December 19th, 2015 | Edited by Zoran Stosic | hardware
Budget PC builders are in for a treat: It’s been officially confirmed that you can now heavily overclock Intel’s cheap Skylake chips with a BIOS update.
Tech site TechSpot confirmed it through hands-on tests. The team overclocked a Skylake Core i3-6100 from its default clockspeed of 3.7GHz to 4.7GHz, after motherboard maker Asrock provided them with a beta BIOS that required switching off the integrated graphics.
Why this matters: Intel’s last few generation of chips have limited overclocking to pricier “K”-series CPUs. With an apparent workaround discovered, higher clock speeds and essentially “free performance” may become far more attainable for those who can’t afford a K chip.
An overview of overclocking
“Overclocking” is the term for running a CPU’s clockspeed above its rating from the factory. This may sound dangerous—and it can be if done improperly—but many CPUs are artificially limited to lower speeds by Intel at the factory to help meet prices.
Here’s a car analogy: It’s like if Ford sold a top-end Mustang that could hit 150 miles per hour, but then took the same car and set its computer to limit the top speed to 120mph. In this case, Intel’s cheapest “K” Skylake chip is the $242 Core i5-6600K with a factory clock speed of 3.5GHz. The same chip has an equivalent Core i5-6500 for $192 at 3.2GHz. If you could take that cheaper CPU and overclock it to the same speed, why buy the pricier part?
An architecture change within the sixth-generation chip that separates the chip’s “BCLK” (“base clock”) from other components appears to be the culprit behind the newly enabled overclocking. The base clock is one of the internal clocks that regulates the overall megahertz of the chip. With Haswell or Ivy Bridge, for example, the base clock was hooked up to other sections of the CPU, causing instability when the base clock was increased even in small amounts. That’s no longer the case, and after months of speculation over whether or not base clock overclocking could work, we now know it could.
Maybe only dual-cores?
Something to note: TechSpot’s overclocking confirmation was achieved only with the dual-core Core i3 chip. Anandtech’s attempt at performing a base clock overclock of a quad-core Core i5-6500 hit a wall well before TechSpot’s dual-core would. But it isn’t known whether that’s because of the motherboard Anandtech used or because board vendors are still tweaking their BIOSes to enable the overclocking.
Skylake is overclocking-friendly
PCWorld reached out to officials at Intel for comment, but we’ve had no response as of Friday afternoon. However, since the launch of Skylake, Intel has maintained that design changes would make the new chip overclocking-friendly. What’s not clear is whether Intel intended to make the non-premium K-chips overclockable, too.
As mainstream desktop PC sales continue to decline, Intel has increasingly relied on sales to enthusiasts and gamers, who have no problem paying a premium for overclocking-friendly chips. If a groundswell of PC builders suddenly reached for the cheaper, overclock-ready chips to save a few bucks, that could impact sales of Intel’s premium K-chips.
This wouldn’t be the first time Intel had to squash such a trend. Intel’s chipset for its Haswell series included the Z-series for overclockers alongside the cheaper H- and B-series chipsets. When motherboard vendors discovered a way to enable overclocking on the lower-cost H- and B-series, Intel stopped them by updating the microcode on its CPUs, forcing buyers to move back to the higher-margin motherboards with the Z-series chipset.
It’s just as likely that Intel could look the other way. The company has truly been friendlier to overclocking. It has sponsored extreme overclocking contests using liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, and even threw a bone to budget builders with its $72 Pentium G3258 “anniversary edition” in 2014 that was ready for overclocking.
September 24th, 2015 | Edited by Zoran Stosic | hardware
Intel corrects a report about the demise of its socketed Broadwell CPU, but how long it’ll live remains anyone’s guess.
Intel’s Broadwell-C desktop processor is alive and well—for now, at least.
A report on Thursday by ITWorld claimed that Intel was discontinuing the socketed Broadwell CPU after just one month on the market. But Intel quickly corrected that story,telling AnandTech that it will continue to manufacture and sell Broadwell-C. (Disclosure: Both PCWorld and ITWorld are owned by International Data Group.)
Broadwell-C is a unique chip in Intel’s lineup for a couple of reasons: First, it’s the only Broadwell chip for desktop tower PCs, and it arrived much later than usual in Intel’s product cycle. (Intel originally planned to skip socketed Broadwell entirely, a move the company now regrets.)
