In recent years, the rollout of desktop processors has felt a bit stale. You generally know what you’re going to get: a little more power, a little more efficiency. And while Intel’s latest update doesn’t reinvent the chip, it does provide obscene horsepower at a time when that’s increasingly all that matters.
The Core-X series ticks off the usual performance gains, with Intel claiming up to 10 percent faster multi-threaded and 15 percent single-thread performance over its predecessor. But the focus falls to the top-end, and a desktop chip so powerful that Intel carved out a new brand name for it: the Core i9.
The rebranding might sound like marketing hype, but it’s not—or at least not entirely. Intel’s Core i9 is the first consumer desktop processor to cram 18 cores and 36 threads into a single piece of silicon, a feat that enables the kind of full-throttle task-juggling that a world full of 4K video and virtual reality demands.
The more cores and threads a single CPU contains, the more dedicated tasks it can manage simultaneously without sacrificing performance. Is an 18-core, 36-thread processor overkill for most people? Sure! But for the right applications, it could be a lifesaver.
“When it comes to people who are doing any type of video editing, this is like a dream come true,” says Patrick Moorhead, industry analyst and founder of Moor Insights & Strategy. “This is a big deal.”
Video isn’t the only use case for Intel’s $1,700 monster truck CPU. Compiling code and running intensive virtual reality experiences could use the boost. And the real benefit goes to those who need to navigate several interrelated tasks at once, like live-streaming video games.
“Streaming to Twitch is no light task,” says Moorhead. “Not only are you playing the games, you’re taking two to four threads and recoding that video and broadcasting it out on the internet. And then if you’re at the same time chatting with your friends, that’s probably one extra thread.”
The new Core X line should also have some trickle-down benefits for those not in need of ludicrous speed. Intel also upgraded its Turbo Boost tech, which now picks the two top-performing cores for single-threaded or light-threaded workloads—think gaming or basic office applications—to give even the entry-level Core X products some pick-up.
Still, the high-end horsepower is the real draw, and it offers more than just bragging rights or edge-cases. Leading at the high end of consumer PCs matters because eventually, that’s the only end that will be left.
Last PCs Standing
Those who keep even a modest eye on consumer tech trends know that PCs don’t sell like they used to. Or actually, the problem is that they do sell like they used to: Last quarter, according to research firm Gartner, PC shipments dipped to the lowest levels since 2007.
You can guess the reasons. Tablets and smartphones can now handle the bulk of home computing chores, while affordable, low-power Chromebooks pick up whatever slack remains. The PC makers still in business can look forward to fighting over the enterprise market for the foreseeable future—if they make it that long.
“Vendors who do not have a strong presence in the business market will encounter major problems, and they will be forced to exit the PC market in the next five years,” wrote Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa.
Not bad, as far as doom and gloom goes. But it also belies the one consumer PC segment that’s not going bust.
“The high-end desktop market is on fire,” says Moorhead. “It’s about 30 percent bigger than it was five years ago. It’s a really bright spot for the industry.”
That growth stems from interest in Oculus-ready rigs, sure, but also the recent accessibility of 4K and 360-degree video. Mostly, it’s really the only kind of computing left for which you truly need a traditional computer.
While Intel rightly may see its future in providing the chips that underpin cloud computing, it’s not about to cede ground on the last PC hill worth defending. You can see that impulse, too, in its recent efforts to spur Thunderbolt 3 adoption. As more and more data gets transferred over the air, the only hardware interface people will actually need is the one that can clock 40Gbps.
So no, most PC owners today won’t be able to take full advantage of an 18-core, 36-thread behemoth. But that’s not really the point. Core X exists less for the present than it does for the future, one in which “extreme” becomes normal, because there’s nothing else left.