Intel unveils 'Broadwell' processors, starting with dual-core chips only

CES is happening this week, and as far as Intel goes, that can only mean one thing. The chip maker has just unveiled its next generation of processors, the ones that will power most mainstream PCs for the next 12 months. We've known for some time that these CPUs were codenamed "Broadwell" and that they would use a 14nm process, down from 22nm on last year's Haswell chips, allowing for even thinner and lighter designs. Indeed, we've already gotten a bit of a preview with Intel's 14nm Core M series, which have made possible some very skinny machines indeed. But whereas Core M is all about mobility, Intel's fifth-generation Core processors are geared toward performance.

And that's exactly what Intel wants to talk about here at CES. The company just unveiled 14 different Broadwell-series chips for laptops and desktops, including 13 15-watt processors with basic Intel HD graphics, and four 28-watt models with more powerful Intel Iris graphics. More than half of these include Core i5 and i7 CPUs, though Intel also unveiled a few mid-range i3 variants, along with a handful of lower-end Pentium- and Celeron-series chips geared toward budget devices. That's obviously a wide assortment of silicon right there, though these CPUs do share an important trait: They're all dual-core chips. That's right, no quad-core processors just yet, and no high-end Iris Pro graphics, either -- those aren't coming to Broadwell PCs until the middle of this year, an Intel spokesperson told us.

But about that performance. Those of you following along at home are no doubt aware of Intel's "tick-tock" cycle for designing new processors: A "tock" represents the introduction of a new chip architecture, while a "tick" refers to a reduction in die size -- in this case, from a 22nm process to 14nm. Since this is a tick, not a tock, the performance improvements will be fairly modest in some use cases. For instance, Intel is touting just a 4 percent boost in productivity-oriented tasks, as measured by the test SysMark.

You might not also see a tremendous increase in battery life: Intel says Broadwell chips can deliver up to an hour and half more runtime than last year's Haswell's processors, but again, that's a best-case scenario. The problem is, while Intel has continued to reduce power consumption from the microprocessor itself, the screen still accounts for the bulk of battery-drain on most machines. If anything, you should see the biggest gains in visually intensive tasks -- not surprising, considering about two-thirds of the die area is dedicated to graphics. All told, Intel is promising up to a 22 percent improvement in 3D graphics benchmarks, and up to 50 percent faster video-conversion time.

So far, then, we know the PCs of tomorrow are going to be thinner and lighter, with beefier graphics and slightly longer battery life. The other piece of the story is one Intel has already hinted at: These machines will have fewer wires. As promised, Broadwell chips will support a variety of technologies that obviate the need for cables and ports, including Intel Wireless Gigabit Docking and the next generation of Intel's Wireless Display technology, which can now support display resolutions as high as 4K (so long as the processor is part of the fifth-generation Core family). Broadwell also supports Intel's RealSense depth-sensing camera setup, which allows users to do things like tweak the focus after a photo's been taken. Finally, like previous generations of Intel chips, Broadwell supports Intel's voice assistant, which it developed with Nuance. The main news there is that starting this month, the software will be available in four additional languages, bringing the total to 10.

We expect to test some Broadwell systems soon -- maybe even shortly after we get back from CES -- but for now, here's a rundown of all the processors you can expect to find in that first wave of machines: