Intel unveils Kaby Lake, its first post-“tick-tock” CPU architecture

Andrew Cunningham
Intel’s tick-tock model may be dead, but the PC industry still demands new hardware every year. Many PC models are refreshed once a year or so, and that means that the PC makers need new stuff to put into those computers whether or not the laws of physics want to comply.
Enter “Kaby Lake,” the first of Intel’s post-tick-tock processor architectures. Kaby (rhymes with baby, named for a lake in Canada) first appeared on Intel’s public roadmaps in mid-2015 when the company realized that Cannonlake and its attendant 10nm manufacturing process wouldn’t be ready in time. No major architecture has changed, and Intel is still using a tweaked version of its 14nm manufacturing process, so most changes are relatively minor and built to serve a particular market niche.
Know your codenames
Codename and year Process Prominent consumer CPU branding Tick/tock
Westmere (2010) 32nm Core i3/i5/i7 Tick (new process)
Sandy Bridge (2011) 32nm Second-generation Core i3/i5/i7 Tock (new architecture)
Ivy Bridge (2012) 22nm Third-generation Core i3/i5/i7 Tick
Haswell (2013) 22nm Fourth-generation Core i3/i5/i7 Tock
Broadwell (2014-15) 14nm Fifth-generation Core i3/i5/i7, Core M Tick/"Process"
Skylake (2015-16) 14nm Sixth-generation Core i3/i5/i7, Core m3/m5/m7 Tock/"Architecture"
Kaby Lake (2016-17) "14nm+" Seventh-generation Core i3/i5/i7, Core m3 "Optimization"
Cannonlake (2017?) 10nm TBA "Process"
As usual, Intel is releasing the Kaby Lake processors in waves. Today, we’re getting dual-core low-voltage processors, the kind you’d find in thin-and-light consumer laptops. The first Kaby systems are slated to ship in September, and you’ll see lots of new laptops at IFA next week. Desktop CPUs and other higher-performance chips, including those with Intel Iris GPUs, will be announced in January around CES.

A tiny tiny “tick”

In 2014, when Intel’s 14nm process delays were holding up the Broadwell architecture, the company released a lineup of “Haswell refresh” processors that used small clock speed increases to outrun 2013’s original Haswell chips. Kaby Lake, despite a handful of changes and improvements, is only a slightly bigger deal.
First off, none of these mobile CPUs will include new chipsets, which means you’ll get the same connectivity options as before. The 100-series chipsets should still be more than adequate for most people, but they’re missing things like 10Gbps USB 3.1 gen 2, to say nothing of Thunderbolt. On the plus side, the lack of huge changes means that Kaby Lake chips can easily be dropped into existing Skylake designs, something that will help PC makers get Kaby Lake systems on the shelves in a hurry.
Kaby’s biggest advertised feature is improved support for 4K. All Kaby Lake integrated GPUs will support hardware-accelerated decoding and encoding of 10-bit HEVC/H.265 video streams and decoding of 8-bit VP9 streams. If you don’t already know, supporting hardware acceleration for certain codecs means that the GPU (usually via a dedicated media block) handles all the processing instead of the CPU. Not only does this use a fraction of the power that a CPU uses to accomplish the same task, but it frees the CPU cores up to do other things.
HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 are also supported, which (respectively) enable 4K output at 60Hz over an HDMI cable and provide the DRM required to carry an encrypted 4K signal from the thing that’s playing it to the screen that will show it. The maximum supported DisplayPort version remains 1.2, however, dashing the hopes of anyone who wants to drive a 5K display at 60Hz over a single cable using DisplayPort 1.3.
The biggest improvement from an architectural/manufacturing standpoint is something Intel is calling “14nm+,” an optimized version of the same process node used for both Broadwell and Skylake. The company isn’t sharing many details—Intel says that 14nm+ has an “improved fin profile” and “improved transistor channel strain,” for what that’s worth. But the changes are said to improve the performance of the transistors by about 12 percent. As Intel’s manufacturing processes stick around for longer, it makes sense that the company would spend more time optimizing them rather than just moving on to the next process as it has historically done. Foundries have been known to use multiple versions of a given process, so it’s not entirely unheard of.
CPU and GPU speed improvements come mostly from clock speed increases rather than architectural improvements, as they did in the Haswell refresh. Intel promises 12- to 19-percent better CPU performance over Skylake chips sold at the same price, which is commensurate with the speeds and prices laid out below. Intel claims “double-digit” GPU performance improvements in the Y-series parts and 8- to 10-percent improvements in the U-series parts.

