The return of the turbo button: New Intel hotness causes an old friend to reappear

Do you remember the days before processors needed heatsinks? Are you wearied by the constant churn of new computer tech that never seems to make things easier? Then Intel has good news for you: it’s bringing back an old friend – the turbo button.

And better still, you won’t need any new hardware, because it’s repurposing something you already have but never use: your Scroll Lock key.

Grey-haired techies may remember that the turbo button didn’t do what it said on the tin. It didn’t magically make a sluggish PC faster, but rather the reverse: it slowed it down, to make older programs – games, mainly, that weren’t designed for 33 screaming megahertz of raw 486 power – playable again. Well, it’s games to blame again now that Intel’s 12th generation of Core processors is here.

Chipzilla emitted its troubleshooting bulletin recommending the use of Scroll Lock as a workaround yesterday, prompting more than one person to comment that this made Scroll Lock the new turbo button.

(If you have lost track of the generations, we don’t blame you. So far, they were: Nehalem; Sandy Bridge; Ivy Bridge; Haswell; Broadwell; Skylake; Kaby Lake; Coffee, Amber, Whiskey and Cannon Lake; Cascade, Ice and Comet Lake; Tiger and Rocket Lake. And now, Alder Lake. Clear as Shenzhen lake-bottom mud.)

Naturally Intel is saying that the latest is the fastest thing ever, but the big change in this generation is really about power management.

Alder Lake is Intel’s second go at what it initially called “hybrid technology” CPUs. Alder Lake chips have a blend of ­two types of processor core: some high-performance but electricity-hungry, and some Atom-style – lower-performance but frugal with the juice.

This style of design was design was pioneered by Arm a decade ago, which called it “big.LITTLE”, much to the chagrin of the Reg‘s correspondent. It’s useful for smartphones and tablets alike: so long as the OS knows about it, it can shuffle tasks around between performance or efficiency cores depending on available battery life, cooling, user demands and so on. It’s also good for marketroids, who can claim that a chip with, say, three of each type is a “six-core” device.

Apple’s new Arm-instruction-set chips have their own versions of the same tech, naturally, and Apple has been rather cunning about how it spreads the load.

The problem is that this stuff is new to PCs. PCs with low-power chippery arrived in 2008: netbooks and so on. They were sold on being cheap, lightweight and having decent battery life – not on their rapidity, because they didn’t have any. Which may be one of the reasons why Intel killed the Atom range off in 2016. There are still plenty of Celerons and so on to go round, though.

But sometimes customers don’t know what they have, so performance-hungry programs (for which, read games) sometimes have to check the spec of the PC they’re installed on and tell the poor punter that their PC isn’t fast enough. Which is a problem if the hapless app finds a shiny new 12-gen chip that looks like a bunch of Atom cores: it complains that this new-fastest-ever-chip isn’t quick enough.

Enter the 21st century turbo button. All the lucky new owner of one of these boxes has to do is go into its firmware, enable the Legacy Game Compatibility Mode option, reboot, and now, when you press Scroll Lock, your PC will gently anaesthetise its efficiency cores. Result? The game will only see the high-performance ones and work fine.

In other words, the newly repurposed key actually turns off the whizz-bang new feature… much like a 1980s turbo button actually slowed your CPU down so you could play Alley Cat or Maniac Mansion. Technology: innit marvelous, eh? ®

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