More importantly, Broadwell-C is Intel’s only socketed desktop chip with 128MB of embedded DRAM. This on-package memory allows for impressive gaming performance with just integrated graphics, and also provides a nice boost when paired with discrete graphics. In the past, Intel has reserved this configuration for laptops and mini-desktops where the CPU is soldered to the motherboard.
The reported demise of Broadwell-C was apparently just a mix-up, but made waves in enthusiast tech forums such as Slashdot and various subreddits. ITWorld has since corrected and amended its story, noting that it is in fact the next-generation Skylake-C that has been cancelled. Apparently Intel just doesn’t see enough market demand for that embedded DRAM setup. ITWorld also speculates that increased costs and lower yields could be to blame.
Why this matters: For many users, this may all be a moot point with the arrival ofSkylake CPUs, but it could also be an opportunity to pick up a decent last-generation CPU for less cash as long as Intel keeps making them. While opting for a cheaper processor and a low-end graphics card probably makes the most sense in traditional PC setups, Broadwell-C could be a compelling option if you want to perform entry-level gaming or other graphics-heavy tasks in a rig with an ultra-small form factor case where discrete graphics can’t fit well.
June 30th, 2015 | Edited by Zoran Stosic | hardware
Intel’s new low-end NUC PC kits are now available for pre-order, bringing the cost of a mini bare-bones PC down to just $129.
NUC (short for Next Unit of Computing) is Intel’s brand of small, build-your-own PC kits, which have been around for about two years now. The kits include a motherboard, processor, power supply, and all kinds of input/output ports; users supply their own storage, RAM, operating system, monitor and input devices.
While the original NUC kits cost more than $300, the latest models are much cheaper thanks to Intel’s Braswell processors. Not to be confused with the Broadwell chips found in most Ultrabook laptops, Braswell is more akin to what you’d find in a tablet or netbook, though as Ars Technica notes, it runs at a higher TDP to allow for sustained higher speeds—perfect for a desktop PC that’s not drawing battery power.
The new NUCs beg for home theater use, with support for 4K video streaming and TOSLINK optical audio output. Other specs include VGA and HDMI outputs, an SDXC card slot, four USB 3.0 ports (including a charging port that works when the PC’s power is off), an ethernet port, a headphone jack, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. These aren’t fanless designs, though they should run quieter than a typical desktop.
Right now, Amazon has two models up for pre-order. The $129 NUC5CPYH has a dual-core Celeron N3050 processor and ships in two to four weeks, while the $172 NUC5PPYH has a quad-core Pentium N3700 processor and ships in a month or two. Either way, factor in at least a couple hundred bucks more for Windows, storage, and RAM.
Why this matters: The size of Intel’s NUCs have always looked like they’d fit in a living room, but hadn’t quite nailed the balance between power and price. These new models look more promising, especially with 4K video support, and tout the cheapest entry cost we’ve seen yet.
May 21st, 2015 | Edited by Zoran Stosic | hardware
Even in this modern computing era Windows is still dogged by driver problems—at least during the technical preview phase. Owners of the newly released Surface 3 may want to hold back on installing the Windows 10 technical preview for now, though it appears Intel has released beta Windows 10 drivers for the Surface 3’s Atom processor and chipset.
“Please do NOT try to install Windows 10 on the new Surface 3. There are no drivers for the Intel x5/x7 Atom processors,” Microsoft Community Moderator and Microsoft MVP Barb Bowman posted on the company’s support forum on May 11. “There are no drivers in the Preview Build because Intel has not yet provided drivers.”
That changed on May 14, when Bowman noted that there are beta drivers for the Surface 3 available via Windows Update.
The $500 Surface 3 uses a fresh, new 1.6GHz Intel Atom quad-core x7-Z8700. Intel does not yet have a release date for the final drivers, according to Bowman.
Since the Surface 3 (and its processor) is so new and Windows 10 is still under development, small hiccups like this are to be expected. Microsoft’s newest operating system is slated for release this summer so we can expect to see final drivers from Intel relatively soon.
Further reading: Windows 10: The 10 coolest features you should check out first
Microsoft’s latest tablet went on sale in early May after being announced in late March. The big appeal about the new non-pro Surface is that it is not loaded with ARM-processor compatible Windows RT. Instead, it’s a full Windows slate compatible with all legacy desktop apps, as well as modern UI apps.
