All's Well That Haswell
The arrival of a new generation of Intel processors can be likened to the launch of a new Microsoft Windows operating system; it's an occasion that can have a significant impact on the sale of new PCs. And fourth-generation Intel Core processor just has a nice ring to it, wouldn't you say?
It's Christmas come early for system integrators, whose marketing departments have new ammunition and understandably revitalised vigour. But looking beyond the razzmatazz, are the very latest chips advanced enough to warrant an instant upgrade? And will system builders use the technology to create rigs that are genuinely different?
To help shed some light on the matter, we've asked PC Specialist to send in its idea of a £1,000 gaming machine based on new Intel silicon and the UK-based system builder has duly obliged with the Vanquish R4.
Priced at £999 on the dot, this fresh-off-the-production-line sample is one of the company's first Haswell builds, coming equipped with a fourth-generation Intel Core i5-4670K processor.
The CPU is of course the headline component, but it's worth pointing out that the reviewed build may not be entirely indicative of the Vanquish R4 systems that will soon to ship to customers. Bear in mind that our pre-launch sample came loaded with an evaluation-only BIOS and early drivers, which will no doubt be updated over the course of the coming weeks.
Nonetheless, it's a mighty-tempting build. For a thousand pounds, the Vanquish R4 offers the brand-spankin'-new Intel CPU sat atop an Asus Z87-K motherboard, with processor-soothing duties carried out by a Corsair Hydro Series H60 liquid cooler.
The quad-core Core i5-4670K sits atop of the new i5 range, and though lacking the hyper-threading capabilities of its Core i7 counterparts, the 22nm chip carries plenty of potency through a 3.4GHz clock speed - rising up to 3.8GHz with Turbo Boost - a 6MB cache, and integrated HD 4600 graphics in an LGA1150 package rated at 84W. Why didn't PC Specialist go all-out and include the top-of-the-line Core i7-4770K? Cost, and keeping competitive with the previous generation, is the only valid reason we can think of.
Eagle-eyed readers will note that the chip's maximum TDP has actually gone up. The last generation's best Core i5 processor carries a 77W rating, so what does the i5-4670K bring to the table to warrant the extra thirst?
Well, the architectural changes are reflected in various areas such as added support for new instruction sets - head over to our in-depth Haswell review for a full analysis - but it's fair to say that many of the enhancements aren't obviously beneficial to traditional desktop gamers. Intel's fourth-generation Core ambitions are primarily to improve IGP performance and maximise battery life; leaving Haswell ideally suited to mobile PCs, Ultrabooks and tablets.
That leaves system integrators facing a conundrum of sorts. This may be a cutting-edge chip, but it doesn't put forth a feature-set that will have gamers champing at the bit. Any high-end gaming rig - the Vanquish R4 included - will run with a discrete graphics card, negating the benefits of Intel's IGP improvements, and following in the footsteps of Ivy Bridge, it seems Haswell may not be a great overclocker.
Whereas Ivy Bridge systems regularly shipped with processors ramped up to 4.4GHz or beyond, PC Specialist has opted to ship the Vanquish R4's Core i5-4670K with a relatively-modest 4.2GHz overclock.
Not a bad bump-up by any means, but not quite what we're accustomed to seeing from a liquid-cooled gaming rig costing a grand. It's going to be up to Haswell's architectural enhancements to overcome the maximum frequency deficiency, but the Vanquish R4 shouldn't have any trouble in delivering a smooth gaming experience.
As part of the base specification, PC Specialist includes 16GB of Kingston Genesis 1,600MHz memory and a 3GB PowerColor Radeon HD 7950 Boost graphics card. Storage, meanwhile, is provided by a 120GB Kingston HyperX 3K SSD, a 1TB Seagate Barracuda secondary hard disk and a Lite-On DVD Writer. The PSU is a 650W FSP Raider and all of the components are housed in a sound-deadening Fractal Design Define R4 chassis that bodes well for noise levels.
Overall component selection is good and PC Specialist's integration is tidy. Cable management is decent enough - though we'd really like to see a modular PSU as standard in machines at this price point - and the software is similarly neat. A 64-bit install of Windows 8 is provided as standard, complete with the latest over-the-air updates and nary a sign of bloatware.
Knowing that fourth-generation Haswell-supporting hardware is likely to launch at a premium, we suspect most experienced builders would do well to put together this particular system for less than PC Specialist's quoted £999 fee. And of course, the system integrator provides extra incentive to buy pre-built by including a three-year 'Silver' warranty as standard. The warranty provides collect-and-return cover with parts for the first year and labour cover for years two and three.
This is exactly how we imagined a £1,000 Haswell rig would be. But is the new-and-improved CPU architecture enough to make the Vanquish R4 stand out from last-generation systems? Let's find out.