Small launch, simple lineup (for now)

Today’s launch includes just six chips, three each from the Y- and U-series. As Intel adds vPro and Iris CPUs and other faster and slower options, its lineup will inevitably become more complicated. That’s what always happens. But right now Intel’s CPU lineup is refreshingly simple to explain, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts!
For the third time in as many years, Intel is changing how it refers to its 4.5W Y-series chips. Broadwell changed the name from Core i3, i5, and i7 to simply “Core M.” Skylake split the Core M lineup into Core m3, m5, and m7 families. And Kaby Lake keeps m3 but changes m5 back to i5 and m7 back to i7.
Regardless of branding changes, Y-series Kaby processors are all easily identified by their model number and their 4.5W TDP (configurable up to 7W for systems with the heat dissipation to handle it and down to 3.5W for smaller, thinner devices with less headroom). The kinds of devices where you find Core M chips today—fanless laptops, convertible tablets, and Compute Sticks—won’t change.
The U-series are still run-of-the-mill mainstream dual-core parts and will likely remain the most widely used parts in mainstream $500-and-up laptops and boutique Ultrabooks like Dell’s XPS 13 or HP’s Spectre 13. The U-series chips are still i3, i5, and i7, and Intel’s processor badges for both Y- and U-series CPUs will all pick up a “7th gen” label to distinguish them from models with older parts.
All the CPUs have model numbers in the 7000 series, compared to 6000 for Skylake, 5000 for Broadwell, and so on. The GPUs for the Y- and U-series are now called the Intel HD 615 and 620, respectively. With the model numbers and CPU speeds in hand, we can compare the new Kaby Lake parts to their Skylake counterparts to see what kind of clock speed increases we can expect.
Year-over-year improvements
Skylake m3-6Y30 (900MHz, 2.2GHz Turbo) m5-6Y54 (1.1GHz, 2.7GHz Turbo) m7-6Y75 (1.2GHz, 3.1GHz Turbo) i3-6100U (2.3GHz) i5-6200U (2.3GHz, 2.8GHz Turbo) i7-6500U (2.5GHz, 3.1GHz Turbo)
Kaby Lake m3-7Y30 (1.0GHz, 2.6GHz Turbo) i5-7Y74 (1.2GHz, 3.2GHz Turbo) i7-7Y75 (1.3GHz, 3.6GHz Turbo) i3-7100U (2.4GHz) i5-7200U (2.5GHz, 3.1GHz Turbo) i7-7500U (2.7GHz, 3.5GHz Turbo)
Base increase 100MHz (11%) 100MHz (9%) 100MHz (8.33%) 100MHz (4.33%) 200MHz (8.7%) 200MHz (8%)
Turbo increase 400MHz (18%) 500MHz (18.5%) 500MHz (16%) N/A 300MHz (10.7%) 400MHz (13%)
Given that nearly all of Kaby Lake's improvements are going to come from clock speed boosts, these numbers actually look pretty good. Even when Intel changes architectures and processes these days you normally only get 10 to 15 percent more CPU performance year-over-year, and Kaby Lake delivers that most of the time.
That said, the biggest increases are reserved for the Turbo Boost speeds, and those can be hard to rely on in the real world. Intel's CPUs are only designed to operate in Turbo Boost mode for short bursts of time, falling back to slower speeds when the PC they're in can no longer dissipate enough heat. Especially in thin-and-light Y-series laptops with no fans, processors will probably not maintain their top speeds for long.
In short, Kaby Lake CPUs may still be significantly faster than equivalent Skylake chips, but how fast depends more heavily than usual on your workload and the design of the laptop. Once we begin testing actual Kaby Lake systems, we should get a better idea of how things play out in practice.

Coming soon(ish): High performance and newer chipsets

The Kaby Lake lineup will be made whole in early 2017 when quad-core desktop and mobile parts hit the market. Those processors will include new chipsets, though socketed Kaby processors should be able to fit into existing 100-series motherboards after a BIOS update.
As Intel’s first “optimization” release in its new product development cycle, Kaby Lake is a bit underwhelming. Chip design takes time—Intel tells us that some of Skylake’s features were in development for five years—and Kaby Lake is obviously something Intel had to come up with on short notice once the company knew just how long the 14nm and 10nm transitions were going to take. In future “optimization” years—when we get chips that have the same amount of lead time as the “process” and “architecture” designs—I expect the improvements to be more significant.
If you’re thinking of buying a new PC soon but don’t need one today, Kaby Lake includes enough improvements that you might as well wait for it to roll out. But if you just bought a Skylake system or need a new PC today and you don’t have very specific 4K-related needs, you don’t have much to gain by going with Kaby Lake.
Listing image by Intel
Intel unveils Kaby Lake, its first post-“tick-tock” CPU architecture Reviewed by Bizpodia on 17:51 Rating: 5

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