When Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) launched its Haswell processor last year, it delivered a fantastic product for low-power notebooks and detachable designs. However, when it came to the hard-core gaming community, the i7-4770K (a quad-core, desktop-oriented implementation of Haswell) failed to excite. It was faster than its predecessor, the i7-3770K, but not enough to get on gamers' "must have" lists. With Intel's recent release of the i7-4790K -- code-named Devil's Canyon -- the company could finally be giving gamers what they're looking for.
Intel is pretty much the only choice for performance-oriented gamers
Over the last several years, Intel has continued to pull ahead of longtime rival Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ:AMD). After Intel launched the Core 2 Duo back in 2006, each year AMD tried to catch up, but time and again Intel seemed to just keep pulling ahead. Today, if you are a gaming enthusiast and you want the most performance possible, odds are you're going with an Intel Core processor.
This has been good for Intel and its investors, but since the launch of the company's legendary Sandy Bridge processor in 2011, Intel just hasn't given much to the PC enthusiasts who typically buy chips in the $200-$300 range. Sure, its chips best anything that AMD has to offer in terms of CPU performance and power consumption, but the performance gains since Sandy Bridge have been relatively modest as the company has targeted its energies at thin and light notebooks and tablets.
Sandy Bridge was hard to beat
The i7-2600K offered four Sandy Bridge cores which could all simultaneously run at 3.4 GHz ("GHz" is a measure of the chip's clock speed). Its successor, the i7-3770K based on the Ivy Bridge architecture, brought about a 5% improvement in performance per clock but bumped the clock speed to a meager 3.5 GHz across all four cores. This meant that at the shipping speeds, buyers were seeing just over a 5% improvement in performance on average.
Then, following the 3770K, came the Haswell-based 4770K. Haswell was a sizable improvement from Ivy Bridge on a per-clock basis -- on average about 10% faster -- but Intel didn't even bother to improve the shipping clock speeds of this part. This in itself was a problem, as it's hard to convince many to spend over $500 ($330 for the CPU, $170 for a new supporting motherboard) to upgrade for a mere 10% performance improvement, but of course was the only way to go for new buyers coming off of much older setups.
Devil's Canyon to the rescue?
Devil's Canyon apparently fixes a lot of the issues that enthusiasts had with the 4770K. Right out of the factory, it comes clocked at 4 GHz for all four cores. This means that, at factory specification, it is about 15% faster than last year's 4770K. After generations of modest increases, gamers clinging on to their Sandy Bridge systems from 2011 may see the roughly 36% performance increase at factory settings as a reason to upgrade.
However, the really interesting thing here -- and what many enthusiasts care about -- is that the 4790K sports higher quality "packaging" that should allow customers to "overclock" (that is, run the chips at higher GHz values) more easily. Sandy Bridge was legendary for being able to run at 4.6 GHz to 4.8 GHz (up from 3.4 GHz), while Ivy Bridge and Haswell were actually a step back, usually topping out at 4.4 GHz to 4.5 GHz. The hope here is that the new Devil's Canyon parts with the improved packaging should allow for more robust overclocking, enticing even more PC hardware enthusiasts.
Even without a strong AMD to compete with in this space, Intel still has the challenge of trying to get customers interested in quickening their product upgrade cycles. With Devil's Canyon, Intel is bringing a very strong performance improvement out of the box relative to last year's products and a very hefty increase over the 2011 and 2012 flagships. While it's still too early to tell, Intel may be long-term committed to bringing significant improvements each generation to PC enthusiasts. That not only helps keep its lead over AMD, but to sell high margin/high ASP products at a faster pace than before.