Six months after the reveal of the overclocking capabilities of locked Intel 6th Gen Core Skylake processors, data analysis of the HWBOT enthusiast community suggests that Intel should genuinely consider launching an enthusiast-grade, unlocked Core i3 product. We look at five arguments in favor of a Core i3 K processor. (NASDAQ:INTC)
For all processor architectures prior to the second generation of Intel’s Core product line-up, the base clock frequency was unlocked and overclockable for all parts. Intel’s product segmentation was (and still is) defined by a locked CPU ratio, restricting the final processor operating frequency. In recent years, new variants of Turbo Boost automatic overclocking have enabled higher operating frequencies for locked processors. But for PC performance enthusiasts there are but a few purchasing options; the -K or -X processor series. On mainstream platforms, there are exactly two options: a Core i5 (i.e. i5-6600K) and a Core i7 (i.e. i7-6700K).
Skylake Core i3 non-K Overclocking Overview
For an extensive overview of the overclocking methodology of the Skylake processor architecture, I highly recommend Anandtech’s Core i3 non-K overclocking article by Dr. Ian Cutress. In brief, the non-K overclocking ball got rolling when on December 2, 2015, a Phillipino overclocker by the Internet handle of Dhenzjhen published the first overclocking results of the Core i3-6320 locked processor at HWBOT. Not long after the public reveal of the overclocking capabilities of the locked processors, all motherboard manufacturers published BIOS updates to enable this function. To work around the artificial base clock frequency lock, the motherboard ODMs disable a specific part of the CPU’s power management that monitors and restricts the effective base clock frequency. Major side-effects of this practice cannot be ignored; the integrated graphics is disabled, no Turbo Boost automatic overclocking, no access to CPU ratio at run-time, no C-state or EIST power management, inaccurate processor temperature monitoring and most importantly, significant reduction of AVX compute performance.
In spite of all the drawbacks, enthusiasts around the globe were excited about newly found overclocking opportunities with more affordable hardware.
Half a year later, we analyze the impact of non-K overclocking on the enthusiast community at HWBOT and find supporting arguments for an expanded enthusiast product line at Intel.
#1 – Core i3 Increases Most, Core i7-6700K Biggest Winner of Non-K Overclocking
As the Core i3 overclocking news gained traction, we monitored the usage figures for Skylake-based Core i3, Core i5 (K and non-K) and Core i7 (K and non-K) product segments among enthusiasts and overclockers. We found the following trends comparing December 2015 to May 2016:
- Core i3: 41.2% increase, with a peak of 81% increase in February
- Core i5 (non-K): 54.1% increase
- Core i5 (K): 5.5% increase
- Core i7 (non-K): 18.9% increase
- Core i7 (K): 50.3% increase
Core i3 usage increased the most from December 2015 to February 2016 (81%), and has decreased since news spread that overclocking of non-K Skylake processors is officially disabled.
To put the usage increase in to perspective, consider that in May 2016:
- K versus non-K usage ratio for Core i7 is 15.2 to 1 and for Core i5 2.6 to 1
- Core i7 K versus Core i5 K usage ratio is 2.3 to 1
- Core i7 non-K versus Core i5 non-K versus Core i3 non-K ratio is .40 to .98 to 1.
In February, there were 43% more Core i3 non-K enthusiasts than Core i5 non-K enthusiasts , and 355% more Core i3 non-K enthusiasts than Core i7 non-K enthusiasts.
#2 – Core i3 non-K as popular as Pentium AE, Despite Higher Price, More Drawbacks and More Complex Overclocking
At Computex, in June 2014 Intel launched it’s Haswell Refresh product series under the codename Devil’s Canyon, marketed specifically towards performance enthusiasts. The refresh products which we now know to be the Optimization phase of Intel’s PAO product cycle came in three shapes: Core i7-4790K, Core i5-4690K and the Pentium G3258 ‘Anniversary Edition’. Among the PC enthusiasts the special unlocked Pentium processor was quickly tagged ‘Pentium K’ although Intel never positioned this as a new product segment. The Pentium G3258 is an unlocked Haswell-based USD $75 dual-core without hyper-threading.
Although enthusiasts responded with enthusiasm to the announcement, it turned quickly into skepticism. AnandTech’s Dr. Ian Cutress called it “a processor we want, but not the processor we need” and Matt Smith from Digital Trends went as far as stating that “Intel’s neglect of the enthusiast market is disappointing, to say the least. At times, the company seems to go out of its way to make things more difficult for its biggest fans.” Regardless, the Devil’s Canyon launch turned out to be a big success among enthusiasts. According to the HWBOT processor database, there are 30% more submissions with the i7-4790K than the i7-4770K and 9.7% more submissions with the i5-4690K than the i5-4670K. Within two months, Pentium usage at HWBOT rose by a factor of 17x.
Despite its higher price-point, major functional drawbacks and more complex overclocking procedure, Core i3 non-K overclocking very quickly became as popular as the Pentium K. Core i3 overclocking could have increased further had it not been for the move against non-K overclocking in February 2016.
#3 – Core i3-6320 is the Most Popular and Most Expensive Core i3 SKU
Considering that all Core i3 processors are equally overclockable via the base clock frequency, and that as recent as June 2016, 24, Global First Place results are achieved with the cheapest Core i3 processor, it is remarkable that the most popular Core i3 SKU is the Core i3-6320. According to the HWBOT processor database, there are 77% more overclocking results submitted with the i3-6320 compared to the i3-6100. Further analysis of the data-sets reveals this trend is noticeable using a variety of metrics. For example, when excluding the AVX-enabled benchmark applications like Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility where enabling base clock frequency overclocking has a negative effect on performance, the Core i3-6320 is still the most popular Core i3 processor.
