A lot goes into building a laptop or desktop computer. There’s the graphics card that brings game worlds to life before your eyes, the hard drive that holds all those life-critical files, and the sound card that translates ones and zeroes into sweet, sweet music. But the bit that has more say than any other component in how fast any computer performs is the CPU. So when this is updated with the very latest technologies, gamers, techies and PC enthusiasts alike sit up and take notice.

Intel has done just that, by releasing a new version of its Core processor line-up. Codenamed ‘Haswell’, the new line-up is the fourth generation of the company’s Core technology, replacing the Core i3/i5/i7-3xxx series with a brand-new architecture Intel claims is built for low power consumption and better-than-ever graphics performance.

I was lucky enough to snag one of the range’s top chips for review, the Core i7-4770, because I know people will wonder if they should buy a PC or laptop with an older chip now or wait for new products sporting Haswell processors to hit stores later this year. To find out, I put that 4770 to the test.

The range of chips Haswell replaces is called Ivy Bridge, and to measure the performance differences between the two architectures, I compared the Core i7-4770 against its Ivy Bridge equivalent, the Core i7-3770K. I did this by running a few manual tests and benchmark software designed to push PC components to their absolute limits, and using the ratings that emerged to determine which processor was faster. All of the non-CPU/motherboard components in both systems were identical, producing a level playing field in which only the CPUs accounted for any performance differences.

What I found was fascinating. Firstly, the Haswell system booted to the Windows desktop in a very respectable 24 seconds, compared to Ivy Bridge’s 30 seconds, an improvement of 20%. I noticed it also resumed from a low-power `sleep’ state a little faster: by manually timing the gap between pressing a key when both PCs were asleep and their screens illuminating, I saw an improvement of around 25%. Since that means 1.5 seconds vs. 2 seconds, it’s an impressive technical feat but not one that means total victory over Ivy Bridge from the average computer user’s perspective. What’s half a second among friends?

When running a benchmark that measures multimedia performance (how fast the system can process video and audio data), I saw a big jump in Haswell’s numbers that represented a 40% boost in performance. This is important if you work with music and video a lot, as it means less time spent waiting for the computer to finish manipulating the data according to your creative instincts.

To test real-world gaming performance, I fired up a few games that have built-in benchmarks. Any result above 30 frames per second means graphics are just about smooth enough for the game to be playable, which is a target integrated GPUs have thus far struggled to reach. So Hitman: Absolution’s average frame rate of just over 39fps at 1 366×768  at its lowest detail setting meant it ran really well. Upping the graphics quality to medium at 1 366×768 dropped that average to 29fps; Full HD with low quality settings was a little bit jerky at only 22fps, however. Since Full HD resolution is typically how today’s PC gamers want to play their games, that last result is a little disappointing.

The latest Tomb Raider, a game I thought would give the i7-4770’s new HD Graphics 4600 chip a hard time, surprised me. At Full HD resolution on normal/medium settings, the 4770 delivered a very playable result of 24.6fps. It was only once graphics quality was set to High that the result dropped to 15.2fps, delivering jerky, laggy graphics. The best compromise was 1 366×768 at Normal settings, which gave a wonderfully smooth frame rate of 31.3fps.

The last game I tried was an older title, Resident Evil 5, and its in-game benchmark gave an average of 31.9fps, an especially good score as graphics were set to high quality at Full HD.

By my reckoning, that makes the the HD Graphics 4600 as capable as a low- to mid-range graphics card, which makes Haswell the first CPU that you can really game on without absolutely needing a dedicated graphics card.

To put these benchmarks in perspective, they’re a bit of a mix. They’re good because it’s now possible to build an affordable Haswell-powered desktop system that doesn’t actually need a dedicated graphics card to play games which should make for very capable and more affordable All-in-One PCs in the near future. They’re not-so-good because in some cases, particularly with more recent games, achieving graphics that are smooth enough that they don’t ruin your enjoyment of the game sometimes requires the lowering of resolution, graphic detail, or both.

So, should you hold off buying a new system with an Ivy Bridge chip in it? I say yes: the Core i7-4770 performed well in excess of what its Ivy Bridge equivalent was capable of in terms of both raw processing power and 3D graphics, which means the entire range of Haswell processors (covering both desktop and notebook computers) should do the same, especially as some will ship with graphics processors that are even faster than the HD Graphics 4600 of this review chip. You’ll be buying faster, better computers that won’t cost much more than they do currently, essentially getting more bang for your buck. And that’s never a bad thing.

Price: $319.99 at US retail. South African pricing unknown at this point.

TECH SPECS

• CPU base frequency: 3.4GHz

• Max turbo frequency: 3.9GHz

• Die Size: 22nm

• Max TDP: 84W

• Supported RAM speeds: DDR3 1333/1600

• Intel Wireless Display: Yes

• Intel HD graphics chip: 4600

• Intel Hyper-Threading technology: Yes

• L3 cache: 8MB

• PCI Express 3.0: Yes

• Package: LGA-1150

Rating: We don’t have a rating system yet, but I was really impressed with the 4770 and would rate it as close to full marks as possible, with only a few points/stars/numbers/muffins taken off for graphics performance that is close-but-no-banana to the levels that, ideally, I’d like to see from Intel’s latest integrated graphics solutions.

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.