The Surface 3 features a 10.8-inch 1080p display, your choice of either 64GB storage with 2GB RAM, or 128GB onboard storage with 4GB RAM. It also comes with one USB 3.0, mini Display port, microSD card reader, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0.
The impact on you at home: Windows 10 is an exciting update to Microsoft’s OS, especially if you’re running Windows 8 or 8.1. Unfortunately, Surface 3 owners chomping at the bit will have to wait a little bit longer—at least if you want to remain on the safe side.
Some users in the same forum thread where Bowman posted her warning say they are able to run Windows 10 using newly updated Windows 8.1 drivers recently posted on Microsoft’s site, albeit with degraded graphics performance that make the combination “not suitable for daily use quite yet.” Check out the forum for more information, but remember it’s still a risk to install Windows 10 on the Surface 3. Reckless souls can check out our primer on installing Windows 10 and how to create a dual-boot set-up with Windows 8.1.
February 18th, 2014 | Edited by Zoran Stosic | software
Intel has released a new tool for remotely managing servers from multiple hardware vendors, though it’s having to be careful not to upset partners as it looks to make more money from software.
Intel’s Virtual KVM Gateway is a software console that lets operators troubleshoot server and other hardware problems remotely, allowing them to check BIOS configurations, analyze server logs and in some cases restart systems.
Intel launched the Virtual KVM Gateway as an SDK (software development kit) last year, allowing partners such as Schneider Electric and Japan’s Niscom to bundle it with their DCIM (data center infrastructure management) suites. This week it started to sell the software as a standalone product on its website, priced at US$99 per server, said Jeff Klaus, general manager of Intel’s Data Center Solutions Group. There is also an option for a 30-day free trial.
KVM tools have traditionally been hardware switches that connect directly to servers (the KVM stands for the keyboard, video and mouse that plug into the switch). That approach creates extra cabling in the data center, though, and extra hardware boxes to manage.
So the market is moving toward virtual KVMs, or tools that provide remote management by tapping directly into server firmware instead of going through a switch, according to Klaus.
Most server makers offer their own KVM tools, so operators can end up having to switch back and forth between different consoles. One big benefit of Intel’s KVM is that it can be used to manage hardware from multiple vendors on a single screen, Klaus said.
Intel’s Virtual KVM allows operators to access up to 50 servers simultaneously, he said, making it easier to compare data from a group of servers. It can also access network and storage gear, or pretty much any equipment with a standard IPMI (Intelligent Platform Management Interface) port, he said.
The tool provides both in-band and out-of-band (OOB) access to servers, though OOB might be a challenge in some cases. OOB access involves skirting the server OS and communicating directly with the baseboard management controller, which allows access to servers when they’re offline.
However, server makers generally charge extra to enable OOB access to their systems, and the top-tier vendors—HP, Dell and IBM—only sell it as part of a bundle that includes their own KVM. So customers who want the benefits of Intel’s KVM might end up paying more if they need OOB access.
Klaus noted that second-tier OEMs such as Fujitsu and Lenovo tend to offer OOB access as an “a la carte option,” making it a smaller additional fee. And not all the top-tier OEMs’ customers buy their enterprise server management tools anyway, he said.
As Intel looks to sell more data center management products, it has to be careful not to cause friction with partners like Schneider that license its technologies. Intel intentionally priced its Virtual KVM Gateway so that it doesn’t undercut its partners’ offerings, Klaus said.
“It’s delicate, I won’t deny it,” he said.
Intel could face similar challenges in other areas besides KVM. It commands some 95 percent of the x86 server market, giving it access to a variety of instrumentation data including thermals and power consumption. It licenses access to that data to other companies that make data center management tools, particularly ones used to manage energy use.
“We think we’re in the best position, being the manufacturer of the hardware, to be that connected layer just on top of the hardware, and to provide that instrumentation data,” Klaus said.
A decision for Intel is whether it will continue to monetize the power and thermal data primarily through third parties, or whether it will use it to develop more software products of its own. The answer might depend on how well those third-party tools sell.
“Are we going to achieve the growth through partners, or are we going to have to pivot and be more direct?” Klaus said. “Right now, we’re putting more emphasis on partners on the power and thermals side, and we’re just trying this direct route on virtual KVM.”
How that strategy will evolve remains to be seen.