When Intel first announced the shift from the dual-stage ‘Tick-Tock’ methodology that had driven their core CPU design teams for over a decade into the three-way ‘Process, Architecture, Optimization’ paradigm, there were questions as to how much of the final stage, the Optimization, would actually change the way CPUs were presented or offer upgrades in performance. At the time, ‘Kaby Lake’ as the name for Intel’s third crack at their 14nm process was well known, but users wondered if it was just another Devil’s Canyon (better overclocking) or a full on CPU launch. Well the answer is the latter, and the launch is staggered between today and January. Roll on Kaby Lake. Is that Kah-bee Lake, or Kay-bee Lake?

Tick-Tock to Process-Architecture-Optimization (PAO)

Intel’s two year processor cadence of Tick-Tock allowed the company to alternate reducing the lithography node (a tick) with an upgraded microarchitecture (a tock) with modest gains of performance. Each stage of the Tick-Tock would take 12-15 months, with new lithography nodes taking longer and longer to reach maturity. Eventually it has gotten to a point where 14nm took too long to become pervasive in Intel’s product stack. For a manufacturing company and a CPU company, slowly rolling out Broadwell notebook and low power parts and then gutting the mid-range desktop was the result of the troubles of bringing 14nm to the prime time. Now in 2016 we have the launch of full-sized Broadwell-EP server parts running up to 22 cores in a 145W envelope, but the low power parts are a couple of microarchitectures ahead. We have this strange situation of a stretched landscape, partially driven by markets but also for manufacturing.

The move from Intel’s 14nm process to 10nm is a long, slow burn, taking much longer to develop than any process previous. We first saw 14nm in Broadwell mobile CPUs in Q3 of 2014, almost two years ago, and 10nm still isn’t on any public roadmap for early 2017. With the tick-tock strategy, and the launch of Skylake in mid-2015, this would leave Intel without a new CPU launch for almost two years, which is unheard of from Intel. Also, Intel’s partners rely on product cycles to announce and launch new products to generate revenue. To fill the gap, plus with a few other techniques, Intel moved to Process-Architecture-Optimization, or PAO for short.

This means three bites of the cherry for 14nm before we see 10nm in prime time. First it was Broadwell, then Skylake, and today Intel is announcing Kaby Lake. As part of the release, Intel has mentioned that a number of key benefits for Kaby Lake will be based on an optimized 14nm process, called 14PLUS (or 14nm+, 14FF+). This process as a quick summary has a higher fin height and larger pitch, essentially giving a less-dense set of transistors that have more room to breathe. Normally a larger pitch means more voltage required, but this is offset by the fin height and Intel says is good for another few hundred MHz for performance. The less-dense design, in theory, may also help in overclocking, however we will have to wait until January to see those results.

Today’s Announcement

The reveal today covers several aspects of Kaby Lake. First is the actual SKUs that will be launched, which consist of three Kaby Lake-Y parts around 4.5W aimed at high-end tablets and 2-in-1 devices and three Kaby Lake-U parts at 15W for notebooks. Both sets of KBL-Y and KBL-U CPUs will feature in mini-PCs as well, so we expect to see the usual array of Zotac and ECS announcements in due course. We have details on all six CPUs to give you, including the new Core M branding regime for the 4.5W family of parts.

The pre-briefings we have had go into some detail regarding changes in the processor, particularly regarding the new enhanced media blocks inside the GPU to support new encode/decode features. The graphics power, in terms of EUs or the microarchitecture, hasn’t changed but the fixed function hardware has some nice upgrades for an updated version of Gen 9 graphics aimed at the upcoming era of 4K support. Ganesh has gone into detail for us over what that means, especially where power and battery life is concerned for anyone creating/consuming 4K content.

Kaby Lake also has an updated Speed Shift package, to accelerate the work already done with Skylake in boosting the performance of the CPU quicker to save power. Intel call it a refinement in the mechanism of handing frequency control back from the OS to the CPU, however ‘Speed Shift v2’ is an adequate moniker to show the upgraded difference.

