6600K

Despite Intel’s deafening silence on the issue, one thing’s for sure: Intel is having a lot of trouble getting its 14nm fabrication going. We wrote about this back in June, upon the aborted launch of Intel’s Broadwell 14nm desktop chips, and again in August, upon the paper launch of the Intel Core i5-6600K and Core i7-6700K, which utilize the 14nm production process that was supposed to have been proven on Broadwell. It’s October, and guess what… Intel’s 14nm chips are still in short supply.

Here’s the issue. The smaller a manufacturing process gets, the harder it is to make a CPU function correctly, as the chance for “leakage” increases. That’s the layman’s term for the quantum tunneling of electrons through an insulating region. And that’s not a good thing. Intel’s Broadwell line of desktop chips, designed around the cutting-edge 14nm manufacturing process, were supposed to arrive in June of 2014. They didn’t “arrive” until June of 2015, and then it was simply in the form of a press release by Intel about products that never appeared in sufficient quantity to take seriously. Intel’s newest line of chips, code-named Skylake, are also built around the 14nm process, which should have been fully-vetted with Broadwell, but clearly wasn’t. Why else would it be that two month after introduction, the mainstream quad-core Core i5-6600K, which should be Intel’s top seller, is out of stock at nearly every store in the United States? And why is it that the few stores that have it are marking it up $20-$30 over retail? Is it tremendous demand, or limited supply? You be the judge. Clearly, this is not a win for consumers, but it’s not a win for Intel either, because when retailers mark up the product above retail, they pocket the difference, while making Intel’s shiny new product look like a bit of a rip-off.

Then there’s the issue of performance. The 6600K is only about 8-10% faster than the Core i5-4690K, based on a design from 2013. We’re talking 4-5% improvement per year. And despite costing more than the 4690K, it doesn’t come with a heatsink, which means its actual cost to consumers is $40-$50 higher. To add insult to injury, the Z170 platform and the DDR4 memory that Skylake requires are also more expensive than their predecessors. Adding it all up, the value equation that tech enthusiasts typically seek when waiting for the “next big thing” just hasn’t materialized.

Need more proof that Intel’s facing some serious technical hurdles? Intel recently announced that Skylake’s successor, Cannonlake, based on a 10nm process, is being postponed until 2017, and a new “Kaby Lake” product line has been tagged for release in its stead in 2016, using the same 14nm process that Intel is just barely getting onto the market today. Frankly, we’d ask why bother? It’s clear Kaby Lake will bring little to the table, surely less than Broadwell or Skylake before it. In our opinion, Intel has conjured it up simply to throw OEM manufacturers a bone, as they really need new CPUs to hype their annual product releases.

The further Intel goes down this path, the harder it will be for consumers to know what they’re buying, and whether it’s worth upgrading their PCs. The lack of competition from AMD, along with Intel’s production woes, mean the answer is typically that it’s not worth upgrading a CPU to a similarly-priced current-gen product if it’s less than three or four years old. The performance boost you get just isn’t worth the cost. The sole exception is in ultra-light laptops, where Intel (but not AMD) has made impressive inroads into longer battery life.

Does this mean no one should buy Skylake? Of course not. If you need a new PC, Skylake should definitely be one of the options on your list, but we think you’ll find that Intel’s circa-2013 Haswell lineup offers a lot more bang for the buck.