The Lini One series has been out for a couple of months now, delighting customers around the world with its superb build quality, sophisticated asthetic, and segment leading performance.
We have sold the last of our previous generation Lini PCs and it is full steam ahead with the new, but unfortunately we still don't have the Intel Broadwell CPUs that we were first expecting over a year ago. We thought we were finally going to get them earlier this summer, but even that fell through.
So, what happened with Broadwell, what's up with Skylake, and where does the market stand for buyers of high end desktop computer systems right now?
Intel Codenames and Tick-Tock Explained
To start things off, Haswell is the Intel codename for the generation of CPUs used in the previous generation Lini PCs and the current generation Lini One. Broadwell is the Intel codename for the generation of CPUs after Haswell and Skylake is the Intel codename for the generation of CPUs after Broadwell.
Intel follows a product development model that they call "Tick-Tock" where every Tick is a change in manufacturing process and every tock is a microarchitectural change.
The concept behind this model is that you shift to a new manufacturing process using your existing design, which has been tested and refined throughout a full generation, and then once your new manufacturing process is proven you introduce new additions and refinements to your design.
Following this model, Intel has been very successful with delivering new products on schedule, going through four changes in process technology, from 65nm, to 45nm, to 32nm, to 22nm, which is the process technology use by the current Haswell CPUs and the Ivy Bridge generation before them.
Unfortunately, with the transition to 14nm process technology, and the Broadwell generation of processors, things didn't work out so well.
What Happened with Broadwell
Broadwell for the desktop is still not available in volume and will never be mass produced at this point. For all purposes other than press releases Intel skipped an entire generation of desktop CPUs.
The reasons for this are twofold: 1) the physical limits of scaling current CPU manufacturing processes in an economic way are being tested; 2) the decline in sales in the PC market and rise in sales in mobile devices has shifted Intel's primary focus from desktop to mobile.
The Physical Limits of Process Technology
Scaling, in terms of process technology, means making things smaller not larger. Progress in manufacturing CPUs is defined by being able to make their features smaller, which allows for making more complex and powerful CPUs with the same size and power requirements, or making smaller and lower powered CPUs with the same performance as larger ones that came before them.
In the past scaling paid for itself because big reductions in the size of physical features on the CPU meant that more CPUs could be manufactured per wafer, which made manufacturing more efficient.
The equipment needed to manufacture CPUs is very expensive (billions) so if you can manufacture more CPUs per wafer this means (all else being equal) that you need less manufacturing equipment to produce the same number of CPUs, and therefore you have lower fixed costs as well as lower unit costs.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.
For one, even though Intel and others use names like "22nm" and "14nm" to describe process technologies these names have more to do with marketing than they do with physical reality, and as the physical limits of scaling have neared, the detachment between marketing and reality has increased.
In other words, even though 14nm is smaller on paper than 22nm, it isn't nearly the same physical reduction in size as the drop from 65nm to 45nm a couple generations back.
Reduced reductions in physical size mean reduced efficiency gains from new process technology, even with all else being equal, but all else is not equal, and continued scaling of process technology has significant additional costs.
It is a reasonable assumption that for desktop CPUs Intel's 14nm process is both lower performing and more expensive than their 22nm process, which pretty clearly summarizes why they have been so slow to bring it to market.
Broadwell, which is the same design as Haswell on the new 14nm process, performs worse than Haswell. It was only by going to the next generation Skylake design that design improvements were able to compensate for the deficiencies of the 14nm process, and yield a CPU that gives a marginal performance improvement over Haswell.
Desktop vs. Mobile & Enterprise
Desktop PC sales have been steadily declining, while Mobile and Enterprise offer the only real growth opportunities.
For both Mobile and Enterprise power is very expensive and energy efficiency is a bigger selling point than raw performance. As a result, Intel has favored energy efficiency over performance in their recent designs, which has made them better for the Mobile and Enterprise space, but has resulted in CPUs that perform worse than previous generations on the desktop.