Intel hasn’t gone into much detail regarding the new 14nm+ process itself in terms of specifics, but has listed a number of performance gains that come out of the new CPU. The fundamental microarchitecture between Skylake and the new Kaby Lake parts is practically unchanged (DMI 3.0 now allows PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe drives from the integrated PCH), but the updated fin profile and reduced ‘strain’ by the larger fin pitch is being quoted as giving a 12% performance increase due to process alone, typically through additional frequency for the same power. The main benefits to KBL will be in that frequency due to the 14nm+ process as well as the new media capabilities.

As always, Intel consistently emphasizes the difference between a new notebook/2-in-1 based on a 15W Kaby Lake processor compared to a 5-year old device, such one based on a mobile Sandy Bridge ULV part. Intel continually sees its market revolving around new experiences created by new form factors, and to generate revenue requires people to upgrade and decide how these new experiences can influence an upgrade. Intel expects to have over 100 Kaby Lake system designs in the consumer channel by Q4, including 120+ using Thunderbolt 3, 100+ using Windows Hello (either via a Real Sense camera or a fingerprint sensor), 50+ designs with 4K UHD as a primary feature and 25+ designs with contact enabled pens. Kaby Lake should be pin compatible with Skylake based designs, meaning that for a number of cases we will simply see a drop in, but others will have new design IDs on show.

The New CPUs, Updates to Core M Branding
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  • tipoo - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    There was a Zen iMac APU rumor, but I doubt the Macbooks would get it unless AMD pulled a real coup with Zen power draw.
  • KPOM - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    New MacBook Pros are expected in October, though. Those would be Skylake unless Apple has plans to use the 4.5W chips TDP upped to 7W, which I highly doubt (maybe in an updated MacBook Air, but I doubt that the Air will get an update).
  • nils_ - Thursday, September 8, 2016 - link

    Seems Apple hasn't announced any new Macbook Pros... On the other hand, they probably get a lot more profit on selling outdated hardware.
  • BillBear - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    According to Paul Thurrott, Microsoft was not at all happy with the general bugginess of Skylake.

    >while Intel has never formally confirmed this, my sources at Microsoft and elsewhere have told me that Skylake, the original “tock” release following Broadwell, was among the buggiest of chipsets that Intel has ever released. Problems with Skylake are at the heart of most of the issues that Microsoft has seen with its Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book devices, and it’s fair to say that the software giant now regrets delivering the very first Skylake-based devices into the market in late 2015.

  • KPOM - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    So don't expect them to rush out a Surface Pro 5 or Surface Book 2 until they are comfortable there are no bugs?
  • iwod - Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - link

    As much as I dislike Apple's ways, sometimes they do things for a reason.
    Not sometimes, but EVERYTHING. With Apple, if you dont understand why they did something, it is highly likely you overlook rather then something they skip over.
  • lilmoe - Saturday, September 3, 2016 - link

    Everyone does everything for a "reason". Most times than not, I don't like those reasons.
    I should have clarified; sometimes they do things for a *good* reason. Keyword here is "sometimes", IMO.
  • jhoff80 - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    Interesting that it says that 4k resolution support is new on Skylake and also requires additional cooling, considering I have a tablet from Cube in China that is a Skylake Core M, fanless, and supports 4k over USB-C/DisplayPort Alternate Mode. Though then again, based on what I'm looking at in the UEFI settings, it doesn't appear like Cube followed any of Intel's guidelines either.
  • jhoff80 - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    Wait, I confused myself a little there thinking it said new on Kaby Lake. Just the additional cooling part is weird though.
  • rogelio - Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - link

    @ Ian Cutress & Ganesh T S

    I'm a little confused by the below, can you clarify:

    One of the disappointing aspects from Skylake that has still not been addressed in Kaby Lake-U/Y is the absence of a native HDMI 2.0 port with HDCP 2.2 support

    My understanding was that retail solution releases of Kaby lake (e.g. the forthcoming Kaby Lake NUC) would have HDMI 2.0 (not 1.4) support natively. Do you mean that the only way to gain HDMI 2.0 support is to use a converted on the DP 1.2 port? If so, I thought current manufacturers of converters are limited in color bit depth and can't do true 4k 60hz at full color depth.

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