K SKU processors typically go for a premium compared to their non-K counterparts. The Core i7-6700K Recommended Customer Price is USD $350 whereas the Core i7-6700 is available for USD $312, a difference of USD $38. The Core i5-6600K is available for USD $243, the Core i5-6600 for USD $224.
A Core i3 K processor SKU could go for as high as USD $199, a premium on top of the current most expensive Core i3 offering.
#4 – Core i3 Overclocking, Loved by Industry, Community and the Market
When non-K overclocking news reached the public, we witnessed a couple of interesting events.
- The motherboard ODMs jumped on the marketing opportunity right away. Some silently shared the beta BIOSes with the enthusiast community, others turned it in to a marketable feature (which later was removed). From industry sources we learned that ODMs are urged not to promote the non-K overclocking capabilities, though the BIOSes may be shared in public.
- The PC hardware community shared the news with great enthusiasm, from YouTube coverage to mainstream technology news sites, everyone jumped on board. The universal displeasure with the eventual blocking of non-K overclocking capabilities was shared by many too, whether by a rant on YouTube or user comments on an article at ArsTechnica. However, to this day the core of the enthusiast community continues to share non-K overclocking BIOSes via forums, shared download links and highly popular written guides.
- Online PC e-tailers such as Overclockers UK responded to the Core i3 overclocking capabilities by offering specific system bundles for enthusiasts. While this has not become a widespread phenomenon, it is the first enthusiast-grade bundling for Core i3 since Intel’s Clarkdale micro-architecture.
The latter may perhaps be the most compelling argument for a company which is looking to “drive more profitable mobile and PC businesses.”
#5 – Core i3 K May Appeal to the All Important Entry Level Enthusiasts
In an Analyst Report published in August, 2014, and freely available at HWinsights, Research On Losing The Entry Level Overclockers: A case for an Unlocked, Overclockable Intel Dual Core Processor, we previously analyzed the severe impact of Intel’s change in product strategy from Sandy Bridge forward.
When Intel switched to a K-SKU product segmentation strategy, the cost of overclocking increased drastically. Today, the minimum price for enjoying an overclocking experience is around USD $250. The strategy is very successful amongst enthusiast and mainstream overclocker groups as products targeted to these overclocker groups have been the most popular at HWBOT for the past three processor generations. On the downside, this strategy has almost completely eradicated the entry level overclocking community.
At HWBOT there are 643 overclockers who used the 2007-released Pentium E2160. The most popular entry level processor released in 2012, the Pentium G860, only has 22 users. This means the entry level overclocking community has been reduced by 97%.
A 97% reduction in user base is an incredible event, and one which certainly affected the broad base of the PC enthusiast community. Lacking an affordable enthusiast grade part shuts out customers who may not have the financial means to buy in to the i5 and i7 segment, but are keen on learning and exploring a new architecture. Those who are on a budget will spend the most time and effort to get the most out of their system – they are the backbone of the enthusiast community.
Final Note: Product Cannibalization, Kaby Lake and Cannon Lake
For the most compelling argument against an unlocked Core i3 K product, I refer back to the Page 16 Conclusion of AnandTech’s Core i3 overclocking article:
The 1080p gaming tests show that an overclocked Core i3 can easily knock on the door of a stock Core i5 for $100 less, or the rough equivalent of another Core i3 sale. The situation is a little muddier on CPU benchmarks; with single-thread responsive getting a benefit but many workload based tests showed you need real cores to get a benefit. It doesn’t matter much at the higher end, where it won’t cannibalize sales, and it didn’t matter much on the overclockable Pentium where two threads and low cache were bottlenecks you can’t overcome.
So if you want that performance, you need to spend the extra money.
If it was a question of market share, we would see it added very quickly. But as it is not, it ends up being the difference between buying two chips or one from the same vendor – they would rather you buy two (or the equivalent of two) when there’s no alternative.
While the Core i3 with two hyper-threaded physical cores cannot compete against a Core i5 with four physical cores in multi-threaded applications at similar clock frequencies, a well-tuned Core i3 system may beat the least expensive Core i5 on the market. Point-in-case; a USD $117 Core i3-6100 at 5.1 GHz is faster than a USD $187 Core i5-6400 at 3.3 GHz in the widely used multi-threaded workload of Cinebench R15. But, remember, the overclocked Core i3-6100 has major functional drawbacks. Any AVX-enabled application will not work properly on the overclocked Core i3.
For the reasons outlined above, I believe Intel should strongly consider an unlocked Core i3 K SKU product. In the long-term, I believe it will benefit the company, the customer and the entire PC enthusiast ecosystem. I believe a Core i3 K strategy is possible with the upcoming Kaby Lake micro-processors. If not with Kaby Lake, perhaps along with Cannon Lake which is rumored to bring more-than-quad-core processors to the mainstream, a fact that could relieve the cannibalization concerns.
Based on the anecdotal writings of enthusiasts on online discussion forums, a Core i7 K at USD $349, a Core i5 K at USD $249 and a Core i3 K at USD $179 could be highly popular.
About the Author
Pieter-Jan Plaisier has more than a decade of experience working in the PC hardware enthusiast market segment. Employed as General Director at HWBOT in Taipei, Taiwan, Pieter travels the world to meet with equally passionate hardware enthusiasts.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HWinsights or affiliates. Furthermore, the author holds no investments or stake holdings in the companies referred to in this article.