buying options for its newest laptops. One’s only option was to purchase an external drive. Many people disparage optical drives as useless, but I prefer hard media to store data and to keep a “permanent” film library; hard drives can always “die” on you. 

During my investigation I noted that unlike a year ago when there were only two models with the new Skylake 14-nm processors, now virtually all of them were now—with a few disturbing exceptions. That would be two laptops that were equipped the i5-7200 processors. These laptops were the thin variety, and I at first assumed that these processors were new, lower-powered “mobile” processors. But I was concerned enough to do little research into this. What I discovered was that Intel is developing several new processors in the next two years. I’ve seen this before—with Apple’s Macintosh computers; every year something new and “better,” and you always felt left behind the day after you bought the “best” available. But Apple back then had a bad habit of concealing its forthcoming products, and buyers had a tendency to feel “burned”—which contributed to Apple’s slide in the early 1990s. With their computers so expensive to begin with, I was never going to allow myself to be burned like that in the pocketbook again, and eventually moved to Wintel computers. 

One gets the feeling that this is happening now with Intel and its seemingly yearly run of new processors. In making my most recent purchase, I decided to skip the long-delayed Broadwell processor and wait for Skylake to mature. But only a year after its release of this new architecture, Intel is already shipping its replacement, even after many enthusiasts had called on Intel to skip Kaby Lake 7th-generation processors altogether and concentrate on the new 10 nm Cannonlake processor, which is also based on the Skylake architecture, except in its die shrinkage. Now the question is whether to purchase a discounted laptop with the Skylake, wait another few months for the Kaby Lake i7-7500 processor to appear, and from there consider either the 10 nm Cannonlake or its hot-on-its-heels successor, Ice Lake. After that in 2018 will come another brand new processor architecture, Coffee Lake. 

To make a decision that made the most sense to me, I had to do some “comparison shopping.” The processor I wanted now, the i7-6700, was faster than the i5-7200 in nearly all facets, and was equal to or exceeded slightly the i7-7500. The Kaby Lake processors—which are little more than an incremental improvement on the Skylake architecture—support Intel’s Optane graphics technology, which was supposed to be a major selling point in the Cannon Lake processor. However, despite the promise of supporting enhanced 3D and improved 4K ultra-high definition video playback, neither of those “enhancements” are much improved over what the i7-6700 with a decent video graphics card offers, and Intel likely won’t even release Optane until Cannon Lake is ready for shipment; since the i7-6700 is still a little faster than either of the Kaby Lake processors currently available, it makes more sense to stick with Skylake and “wait” for Cannon Lake, which will offer presumably extended battery life, plus the graphics enhancements.

And waiting in the universe in the not too distant future is Coffee Lake and its successor Glenview, neither of which has been “officially” announced by Intel, which will be based on a 14 nm process. Other than more cores and faster graphics, there still isn’t a whole lot to be “excited” about, but Intel seems to “banking” on incremental improvement being mistaken for serious “change.” I have to watch myself so I don’t make the same mistake I made 20 years ago with Apple.

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