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How Intel's botched branding stopped me from upgrading my PC

Commentary: Intel may blame its current woes on the decline of PC sales, but its poor marketing has also had an impact.

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The Core i3, i5 and i7 branding hasn't changed in six years.

Intel

On Tuesday Intel, the world's biggest chipmaker, announced that it was cutting 12,000 jobs, or 11 percent of its global workforce, by the middle of next year as sliding PC sales were forcing the company to go through a major restructuring. The number seemed big but few people were terribly surprised by the news. After all, PC sales have been declining for several years, and the arrival of Windows 10 hasn't helped: Microsoft's newest operating system is designed to run on any computer that can handle Windows 7 or later.

So why upgrade that old PC if you can run the latest and greatest operating system? Or, maybe you're just using your smartphone, tablet or Chromebook instead. All of those new devices have no doubt cut into computing time. But even in those categories, upgrade cycles are stretching. Just ask Apple, which is seeing its sales of iPads and iPhones plateau.

That said, the global population of PC users still runs into the hundreds of millions. And a casual PC shopper could be forgiven for thinking that Intel hasn't released any newer, improved chips in the past seven years.

Why? Because the 2016 Intel processors have the exact same name as the ones from 2009. Even though the new models can run circles around their predecessors.

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Core iForever

Simply put, Intel hasn't done itself any favors with the way it's chosen to name its flagship processors, sticking with Core i3, i5 and i7 brands year over year and failing to articulate to consumers the differences between the subsequent generations of the same-named chip.

Intel's only real acknowledgment of the differences when transitioning from one generation to the next? The logo sticker (as shown above) would be slightly different. Thanks, guys.

I personally bought my first Core i5 PC back in 2010. The machine, an iMac, is maxed out with 16GB of RAM and still runs fine today. I use it as my main PC at home, though I do have other PCs, including a newer MacBook Air and a Core i7-based Windows desktop machine with dual graphics cards that I put together four years ago, ostensibly for gaming.

On Black Friday last year I bought a Dell Inspiron 15 i5558-5718SLV Signature Edition laptop for $400 from the Microsoft Store for my kids to use. I swapped out the 500GB hard drive for a $50 120GB solid-state drive and it's now a nice machine for the money. It, too, runs on a Core i5 processor.

Before I bought the Dell I had to decipher what Core i5 I was getting. The name I keyed into Google was Intel Core i5-4210U. Not surprisingly it turned out to be a dual-core 2014 Core i5, code-named Haswell, not the 2015 Broadwell that I'd heard was more energy-efficient. (You can compare Intel's vast array of processors here.)

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The various Core i5 chips through the years.

Wikipedia

I was giving up some battery life, but whatever, it was a Core i5, and my kids were going to be using the machine around the house, not flying around the country or bringing it along to their local Starbucks to write a novel.

The Core i3, i5 and i7 are now on their sixth generation, though the majority of consumers probably don't know that. And compounding the irony are Intel's code names, as listed above. Names like Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Haswell and Skylake are bandied around on tech blogs and laptop reviews, even though they were never meant for public disclosure. And while they're not particularly great nicknames, at least they're different and distinct. Too bad they don't appear on the side of the box or in the spec sheets when you're shopping for laptops. (The secret is that the number after the dash in the processor type is the "generation" -- Core i5-6600K is sixth-generation. But again, you need to be a knowledgeable expert to get to that point.)

By comparison Apple, which isn't immune from product-naming stumbles (I'd have preferred iPad Air 3 to "Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch," for example), has provided a new name for its ARM-based mobile processors with each new generation. Not only do we know that its A9 processor is more powerful than the A8 processor because the number is higher, but Apple is not shy about touting the big uptick in CPU and GPU performance.

Intel was once better at playing the branding game. We got the various Pentiums going up to Pentium 4, then Core Duo. Centrino was in the laptop mix. Celeron is still kicking around. And now we have the Core M, found in ultralight laptops such as the MacBook 12-inch and the Samsung Galaxy Pro S Windows tablet, which comes in M3, M5 and M7 flavors. It seems to be the spiritual successor to the Atom processor, but it isn't.

Let's be honest: Thanks to the shift to smartphones and tablets, PC sales would have declined regardless of how Intel named its chips. But in trying to keep things simple for consumers and sticking with the same brand name and numbers for so many years, Intel inadvertently made everything murkier for them.

Once upon a time, a 6-year-old PC was considered ancient and should be replaced. But today it's easier to hold on to that 6-year-old PC not only because it continues to run smoothly, but because the new PC you're looking at appears to run on the same chip.

Sure, it's a Skylake Core i5, not an Arrandale Core i5. But that doesn't mean anything to most people.