All of the reviews of Skylake (i7-6700K) show that it outperforms Haswell (i7-4790K) clock-for-clock due to its next generation design, but the 14nm process, which has been tuned for low power Mobile and Enterprise CPUs, is running at lower frequencies out of the gate than Haswell, which was already optimize for Mobile and Enterprise over desktop.
The conclusion that can be drawn here is that the limits of single core CPU performance have been reached and in all likelihood there will not be significant advances in single core CPU performance without a radical change in CPU design or manufacturing technology.
Skylake CPUs offer a very minor performance increase over Haswell CPUs under the microscope of scientific testing, but these performance gains would probably not be detectable in daily usage.
Where Does This Leave Lini PC?
At Lini PC we follow a 3P (Price, Power, Performance) optimization methodology in designing our systems. In other words, we aim to maximize the long term value of a system by taking into account its up front price, the costs of electricity in operations over its lifetime, and the performance offered.
Based on this ruberic, Haswell CPU based systems will remain superior to Broadwell and Skylake CPUs for most use cases, and so we will continue to offer Haswell based systems with a few exceptions.
We will continue to offer the current Lini One line up as long as it continues to offer a superior price/performance/power value proposition to next generation CPUs.
In niches where Broadwell and Skylake CPUs offer significant performance gains we will offer systems using next generation CPUs.
Gaming on Broadwell CPUs
Broadwell CPUs, the i7-5775C and i5-5675C, are the first socketed desktop processors to offer Iris Pro graphics, which make them the first Intel CPUs with integrated graphics that are capable of an acceptable gaming experience.
For customers who would like a compact HTPC that can also play the latest games, or professional users who want a compact and stylish desktop system that still lets them do some gaming on the sly, Broadwell is the CPU for you, and there is simply nothing else on the market that offers the same combination of features and functionality.
I have an i5-5675C that I just got a few days ago on my workbench now and I will be validating it over the next few weeks. It is still uncertain when, if ever, these CPUs will be available in quantity, but as soon as they are we will put systems on sale.
Broadwell CPUs will be offered as part of the new Lini Zero model line. The Zero stands for "Zero Compromise" and was chosen because these are the first CPUs that offer both top-of-the-line professional and gaming performance in the same package.
High End Productivity on Skylake CPUs
Skylake CPUs bring a major platform change with them, which is the transition from DDR3 to DDR4 memory. The major advantage of DDR4 in this context is that it doubles memory density, which means that for a Mini-ITX system the maximum memory increases from 16GB to 32GB.
For professional use cases where 16GB just doesn't cut it we will be offering next generation Skylake based systems with 32GB DDR4 RAM as soon as the components are available in consistent quantity.
Because these systems are targeted strictly at the high end we will only be offering the Intel i7-6700 CPU and only with 32GB RAM. We will also be offering internal quad-SSD RAID as a storage option on these systems, which will be yet another market leading feature exclusively available from Lini PC.
Skylake systems are a generational improvement to the Lini One model line and they will be offered as the Lini 1S.
Maximum Value on Haswell CPUs
The current Lini One model line featuring Intel i7-4790S, i5-4590S, and Pentium G3240 Haswell CPUs will continue to offer the most optimal 3P (Price, Performance, Power) value proposition for the majority of users.
One major benefit of the shift from DDR3 to DDR4 is that memory manufacturers are now dumping their stocks of DDR3 which has resulted in a steep decline in the price of DDR3 Memory. Concurrently the price per gigabyte of SSD storage continues to fall.
As a result of falling component prices we will be dropping the prices of Lini One PCs across the board in the coming days.
Once memory manufacturers blow out their stockpiles of DDR3 and ramp production on DDR4 prices may rebound and we will have to adjust our pricing to compensate, but until then DDR3 based Haswell systems will offer a very significant price/performance advantage over Skylake DDR4 systems, and we will be passing those savings on to our customers.
We hope this report clarifies the current state of affairs in the PC market a bit and helps you with your purchasing decisions in the months to come.
At Lini PC we offer free professional consultation on system design and custom solutions to satisfy any use case, so if you have any questions feel free to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.