Last week, we reviewed Intel’s Core i7-7700K and discussed the details on the Kaby Lake refresh cycle, including Intel’s new Core i3, i5, and i7 processors. Intel, however, appears to have had one more trick up its sleeve. The CPU giant announced multiple new Pentium-class CPUs based on Kaby Lake, including the first Pentium SKUs to feature Hyper-Threading since Intel retired the Pentium 4.
Ever since Intel transitioned to its Core architecture in 2006, the Pentium brand has been used for lower-end processors with lower clock speeds and fewer features. Hyper-Threading wasn’t initially a differentiating factor because the Core and Core 2 families didn’t use it. By 2010 Intel had introduced Westmere-derived Pentium processors and (mostly) used the following formula for its desktop processors (those wanting a more detailed breakdown on Intel’s SKUs should consult our buying guide for the Core i5/i7 families):
With Kaby Lake, Intel is changing up its feature set. There are now multiple Pentium SKUs that support Hyper-Threading, as shown in the chart below:
All of the new Kaby Lake CPUs have full HT support, whereas no Pentium chip previously carried that option. This is not the only improvement to the CPU core, though it’s likely to be the one users care the most about. Compared with the older G4520, Intel’s top Skylake-derived Pentium core, the G4620 is 100MHz faster and offers support for Intel’s TSX-NI instructions, Memory Protection Extensions (MPX), and Intel’s OS Guard platform protection technology. These are mostly enterprise and developer features unlikely to interest a Pentium customer, but the 100MHz speed boost and HT support are both significant at this price point. The price, meanwhile, hasn’t increased at all — both chips sell for $86 – $93 in one-thousand unit quantities. The major differentiation point between the Pentium and the Core i3 is now the Core i3’s support for AVX and AVX2, not Hyper-Threading.
It’s not hard to connect the dots on this one. For six years, Intel has had a stable set of product families with clearly delineated features and little overlap between them. For five of those years, AMD’s ability to compete with Intel on the desktop has ranged from “not great” in 2010 to “pretty terrible” in 2016. Now, for the first time in over half a decade, AMD believes it has a microprocessor that will allow it to go toe-to-toe with Intel across at least some of the desktop market, and Intel has suddenly discovered Pentium buyers might enjoy the creamy smoothness of Hyper-Threading.
Frankly, it’s a smart move for Intel to make. If it waited for AMD to launch Ryzen first, it risks initial negative publicity if AMD debuts a low-end knockout blow. Adding Hyper-Threading now gives Intel its own positive story to tell. The gains from HT should be noticeable, since it typically improves performance by 15-20% and there’s no shortage of desktop workloads with support for dual cores with Hyper-Threading, since that’s the most common laptop CPU configuration and the laptop market is significantly larger than the desktop space these days.
Prior to Ryzen, the weak CPU performance offered by AMD’s APUs and low-end desktop CPUs gave Intel little reason to push Hyper-Threading farther down its stack. With each AMD Bulldozer-derived CPU core worth roughly 60% of one Intel CPU core, AMD was forced to use quad-cores to compete against Intel’s Pentium and Celeron chips. AMD now has six-and-eight-core chips price against the Core i3, to give you an idea just how lopsided the comparisons have gotten. But with Zen, there was a risk AMD would launch a dual-core + SMT CPU that mopped up the Pentium and Celeron, especially if AMD’s Ryzen cores in this price bracket include AVX and AVX2 support.
Competition is a beautiful thing. Hopefully Ryzen is a strong enough chip that we won’t just see Intel improving its cheapest CPUs.