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New UltraBook laptops – Buy Now or Wait?

We are frequently asked whether the latest batch of UltraBook laptops will provide the best of all worlds, fast processing speed, long battery life, and small/light form factors. This combination has been elusive up to now, but it appears that the time is now soon approaching.

The new Intel 4th Gen processor, which offers dramatic battery life improvements can now be found in products like the new MacBook Air and Sony VAIO laptops. But should you buy now or wait a little while longer for even more purchasing options?


The launch of a new processor line is unlike the launch of any other product.  Production is complicated, and quality control must meet exacting standards.  This is why Intel’s 4th-gen processors (code-named Haswell),  though officially launched, are available in just a handful of systems.


This scarcity places consumers in an uncomfortable place ahead of the  important back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons. Laptops are popular  items, yet many don’t have the new processors. Are systems with 3rd-gen Intel  Core parts still worth your money? Let’s take a look.


What Haswell brings to the table


We’ve already covered Haswell’s new features, but we’ve had the  opportunity since then to test some systems with 4th-gen hardware and put  them through both our performance and battery benchmarks. What are the  results?


Relative to the 3rd-gen processors, compute performance is almost at a standstill. Though there’s been some improvement, it’s quite minor, and we’ve  noticed 4th-gen processors coming in just behind their predecessors. The Core  i7-4702HQ in the Razer Blade, for example, does not out-perform the Core  i7-3635QM in the Samsung  ATIV Book 8 or the Core i7-3630QM in the Lenovo  IdeaPad Y500.


Graphics performance is another matter, however. While we still haven’t been able to test Intel’s high-end Iris and Iris Pro graphics, we have  thoroughly reviewed Intel  HD 4600 and, since that review, played with HD 4600 on two additional  laptops. Benchmarks consistently show the new integrated graphics processor to  be far ahead of its predecessor. Apple’s latest MacBook Air, for example, produced a 3DMark  Fire Strike score of 774, while 3rd-gen Ultrabooks struggle to crack 500 in the  same test.


And then there’s Haswell’s most hyped feature: battery life. The new MacBook  Air offers almost seven hours of heavy Web browsing, and the new Razer Blade almost cracks five  hours in spite of its quad-core processor. An average 3rd-gen Ultrabook scores  four hours and thirty minutes in this same test, so the 4th-gen processors are  truly a boon to portability.


Worth the wait?


Obviously, there are advantages to the new 4th-gen processors. Though they  aren’t much quicker in compute tests, they blow the doors off the previous  generation in 3D graphics and battery life. Yet these benefits probably won’t  find their way to all laptops until at least the end of this year, and some new  models still have last-generation technology. Lenovo’s newly released Yoga 11S, for example, debuted with a 3rd-gen rather than  4th-gen processor.


The decision to buy or wait ultimately comes down to what type of system you  intend to buy.


Desktops: Buy


The old-fashioned desktop PC obviously isn’t the focus of Haswell and is the  option which benefits the least. With no major performance increase, and battery  life not a factor, the new processors have little to lure desktop buyers. Even  the graphics improvement is somewhat trivial, as most modern desktops paired  with a 1080p monitor and HD 4600 graphics, despite its improvement, can’t handle  many games at that resolution. The story may be different with Iris and Iris  Pro, but those IGPs aren’t found on most 4th-gen desktop processors.


Quad-core laptops: Wait


Minimal gains in compute performance may lead you to think the new processors  are unimportant for large laptops … but not so fast! While it’s true that a  3rd-gen processor will be about as fast, it will also offer less battery life  and inferior graphics performance. Laptop with 4th-gen quad-core processors are  coming to market more quickly than their dual-core counterparts, as well, so the  wait is unlikely to extend beyond a few months.


Standard dual-core laptops: Buy


Intel has historically given parts with the largest profit margin priority, so  basic dual-core laptops will be the last to see widespread distribution of the  new architecture. Budget and mid-range systems may not even see widespread  adoption of Haswell before the holiday shopping season is over. If you have a  laptop already in your sites, go ahead and buy it. The wait may not be worth the  benefits.


Ultrabooks: Wait


Intel’s new processor keeps performance on par while drastically reducing  power consumption and bumping up graphics performance, all of which makes for a  better Ultrabook experience. Currently just a handful of systems, such as the MacBook  Air and Sony Vaio Pro, have a 4th-gen processor, but more systems should see  a refresh over the coming months, and the improvements will be well worth the  wait.


Tablets and 2-in-1s: Wait


Along with Intel’s announcement of new processors also came the creation of new  terminology: the “2-in-1,”  formerly known as a convertible laptop or dockable PC. Intel’s Haswell press  release promised that about fifty new devices in this category will arrive in  the latter half of 2013, so consumers should wait to see what these products can  offer. There may be new designs that out-class anything on the market today.


Bargain shopping: Older doesn’t always mean better value


Those looking for a good deal are no doubt starting to circle the Internet,  waiting for price drops on 3rd-gen laptops. This is not a bad tactic, but  consumers should have reasonable expectations.


Intel laptops don’t have a history of massive price-cuts when a new  generation is announced. What you’ll usually see is a modest reduction, perhaps  10 to 20 percent, and the older model might sell alongside its newer brethren  for months. In some extreme examples, laptops with old technology can sell for  years; you can still buy a Zenbook with a 2nd-gen Core processor for $580.


Don’t’ forget to compare the prices of old laptops against new systems,  however. That 2nd-gen Zenbook looks nice at first glance (it’s almost half the  price of a 3rd-gen version!), yet it  doesn’t compare well to the IdeaPad U310, which has a 3rd-gen  processor for $530.



Intel 4th Generation Processor


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